Mon | Feb 17, 2020

Michael Abrahams | Religion as a barrier to empathy

Published:Monday | February 12, 2018 | 12:20 AM

One of the most heartbreaking and gut-wrenching experiences is for a parent to have to deal with is the death of his or her child. A pastor I know of had to face such an ordeal.

His daughter became ill and eventually died. But instead of supporting him during his time of immeasurable grief, some of his fellow clergy blamed him for the child’s death, telling him that it was his insufficient faith that allowed her to succumb to her illness. The coldness of his colleagues only served to intensify the pastor’s grief, as they abandoned and berated him at a time when he needed love and support.

Stories like this are not uncommon. There are some Christians who recoil in disgust at the behaviour of the pastor’s peers but, unfortunately, religion often serves as a barrier to empathy. When people decide that their belief is the right belief, is the only one that matters, and that everything in their holy book is of God, and is not to be questioned, dogma and doctrine take precedence over the human condition, and empathy is hurled through the door.

Corporal punishment is an excellent example. Despite an enormous amount of research in this area, and warnings by experts that the risks of beating children outweigh the benefits, some religious folk stubbornly cling to the principle that if you ‘spare the rod’, you will ‘spoil the child’, just because it was written somewhere in their archaic instruction book, and are unconcerned about children being traumatised after being aggressively assaulted.

Family ties are fundamental to our emotional and psychological make-up, and estrangement can cause enormous grief and social isolation. This matters little to Jehovah’s Witnesses, though. In their organisation, leaving the faith, even if you remain a Christian and join another denomination, is an egregious offence, and leads to being shunned by other Witnesses, even those in your own family.

I know a woman who left, and her mother did not speak to her for 20 years. When I spoke to a Witness friend of mine about the act of shunning and asked how such a cruel act could be defended, he smiled and said, “It will make them come back.” His response trivialised the trauma that these people are forced to endure. Their pain means nothing to him. All that matters is that what is perceived to be the ‘Word of God’ is obeyed.

According to the Holy Bible, tithes are to be paid. A female friend of mine was a member of a popular church, and faithfully tithed for years. She made a living by buying clothes abroad and selling them to local customers. One day she was robbed, and all her merchandise was stolen. When she approached her church for assistance, she was told that they were unable to help her.

I know someone else who lost her job. When she told her church that she was unemployed and broke, and that tithing would be a challenge, a suggestion was made that she sell some of her belongings to be able to recommence tithing.

For some reason, some of the harshest judgement is meted out to those guilty of ‘sexual sin’. I recall a conversation with a woman who visited my office for an ultrasound examination. She was in an advanced stage of pregnancy and told me that despite being engaged to her spouse at the time of conception, she was called out in front of the congregation and humiliated. She tearfully related to me that the public humiliation was not enough. Following the shaming, the church elders requested another meeting with her in private, where they grilled her with inappropriate questions regarding her sex life.

Over the past year, I have managed two registered nurses who were suspended by their institution for being pregnant outside of wedlock, even though the women did not sign a contract forbidding pregnancy during their employment. They were sent on leave with basic pay. This type of behaviour is not only unjust, but evil. When a woman is pregnant, she is at her most vulnerable. To deprive her of the possibility to earn more income at a time when she needs it most is utterly disgusting.

And if sex outside of marriage causes these zealots to act up, homosexuality makes them lose their already small minds. For the vast majority of gay people, their orientation is not a choice, and living in a society like ours, where they are scorned and reviled, is very stressful for many of them.

But this matters not to some religious folk, as two of the biggest gatherings assembled in this country, attracting tens of thousands of people, were anti-gay rallies, where the faithful ranted and raved while denigrating members of the LGBT community.

One of the cruellest acts that I have heard of was the decision by a church-based all-girls school to conduct a ‘lesbian purge’, during which lesbian students were expelled from the institution. One of the girls fell victim to ‘corrective rape’ when men in her community learnt of her orientation. She became pregnant and is now a single mother. Another now sells in a market.

A little empathy goes a long way, and our society sorely needs it. The examples given above concern Christianity, but it is not the only religion that fosters this narrow-mindedness. Islamic societies, for example, tend to be even less tolerant and empathetic.

How about if we view the Holy Bible and other religious texts as what they really are, literature written by men, mere flawed mortals like ourselves, and instead exercise more love, compassion and empathy when dealing with the diversity of humanity with which we coexist?

- Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams