Karen ArmstrongI have aways liked the description of a humanist outlook as one based on evidence, reason and compassion. The compassion is particularly important because, as humans, we need more than just to know the world. We also need a way of relating to each other and to other species. I think that compassion is an inherent quality of humanity – and probably of many other species.

Compassion is not dependent on specific political, religious or philosophical beliefs. In fact, a world view that argued otherwise would, by definition, not be compassionate. How could you be compassionate if you deny this attitude to other humans?

Yet this exclusive approach seems to underly a recent appeal for assistance in developing a charter for compassion.

This idea for a charter was explained by Karen Armstrong in her 2008 TED Prize wish.

“I wish that you would help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion, crafted by a group of leading inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect.”

On the surface this appears noble and I have no doubt about Armstrong’s sincerety. But why restrict the writers of the Charter to just “Judaism, Christianity and Islam?”

Armstrong calls for nominations “of religious leaders, from all three monotheisms, who will agree to this charter and add their signature.”

Are not people from other traditions compassionate? Is the Dalai Lama not compassionate? Are the great atheist and humanist thinkers not compassionate? Should not leaders from all traditions, non-religious as well as religious, be involved in drafting and approving such a charter.

One of the contributors to the discussion of this wish made this very point (after nominating a number of non-religious thinkers):

“I’d love for religion to align with Karen’s vision! I think religion needs to be saved from itself. Karen’s vision is noble and out of alignment with a Fundamentalist view from any of the three religions. Most people that have left religion already align with her vision though. The people I’ve suggested are leaders of various alternatives to religion that are aligned with people’s needs, not with some imaginary God’s needs.”

“Many of the ideas and organizations for compassion and focus on people’s needs are coming out of the non-religious end of the spectrum. She should reach out to the people I’ve listed and include them in the dialogue in order to bring the trio of “violent” religions (in their fundamentalist incarnations) together to focus on compassion and seeing the other as self. Tapping them and including them will keep her wish and mission from being an exercise in exclusion”

I think this call for a Charter for Compassion suffers from the same exclusive approach that many “interfaith” actions do. At best they limit their effectiveness by denying a role to the non-religious (as for example in New Zealand’s Statement on Religious Diversity). At worst they can be used as a way of isolating, or campaigning against, the non-religious (for example Saudi Arabia King Abdullah’s Interfaith Dialogue to fight atheism).

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See also:
Karen Armstrong’s wish blog
read a transcript
nominating 12 leaders to help write the charter
How should the right group of twelve leaders be chosen?
Charter For Compassion
Karen Armstrong – A case for compassionate religion and where it has gone wrong!

Similar articles:
Freedom of expression and human rights
Interfaith dialogue to fight against human rights
Freedom of expression and offence – religious or otherwise
Beyond Tolerance – Toward Understanding and Respect
Religious diversity and human rights
Atheism and religious diversity I: Diversity in New Zealand
Human rights for the non-religious

12 responses to “Compassion

  1. Some good thoughts here, Ken. A few points I’d make:

    “Compassion is not dependent on political, religious or philosophical belief. In fact, a world view that argued otherwise would, by definition, not be compassionate. How could you be compassionate if you deny this attitude to other humans?”

    1. I’d want to argue that compassion is dependent on a philosophical ‘belief’ (of course “philosophical belief” could be further defined). Unless you have a very non-traditional (or just odd!) definition of ‘compassion’, I suspect that you share a philosophically derived view with various others (of whatever political or religious persuasions) which under-girds various values; such as a high valuation of ‘compassion’.
    To demonstrate this, all one needs to do is ask you ‘why’ you think compassion is valuable; or (to use your words) “particularly important”. Your response will be your philosophically derived view…

    2. I don’t deny that ‘compassion’ is something that only people from the Abrahamic faiths have; and although Karen’s appeal is specifically to these people, I suspect she doesn’t “deny this attitude to other humans”. Interestingly (even paradoxically?), I suspect that when and if a Christian (or anyone else?) does communicate a moral concern for all of humanity this is often less-than-appreciated… Damned if you do, damned if ya don’t, I guess? πŸ™‚ Place a moral assertion on all humanity and you’re self-righteous; place one on only Abrahamic faiths and you’re exclusive… πŸ™‚

    3. Also, compassion (I suspect you would happily agree) is hopefully more than an ‘attitude’.

    (as always, comments are offered in a spirit of warm engagement, not ‘from on high’ objections)



  2. Perhaps it’s a bit like saying “I call on the leaders of the Mongrel Mob and the Black Power to discuss reducing the manufacture of P”. Other people make P but if you get cooperation from these players you’ll make a world of difference. Other people can show compassion but if you target the three monotheistic religions (who, arguably, account for a large percentage of religious violence both historic and current) you’ll likewise possibly score some easy points.

    Of course, I’d argue that you’d be better off suggesting that no person, group or nation acts on any notions that are so detached from reality as belief in a super-fairy in the sky who’s (quite by coincidence) totally on your side when you want to hurt other people.

    But I can see how my argument might be less effective than finding common ground amongst believers in an effort to find peace.


  3. Dale,

    I’d want to argue that compassion is dependent on a philosophical β€˜belief’

    I’d want to argue that compassion is dependent on an animal need for society. We can see ‘compassion’ forming in other societies of animals that has little or nothing to do with philosophy. It’s merely the most mutually beneficial way to behave when you get a lot of one species living alongside each other.


  4. I’d want to argue that compassion is dependent on an animal need for society. We can see β€˜compassion’ forming in other societies of animals that has little or nothing to do with philosophy.

    Maybe, but you differ in that you can articulate a reason why and generally it’s the ‘why’ that drives human activities. We have the ability to reason against our instincts and so there is a whole other level of reasoning often behind human compassion that is indeed philosophical. We have the ability to ignore or fulfil that reasoning.

    Whilst we share primate ancestors with other apes, we are still far more developed than them. The human mind, emotions and intellect is a very unique thing. To reduce our activities to purely animalistic instincts is to ignore the amazing development of the human species. We very often philosophize beyond simple instinct and have developed ‘why’ categories to what we do.


  5. Frank, it may well be that we have developed quite a thought process around compassion in recent human history but we can see by looking at other species that it’s origins are in the need to live in society and, for most of our history of acts of compassion, have been unspoken and spontaneous rather than philosophical and considered. So, I would argue that compassion is not at all ‘dependent’ on philosophy. It’s quite possible that we’ve used philosophy to expand our sense of what we determine as being the society we belong to but even then it seems a 50/50 chance that the philosophy has followed afterwards to justify the raw benefit we get from extending our borders. When we decided to merge our tribe with the one over the mountain range did we philosophise about it first or did we just endure an uncomfortable truce for a while until we got used to it? When we settled into towns with many other people did we reason it out or did it just happen to work out better for us? When we traded with other towns and found that we got products we couldn’t make ourselves did our philosophers reason it out first?

    Philosophy might play in the arena of compassion and ways in which we live as a society but it’s by no means the root of it. The origins of morality and compassion and other functions of society appear to have occurred long before we had the capability of thinking things through.


  6. The ‘origins’ of compassion (acts of compassion to be more specific) is one topic. The value we place on compassion, however (not to mention the complaint at not being included in the compassion-rally; which I agree with – sort of), is another thing.

    We may not know exactly how philosophical, moral and rational human activity emerged in human history; but let us not pretend we’re not doing philosophy when we are… πŸ™‚

    And (a random thought) I’m not sure we have to speculate into history about how tribes thought – we can probably just visit parts of the world to day and watch. I think what you find (in even the most primitive of surviving cultures) is well-established philosophical categories (value placements, etc.). That’s a general point I’m making, not a specific one.


  7. Dale, I have added the word “specific” to clarify my point. I wasn’t wishing to get into debates about philosophy – but about unity of action. Whatever, the good intentions of Armstrong’s “wish” a charter, limited in activity, formulation and text to just the 3 monotheist religions, is actually the opposite of compassion because it excludes others.

    I take your point Damian about gangs and the fact that these 3 religions have been responsible for much of the lack of compassion. Armstrong really makes that point and seems to be arguing for the charter as a means for these 3 religions to overcome this lack of compassion – to “return” to an idealised form of their religions.

    But that is still exclusive. it still ignores the rest of humanity and I don’t see how it can be equated with real compassion. I think the charter as it is planned will be at best just a formal (and largely meaningless) religious statement (a bit like NZ’s National Statement). At worst it will be a mechanism for excluding and campaigning against “outsiders.” (In essence that could be an outcome of our National Statement if certain religious traditions who believe apostasy warrants death take the clause guaranteeing protection from violence only to the religious communities seriously).


  8. What if the point of the charter (which I haven’t read, so I am at your mercy on this one, Ken πŸ˜‰ ), is for those 3 monotheistic religions to extend more compassion to those outside of their specific ‘groupings’? In order for compassion to be extended, it has to have a subject, someone who receives it.

    If this charter calls for those 3 religions to be more compassionate to those outside of their ranks, then great. If it is purely internal then it has the potential to be problematic.


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  10. Indeed,
    Exhorting/calling specific people to compassion is selective (and the selection is therefore open to criticism/questioning), but it’s a non sequitur to say that such selection means that those doing the selecting are not displaying the ethic they are calling people toward (in this case compassion).


  11. The charter is, at this stage, only a wish – it hasn’t been written. Armstrong’s idea is that 12 leaders be selected from nominations to write the charter – then to be approved by religious leaders. Selection and approval limited to just the 3 religions.

    (And she is advocating a concentration on public relations in the whole exercise)

    Her aim does seem to be the development of real, rather than nominal, compassion amongst followers of those 3 religions, rather than compassion in general. She seems to think that the loss of compassion is almost unique to those religions. (Or perhaps that is what concerns her most).

    However, both the loss of compassion and the need to develop compassionate attitudes is not unique to those particular world views. I think it’s a problem (and a requirement) for all word views, religious and non-religious.

    Dale, I think the reality of success in such ventures is very much in the process, rather than the formal outcome. To develop such a project in an exclusive manner doesn’t exactly encourage compassion. If anything, it will just encourage the existing exclusive, “them and us” attitudes which are very far from compassionate. (And of course the “thems” will just ignore the whole exercise as being irrelevant – not involving them).

    For the life of me I can’t see why she doesn’t just remove the 3 religion restriction from her wish. I think that, for example, there are well known Buddhist and secular spiritual leaders whose input would be extremely valuable in such a project.

    I can only think the problem comes from her preoccupation, and concern, with the violent history of the 3 monotheistic religions. Her concern should be with humanity as our problems have not been restricted to those religions, or even religion in general.


  12. Good comment, Ken.


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