In a recent Sydney Morning Herald essay entitled Evil lives when empathy dies, Simon Baron-Cohen wrote “Unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone.” I applaud his praise of empathy but, intentionally or not, the author has reinforced a stereotype — Religion equates to oppression. Christians need to understand that such statements represent the conventional wisdom of our culture and how many people typically see religion, including Christianity. If you ask the average man on the street to do a word association test, when you say ‘religion,’ I wager you will get mainly negative responses, all centered around religion limiting human freedom, historically and in the present.
Empathy accepts the situation of another person, just as it is. We show genuine concern for another human being. What does religion do? Does it accept people empathically and show concern for them, or something else? To answer this, we need to look at the human situation as God sees it. Only then can we understand what we humans are attempting to do — and how well we have succeeded — when we create an organised way to relate to God, otherwise called religion.
A fundamental axiom of Judiasm and Christianity is that God created men and women to be free, like He is free. “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.” [Genesis 5:1] So, a key purpose of any religion ought to be to assist men and women in recognising that we are like God and meant to be free. It is evident that historically, all religions, not just Christianity have gone astray from this purpose. So, ought we now decide to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ and eliminate all religions?
If one doesn’t believe in God, then religion is extraneous. But if you do believe, then Religion is essential to discovering our true freedom and our likeness to God. We learn about God from others. Human beings can have some contact with God in a spiritual sense without religion. But we can never know God as God is because God is essentially unknowable unless He communicates with us. All the major religions — Judiasm, Christianity, Islam — base their authority on God speaking to us and revealing who He is. The Christian religion claims that God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of who God is. Making such a claim, Christians perhaps have more to answer for, beacsue so many men now conclude based on the historical evidence that man now longer needs religion!
Bernard Cooke sums up the Christian religion’s responsibility like this: “Christianity’s relevance is directly proportionate to the extent to which it can make the presence of Christ effective in the lives of men.” [in Christian Community: Response to Reality] If men do not encounter Jesus when they encounter the Christian religion, then we must change whatever has created that situation! That is the most fundamental “burning platform” for transforming local churches!
Reading the Bible, it is clear that people experienced Jesus through his empathy! The parable of the Good Samaritan makes that abundantly clear — and its message to Christians is also clear: “Go and do likewise.” If men experience Christianity as rules and judgment and limitation of freedom, and do not experience empathy, then we have to expect that they will not see Jesus in our actions. Christianity without empathy is a false religion!