Truth and compassion: Which takes priority?

She Is Not Drowning; or, Truth Leaving the Well. Truth emerges from a well escaping the clerical hypocrisy and military force of the Dreyfus affair.  By Edouard Debat-Ponson, 1898

When push comes to shove, which do you value more – truth or compassion?

– by B. T. Newberg

In a recent guest post at The Friendly Atheist, Marcus Mann posed a question:

“I have to ask to what degree correctness crowds out other values important to me, particularly that part of me that strives to be kind… atheists need to be wary of valuing correctness over the much more important values of kindness, sobriety, and pluralism.”

In that spirit, I want to ask: Which is more essential to you, truth or compassion?

By truth I mean factual accuracy, fidelity to reality, or tracking what’s objectively “out there.”  I realize there are other kinds of truth, such as poetic truth, but today let’s stick to factuality.  By compassion I mean non-suffering, non-harm, or the promotion of well-being for others and yourself.

Most of the time these two enjoy happy agreement, but occasionally they may conflict.  In those cases, which takes priority?

Precedents in Paganism

The priority of truth in Paganism has precedent.  For example, the myth of matriarchal prehistory, though important to many and no doubt painful to give up, has largely been discarded.  So have many of the more fantastical notions about our past, thanks in no small part to the work of Reconstructionists.   Many polytheists today value accuracy of historical fact over fanciful invention, no matter how warm and fuzzy it may make one feel.  They draw a line (rightly, in my opinion) at the reality of the gods beyond which they will fight for their views vociferously.

The priority of compassion also enjoys precedent.  The principle of non-harm, encapsulated in the popular counsel “Harm none, do as you will”, puts the wellbeing of others on center stage, alongside the freedom to pursue one’s path regardless of what others may think.  Buddhism is also well-known for making compassion, alongside wisdom, one of its highest values.

Are truth and compassion ever really in conflict?

It might be argued that the two never actually conflict.  Truth will always lead you to do the compassionate thing, and vice versa.  I don’t agree, personally.  That might be characteristic of wisdom, but not of truth in the sense of factual accuracy.  We can imagine scenarios where they conflict, and a moral decision must be made.

Scenarios of conflict

Some situations are fairly clearcut.  When grandma leads the family in a dinner prayer to a God you don’t think exists, compassion would probably tell you not to take that particular moment to “enlighten” her.  On the other hand, when politicians propose a bill based on beloved-but-incorrect beliefs, it’s clearly time to stand up for the truth.

But what about those situations when it’s not so straightforward?  What if, for example, you positively glow with love derived from your spirituality, but the beliefs you spread in the process sow disinformation in an already-confused society?  To take another example, what if society could successfully expunge erroneous beliefs about reality, but only at the price of never again feeling as intimately connected to the world and each other?

Where to draw the line?

Some communities have a do-not-cross line.  As mentioned above, some polytheists have chosen to make questioning the existence of their deities such a boundary.

Having a do-not-cross line may sound bellicose, but it can be liberating.  Everything beyond it can be taken in stride, and you can feel at ease working alongside a wide diversity of other people without wondering if you’re compromising your principles.  Likewise, others can feel comfortable working with you if they know exactly where you stand.

One might decide on a do-not-cross line, before which compassion takes priority but after which truth must be defended.  The exact point at which to draw that line might be somewhat arbitrary, but it would at least make it clear, to others as well as yourself.

Situational ethics

Thus far, the discussion has been rather abstract.  But ethics, in practice, is always embedded in concrete situations.  Priorities may vary depending on the specific context.  Appealing to situational ethics is probably more realistic, though it makes things a lot more complicated.

What kind of situation would cause you to prioritize truth?  What would call for compassion as top priority?

Finally, where do you draw the line between the two?

(Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments)

Next Sunday

My PhotoA member of the Druidic Order of Naturalists paints a picture of naturalistic Druidry.

What do Druid Naturalists do?  by WhiteHorse

Appearing Sunday, May 26th, 2013

Recent Work

Participatory reverence, by Hypatia’s Girl

Is Naturalistic Paganism beneficial to society?  by B. T. Newberg

Life on Earth as a religion?  by Brock Haussamen

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15 Comments on “Truth and compassion: Which takes priority?

  1. Although truth and compassion intersect, conceptually, I see them as fundamentally different, with regard to application. In other words, they are not mutually exclusive. “Compassion”, for example, requires an entity other than self, while “truth” does not. I can expound truth on a lonely desert island, and it will be no less true.

    So, I would posit that, instead of priority, compassion serves as an ethical component to the decision-making process for how and when (if at all) truth is shared with others.

