“Like the Beasts that Perish”: The Darwinian Demise of Compassion

The rise of atheistic evolution in the West did not leave our practice of compassion unscathed.

evolution has eroded compassionMany readers will remember seeing something like this graphic during their public school experience. It’s meant to show the evolution of the horse. But the effects of teaching evolution are far greater than memories of childhood school days. Most Western Christians would agree that the worldview has largely shifted from Judeo-Christian theism to atheistic materialism. This migration has changed perspectives on a variety of subjects: the nature of the universe, of human beings, of good and evil, to name just a few. Also affected is how we perceive the sectors of society–art, education, science, law, and justice.

This post will introduce another effect of the shift from theism to atheism. Our concept of compassion has been powerfully influenced, and not for the better.

We have argued elsewhere in this blog that a logical progression plays itself out in our societies. Compassion has not escaped this sequence.

Paradigm à Principle à Policy à Program

Along the way we witness how the shift in ideas/ideals leads to a shift in language. We will use the matrix of “idea shift” leading to “language shift” to show how moving from Theism to Atheism impacts our language when we talk about “compassion.”

The deepest shift has been in the concept of ultimate reality. Where do we begin our understanding of the universe? From an infinite and personal God, or from nature? The starting point changes everything.

The shift from God to Nature required a shift in understanding what it means be human. No longer were female and male imago Dei. Now, humans were seen as either animal (the view of atheism) or machine (the vision of the Marxist state). God created comprehensive beings with physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual components. But this view has degraded. Humans are now regarded as mere physical beings. Rather than rational and morally responsible creatures, humans “became” amoral. They have no more foundation for rationality than any other animal. Or for compassion.

 … moving from Theism to Atheism impacts the language we use when we talk about compassion.

The concept of men and women as sinners (a word missing in modern culture) largely disappeared. Instead, we have the irrational position that in an amoral universe, human beings by nature are good. As we will see, this shift dramatically changes our understanding of compassion, and how we respond to poverty. The shift in ideas brought a shift in language and ultimately in how we treat people who are poor.

At least five dimensions of society, our view and practice of compassion have been profoundly affected by the worldview shift.

1. Love of God as the basis for loving man

IDEA SHIFT LANGUAGE SHIFT
Love of God à love of humanity Moral/religious à secular
  Compassion à sentiment

Dr. Marvin Olasky explains: “Underlying the new demand for action was a ripened combination of philosophical materialism, economic relativism, and progressive sentiment.”[1]

2. Personhood of the human

IDEA SHIFT  LANGUAGE SHIFT
Personal à impersonal Poor person (individual) à Poor people (a class)
  Unemployed (person) àUnemployment (a condition)

As the worldview shifted and the concept humanity diminished, the view of poverty moved from the plight of an individual with a name to that of a condition of an impersonal class.

The renowned American historian Dr. Gertrude Himmelfarb explains this shift:

As the problem became impersonalized, so did responsibility for it. The older terms implied that the sources and causes of unemployment could be found in the individual — his character, capacity, will, situation, chance, or misfortune. The new term directed attention to the larger forces affecting the economy and the nature of the ‘industrial system.’ … And as responsibility for the problem became impersonalized, so did the solution … A problem beyond the control of individuals could only be remedied by forces and agencies beyond the reach of individuals. For social reformers this meant the intervention of the state; for Marxists it meant a radical reconstitution of the economy.[2]

Himmelfarb continues that we are “‘pauperizing’ the poor by reducing the ‘independent’ poor to a state of dependency.”[3] We see the outcome of this in the welfare system of the West. We also see it in the dependency-building enterprises of so many Western poverty programs in the developing world. (See more on this in Aid That Increases Poverty.)

3. Moral and relational nature of the universe

IDEA SHIFT  LANGUAGE SHIFT
Moral à structural Individual responsibility à Class responsibility
Moral philosophy à political economy Private solutions à Public solutions
  Empowerment à Entitlement

In the previous mindset, compassion addressed a moral problem. Individuals took responsibility for their lives and family and neighbors. They cared for the poor in their relational circles. Today, compassion addresses a structural problem. We talk about class responsibility. The shift was from a moral philosophy with private solutions (empowering people who were poor, providing them work opportunities, etc) to a political economy requiring massive public solutions. The inevitable result? Entitlement societies. Thus the modern debate in the 2012 United States election revolves around policies of freedom before the law and freedom of enterprise versus polices that build dependency and entitlement. While each may motivated by a desire to help the poor, different worldviews lead to different policies and programs to help the poor. Compassion looks very different seen from these opposite viewpoints.

Again Dr. Himmelfarb explains:

The old remedies were “temporary expedients,” whether by voluntary agencies or public authorities, which “more properly fall under the description of charity” (hence, for the earlier history of the subject, the reader was referred to the article “Charity and Charities”); the new were “permanent” remedies such as labor exchanges and unemployment insurance.[4]

“Poverty” like “unemployment,” had the effect of moving the discussion from the subjective realm of persons to the objective condition that defined them. The emphasis thus shifted from the personal characteristics of the poor—their particular circumstances, characters, habits—to the impersonal causes of poverty: the state of the economy, the structure of society, the action (or inaction) of government, the institutions and forces affecting social conditions and relations.[5]

4. The biblical basis for equality

IDEA SHIFT  LANGUAGE SHIFT
Equality before God/Law à Equality of outcomes Justice à (welfare) Rights
  Equity à (numerical) Equality

The shift here was away from Biblical principles such as equality before God (who is not a respecter of persons). These principles were articulated in the US founding documents. Their public corollary was equality before the law. The framework that replaced these principles was a materialistic-based economy of equal outcomes. The shift was from justice to welfare rights and from treating people with equity to numerical equality.[6]

5. Relational participation with poor neighbors

IDEA SHIFT  LANGUAGE SHIFT
Sharing time & self à Sharing money Relationships à Dollars

 Another shift was away from the relational to the impersonal. In the old system of charity people personally engaged with their poor neighbors. They shared their time and talents as well as their treasure. But the new charity separates people into donors and recipients. The former can stay safe in their isolated communities. Giving dollars has replaced knowing people.

Instead of spending time with poor people we spend time raising money. Dr Olasky writes: “Telethons and jogathons became the most dramatic private charitable activities: stars would appear on television for twenty-four hours at a stretch, or long-distance runners would run at so much per mile, to raise money to pay professionals to help the needy.”[7] He continues, “‘Bonding’ [with a poor person or family] was reduced to donors receiving photographs of grateful clients.”[8]

In a future post we will explore further implications of this shift in the culture.

-          Darrow Miller with Gary Brumbelow

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