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[First in a nine-part series on best practices for nonreligious parenting.]

“I feel your pain.”
–BILL CLINTON at a campaign rally in 1992

“We need to…pass along the value of empathy to our children. Not sympathy, but empathy – the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes; to look at the world through their eyes.”
–BARACK OBAMA in a speech on Father’s Day 2008

In the Preface of Raising Freethinkers I offer a list of nine best practices for nonreligious parenting. The list is drawn largely from the growing consensus of nonreligious parents and grounded when possible in the social and developmental sciences. Between now and the release, I’ll try to draw attention to all nine. They are not commandments but an attempt to capture the consensus regarding effective practices. They’re intended to be the starting point of the conversation, not the end, carved in butter, not stone. So grab a spatula and shape away!

In today’s “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine, William Safire identifies empathy as one of the buzzwords of the current campaign. He notes that the issue of whether a given candidate could really empathize with everyday folks is nothing new. George H.W. Bush was (unfairly, but effectively) excoriated for not knowing the price of a gallon of milk in 1992. John McCain’s uncertain number of houses is assumed to undercut his empathy quotient, as Obama’s Ivy education and taste for arugula are said to undercut his.

Safire echoes Obama’s distinction between empathy and sympathy:

If you think empathy is the synonym of sympathy, I’m sorry for your confusion. Back to the Greeks: pathos is “emotion.” Sympathy feels pity for another person’s troubles…empathy identifies with whatever is going on in another’s mind…The Greek prefix sym means “together with, alongside”; the verbal prefix em goes deeper, meaning “within, inside.” When you’re sympathetic, your arm goes around the shoulders of others; when you’re empathetic, your mind lines up with what’s going on inside their heads. Big difference.

We talk about empathy as if it’s either something magical or something that can be willed into existence by saying, in essence, “Feel empathy! It’s what good people do.” Empathy is neither as easy nor as hard as we make it seem.

One school of thought in psychology (Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, Nancy Eisenberg, et al.) suggests infants are largely self-centered, putting the first twitches of empathy between 18 and 36 months. Another (led by Harry Stack Sullivan, Martin Hoffman and others) has recently made a case for “infantile empathy” toward the mother — something that would certainly make sense.

In either case, by age three, kids are reliably exhibiting empathy, which Eisenberg defines as “an affective response that stems from comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition and is similar to what the other person would be expected to feel.”

That sentence might ring some bells if you’ve followed the recent work on mirror neurons. I wrote about this in July of last year:

In your head are neurons that fire whenever you experience something. Pick up a marble, yawn, or slam your shin into a trailer hitch, and these neurons get busy. No news there. But these neurons also fire when you see someone else picking up a marble, yawning, or slamming a shin. They are called mirror neurons, and they have the powerful capacity to make you feel, quite directly, what somebody else is feeling…The implications are gi-normous, since it means we’re not completely self-contained after all…

It takes very little to see, in this remarkable neural system, the root of empathy, sympathy, compassion, conscience, cooperation, guilt, and a whole lot of other useful tendencies. It explains my kids’ tendency to wither under disapproval…Thanks to mirror neurons, the accused feels the condemnation all the more intensely. Empathizing with someone else’s rage toward you translates into a kind of self-loathing that we call guilt or conscience. Once again, no need for a supernatural agent.

So what are those “ever-wider circles” about?

Our natural tendency is to feel empathy for those who are most like us. Empathy extends outward from Mom to the rest of the family to the local tribe — all those who look and act essentially like us. And I’d argue that moral development is measurable in part by how far outward your concentric circles extend. I encourage my kids not just to think about how a person of a different gender, color, nationality, or worldview feels or thinks, but to see themselves in that person — to get those mirror neurons dancing to the tune of a shared humanity.

orang44093And why stop at the species? One of the biggest implications of evolution is a profound connectedness to the rest of life on Earth. As a recent interviewer put it, “It seems like you could be positively paralyzed” by the realization that walking the dog, eating a burger, and climbing a tree is literally walking, eating, and climbing distant cousins. True enough.

I applaud religious ideas that reinforce and sanctify connectedness, as well as seeing self in others. “See the Buddha in all things” is an example. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is another. But so many traditional ideas — religious, cultural, political — instead draw lines between people, defining in-groups and out-groups and outlining colorful punishments for those on the wrong side of that line. Having “dominion over the earth” doesn’t help matters, and Deuteronomy and Revelation are dedicated almost entirely to defining, judging, and annihilating the hated Other. Bad news for empathy, don’t you think?

Free of religious orthodoxy, nonreligious and progressive religious parents alike can encourage their kids to push the concentric circles of their empathy as far and wide as possible. That includes, of course, people who believe differently from us. I don’t have to buy what their selling, nor do I have to refrain from challenging it. But I want my kids to work hard at understanding why people believe as they do. And if I expect it of them, I damn well better achieve it myself. Sometimes I do all right at that. Other times…meh.

So then…how are y’all doing with empathy for religious believers?

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.