  2. Hello, I’m “WhiteHorse” (Philip Anderson). I’m gratified my article will be appearing here on the 31st May but I must let you know the citation is now incorrect. The Druidic Order of Naturalists effectively disbanded more than a year ago. My article written in about 2010 reflected the view I still hold that a personal form of naturalistic paganism is certainly coherent and viable. It can only become an effective community in its own right though if focuses on the positive i.e. what it is for, rather that becoming an endless diatribe against other pagan for their credulity i.e. becoming intolerant. It is too easy for the naturalist to just rail against what he or she doesn’t believe in, but where is the contribution to community in that?

    Our particular ‘experiment’ with naturalistic paganism did no sit easily within the wider pagan (druid) community though many druids did identify with many aspects of it. Where it failed as a movement – and alienated many people in the process – was because some members saw it as a vehicle for a crusade against irrationalism and religion generally. They decided that most other paganism was simply pre-rational, rather than the post-modernism (or better, post-post modernism) that it culturally represents. Most pagans are clever, ‘modern’ people, and fully accept all the findings of modern science even if some of their ideas – grounded in the subjective and personal experiences – go ‘way beyond’ what a thorough epistemological naturalism will bare. Some of my co-naturalists failed to see the value of other forms of paganism and the ‘non-rational’ (as opposed to the anti-rational) as providing at least a form of private truth with its own meaning symbolism, a great way of tapping the creative imagination and – through personal and collective ritual – a hightened sense of ‘connection’ and ‘rooted-ness’ with our own bodies, history and nature.

    If anything is rationally wrong with other paganisms, then the more reasonable naturalistic approach – epitomised by Jung – is to see them as simply ‘not true enough’. The Druidic Order of Naturalists also tried to develop its own rituals. This proved a lot more difficult than expected. The naturalist and humanist has to have a good, new, reason for ritual that is not simply a continuation of old habits evacuated of their former meanings. There is a danger that the naturalist pagan by appropriating traditional pagan ‘forms’ just ends up parodying ‘theistic’ paganism. Also doing ritual without open minded ness and the power of intent just declines into amateur dramatic japes.

    In fact philosophically I am not so naturalistic these days, finding my own meaning and private truth in expressions of pantheism and animism that are inspired by intellectually coherent philosophies like process philosophy and panpsychism. I also find much inspiration – and the real power of the gods inside us – through Archetypal Psychology. Subject to this correction – that the DONs no longer exists as such – you can publish my article.

    • Thank you very much for replying, Philip. I’ve had a heck of a time trying to get in contact with you over the last year or so, and finally just decided to publish your article based on your initial go-ahead.

      First, thanks for the tip on DON’s ending. It’s unfortunate, but very enlightening. Second, the inside information you provided is extremely valuable for how we decide to evolve our community. Here at HP, we’ve had our flubs in dealing poorly with other kinds of Pagans but overall I think we’ve tried to steer towards a more positive development of our own paths rather than poo-pooing of others’ paths. It is very important to get insight into how other groups have attempted to navigate this issue and what happened as a result.

      I think your comment deserves to be an article in its own right. Would you allow us to add it as a kind of “part 2″ to the “What Do Druid Naturalists Do” article? That would give it maximum exposure, since many may miss the comment otherwise.

      • Hi, thank you. You can add a part 2, though I need to clear up some typing errors that I noticed after posting! There doesn’t seem to be an edit function on your blog, but if you could oblige or point the way perhaps? One significant issue I found in the UK was the varying motives of the ‘pagan naturalists’ I knew. In retrospect many of them were ‘on their way out’ of paganism:, Having been card carrying druids/pagans, they had just become disillusioned. I suspect some wanted a half way house between paganism and non-paganism before making the final break. Indeed I came to realise that for some even their paganism was itself a half way house between more traditional theistic beliefs and non-religiosity. In any event their underlying disillusionment and negativity about religion in general tained a lot of what we did. My attitude was different – I wanted a genuine paganism that was not anti-rational, but yet very ‘open minded’ to what one might call the preternatural or at least the power of the inner ‘other world’ i.e. the ‘unconscious’ mind. It might be significant that I came to paganism from a perioid of atheism/agnosticism, though I’m originally from a fundamentalist Christian background. I was looking for a ‘middle way’ spirituality that worked; I didn’t just want scepticism and doubt. I’d been there, done that. In fact my general credulity could be described in the following maxim: hold your beliefs lightly, and hold your doubts lightly too!

