Torture, Karma, and Compassion

(This was first posted on Sunday, May 10th, 2009 at 3:19 AM)

Someone brought this CNN Wire post to my attention:

Churchgoers more likely to back torture, survey finds

WASHINGTON (CNN) — The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new analysis.

More than half of people who attend services at least once a week — 54 percent — said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is “often” or “sometimes” justified. Only 42 percent of people who “seldom or never” go to services agreed, according the analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified — more than 6 in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only 4 in 10 of them did

I really don’t know what to say. That is one of the most atrocious illustrations  I’ve seen of how those who worship rules and authoritywarp religion. It saddens me.

It’s not time, though, for the spiritual not religious to congratulate ourselves on our superiority. There is an equally pernicious idea popular among our spiritual cowboys.It’s usually presented as  “karma”.

I’m of course not referring to the near-universal idea that whatever one sets in m comes back to oneself. I’m referring to its twisted counterfeit, that anyone who is suffering is suffering because they deserve it. Think about it for a moment: it does not follow that if anything I set in motion will come back to me, then whatever I experience is the result of what I set in motion. It could, after all, be the consequence of what someone else set in motion (which, someday, will be theirs to deal with).

In fact, if it were not possible for me to act to affect others, the first statement, that what I set in motion will come to affect me, would be so trivial as to be meaningless. We’d all live in our own isolated bubbles, unable to connect to each other, unable even to detect each other (because, after all, even knowledge of each other has an effect). Karma would be less a statement about justice and more a peculiar state of masturbation.<

This inverted “karma” has a name: the Just World fallacy. It’s a common bias not unique to cowboys, but cowboys are peculiarly attracted to it and fond of promoting it as if it were a spiritual truth.

Why? That should be obvious. While the properly stated version of karma (that my acts will come to affect me) promotes responsibility, the bassackwards version promotes irresponsibility.  If the bassackwards karma believer should  see the poor, the ill, the oppressed, the suffering,  it’s not something they should involve themselves with, because the victims brought it upon themselves. Voila! Irresponsibility affirmed.

To the extent cowboys wish to involve themselves with the world’s suffering, it is to “help” by explaining to the victim how it is they brought it upon themselves. They should have known X would lead to Y, where X is usually some mundane act,  an act forced upon them by circumstances,  a common human failing, or an act any compassionate person would take.  This is another common  error,hindsight bias. It penalizes the lecturee for being baryonic matter, condemned along with everything else made of atoms to move blindly forward in time, and thus certain to have experiences which precede other experiences.  It is not at all “helpful” , let alone compassionate, to self-righteously express this bias against someone in need.

In fact, by embracing the Just World fallacy,one negates justice itself. It’s hard to distinguish the implications of a blind belief that those who suffer have deserved it from sociopathy.

I’ve been trying, for a few days, to describe that viable alternative to the above silliness, compassion. I can’t do it adequately. Instead, I want to take my readers on an Internet field trip where they can try out compassion for themselves.

Our destination is the Beliefnet prayer circle directory athttp://www.beliefnet.com/prayer/directory.asp?milestoneTypeID=6Browse.

It should quickly become clear that many of the individuals who are requesting prayer have, indeed, set in motion the predicaments they find themselves in.  See where the individual may be causing or exacerbating their own suffering. Make sure it’s actual knowledge,  not believing or expecting (bias). Treat what you see as possibly useful information,and nothing more.

Others you may find are asking for specific results that may not be compatible with one’s own values, or whichmay not be the best results.Other prayer requests may seem, for lack of a better word, ignorant. Instead of seeing what’s wrong with any particular request, hold in your heart the desire that whatever is best, right, and true happen for all involved.

Find a few of the most off-putting, least “deserving” prayer requests (this is obviously subjective). Recognize the pain in the requests (yes, even in the requests that seem to be coming from a self-righteous point of view, there is pain. Look for it.).  Lead with your heart. Don’t think of how at fault someone may be. Don’t think of how much better or wiser you may be. And certainly do not think of how compassionate you are for doing this. Every time these thoughts, and other irrelevant thoughts, pop into your head, throw them out. Think only of the very best possible outcome for all involved, and pray.

It’s not “compassion enough” if all one ever does is pray over web pages. Putting compassion into action in the real world with real-world people gets a lot more complex and messy.  But, the principles remain the same.

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