Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Empathy Deficiency

According to NPR’s Hanna Rosin in her article entitled “The End of Empathy” (April 15), Americans are becoming less empathetic. She speaks of “a critical shift in American culture — one that a handful of researchers have been tracking, with some alarm, for the past decade or so. Americans these days seem to be losing their appetite for empathy, especially the walk-a-mile-in-someone's-shoes Easter Sunday morning kind.”

She continues, “More than a decade ago, a certain suspicion of empathy started to creep in, particularly among young people. One of the first people to notice was Sara Konrath, an associate professor and researcher at Indiana University. Since the late 1960s, researchers have surveyed young people on their levels of empathy, testing their agreement with statements such as: ‘It's not really my problem if others are in trouble and need help’ or ‘Before criticizing somebody I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.’”

“Konrath collected decades of studies and noticed a very obvious pattern. Starting around 2000, the line starts to slide. More students say it's not their problem to help people in trouble, not their job to see the world from someone else's perspective. By 2009, on all the standard measures, Konrath found, young people on average measure 40 percent less empathetic than my own generation — 40 percent!”

The article goes on to say that the empathy that young people do exhibit appears to be a form of tribalism. They tend to be empathetic only toward those most like themselves. This trend makes me nervous about the social experiment that we call American democracy. Especially when I see increasing polarization and signs that our country is moving toward a “tyranny of the majority” at the expense of minorities.  

Let me be the first to say that the NPR article does not reflect my experience of young people, and I can easily think of exceptions to this generalization.  But the reality is I don’t know many high school or college students. My children are in their forties or late thirties. My grandchildren are in elementary school and are too young to be included in such surveys. Therefore I have no personal anecdotes to confirm or refute Konrath’s observations. But if Konrath’s findings are true, it is very troubling.

I keep a careful watch on trends of religious attendance and belief in our society. During this same time period, the involvement of young people in organized religion has declined by a similar percentage. I wonder if there is a connection. I hesitate to draw conclusions. Correlation is not causation.  But it makes me wonder if there is a relationship between these two trends. 

Local churches, especially small churches, are places where Christians regularly interact with people who are very different from themselves in many respects. In the churches I have served, church members have held widely different political and social views. They even disagree strongly on theological issues! Yet they rub shoulders every Sunday with their neighbors, get to know them, and even love them - even if they do not agree with them. 

Religious communities are very different than social media sites and “online communities,” which are popular among the young. These virtual “tribes” tend to coalesce around narrowly defined shared values and opinions. I can already hear the rebuttals. Yes, I know that churches also have “narrowly defined shared values and opinions” in the form of Christian beliefs. But in my experience churches are much more diverse than non-church folk realize.

For example the community church I served for 18 years in Sandwich, New Hampshire, had both Trumpers and Never Trumpers.  There were Baptists and Unitarians, Episcopalians and Evangelicals, Pro-Lifers and Pro-Choicers, and even a smattering of skeptics, agnostics and humanists - all gathering together every Sunday morning and doing the work of ministry.

In other churches I have served we had a wide variety of racial, ethnic, social and economic groups represented in my congregations. Sunday morning worship and Sunday School in Lowell, Massachusetts, was one of the most diverse gathering of people I have experienced. 

Most importantly, small churches tend to focus not on theology, politics or social values, but on the shared command of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, empathy. It is one of the top two commands of Christ, along with loving God with all our hearts.

I am not sure if that makes church folk more empathetic than non-church folk, or church youth more empathetic than non-church youth. That would take more research to determine. But church people certainly focus on empathy as an important value. We keep it front and center in preaching, teaching, worship and missions.

If nothing else, it seems as if church – as well as other spiritual communities - might be a part of the answer to the empathy deficit among our nation’s youth. When participation in religion declines, society loses something valuable. Just something to think about.

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