        So what should naturalistic pagans do? First, examine your motives. The issue naturalist wannabe pagans need to consider first is not philosophy but almost personal and visceral : why does the naturalist/atheist want to be pagan, in particular, what if anything do they value in ‘traditional (pantheist or polytheist) paganism and the established ‘paths’ e.g. wicca, druidry? Practically, the question of the retention (or not) of theisitic sounding language, myth and ritual are key differences that are likely to arise among naturalistic pagans. I think this issue should be thrashed out and decided at the beginning of any group attempt or it makes agreement on collective ritual nigh on ‘impossible’ ( or one settles on a rather pathetic ‘lowest common denominator’ which robs ritual of any vibrancy). Also the naturalist pagan must decide, consciously i think, how they want to relate to pagans who’s world view may be totally antithetical to their own. Are they going to try to change the other pagan’s viewpoint? I think if the answer is ‘yes’ then this should sound alarm bells. What is often forgotten I think is that many naturalists have a notion of ‘truth’ that is much more akin to the traditional notions of absolute truth held by theistic religions than you find in paganism. I personally find the resolution of this dilemma in the distinction between ‘private truth’ (what works for you) and ‘public truth’ (the kind of truth that every one is society needs to agree on to get things done). In fact I think this may be the only way one can countenance being both a naturalist (with rather classically logical, and objectivist notions about reality) and a pagan (inherently subjectivist, intuitive and experiential): by admitting the ‘truth’ or at least the value of ‘private truth’.

  3. In his book, “Dear Colleague,” geographer and cultural polymath Yi-Fu Tuan writes:

    “Culture, to the extent that it is quaintness and superstition, has rationality as its enemy. Let me illustrate with the emperor T’ai-tsung. An enlightened man, he found many of the beliefs and practices of his time tiresome. One day in the ninth month of the year 628, it happened that some albino magpies built nests in linked pairs on the palace grounds. Officials, believing this association of white birds with paired nest to be auspicious, congratulated the emperor, who far from being pleased, exclaimed in anger, ‘I have always laughed at my predecessors’ fondness for speaking about auspicious omens. A worthy man is an auspicious omen. How are white magpies beneficial to our affairs?’ He thereupon ordered the nest thrown down and the birds released.

    The emperor wiped out a quaint belief and replaced it with a rational viewpoint that could be accepted by enlightened individuals anywhere in the world. His rationality deserves cheers – but perhaps only two, for, on the downside, it tends to undermine our lovableness as human beings, which depend on having just these nonrational peculiarities. Look at it this way. No one will throw an affectionate arm around me because I am intelligent. If affection is shown me at all, it is because I am the sort of guy who believes in the auspiciousness of white magpies. Pride in these cultural peculiarities, which are types of error, is stupid. The proper attitude is affection – the kind one feels toward adult peccadilloes and the charming mistakes of young children.”

    Comment: I think it is well for anyone who takes it upon themselves to be a debunker of myths or popularly held beliefs to understand what Yi-Fu Tuan is saying here. Humans adorn the naked body with jewelry, tattoos,and cloths. They adorn their world with myth, art, and other symbols and beliefs. Adherence to unadorned reality is one kind of virtue. Being able to create a more lovable reality is another. The adherent of unadorned reality will think that creating a more lovable reality simply means providing a lie; but for a human, reality is always partly a construct. Why construct an ugly reality?

    • I agree, reality is always partly a construct. This indeed is the point where many secular scientists, with their apparent confidence in knowing and finding ‘objective reality’ part company with many of our current philosophers, the latter of whom I read as tending to deny that a human can ever have a notional ‘God’s Eye View’ of reality, that a final objectivity is impossible, in fact another arrogant delusion.

      We should not forget that paganism is in a sense a critique of not only traditional religion but modern ‘rationality’ too. It is thoroughly counter-cultural. I rather think that for many pagans, they are pagans because they found ‘naturalism’ or ‘humanism’ wanting, as much as they had a problem with other traditional religiosities in the supermarket of beliefs. They wanted the more ‘loveable’ reality indeed, but some of us thinking pagans will go further, the supposed unadorned reality: is ultimately, philosophically unknowable. It is the ever elusive ‘thing-in-itself’. To abuse the metaphor a little, the ‘adornment’ must include our very fleshly bodies, our senses, our brain’s processing of sense data, our mind and consciousness, but then what is the unadorned consist of? Seemingly ‘nothing’. A pagan sees this, because the pagan orientation is more to the holistic, synthetic, rather than the analytical. The naturalistic pagan must accept that his paganism corrects the deficiencies of naturalism as much as his naturalism keeps his paganism ‘real’ and ‘honest’. This is my challenge: the naturalistic pagan must be a real naturalist AND a real pagan.

  4. To the extent I’m able, I try to differentiate between when folks are talking about “universal truth” vs. “personal truth” (sometimes called “personal gnosis” in Pagan communities and often better described as “your opinion”). If someone tells me they got a lot of healing benefit out of the healing ritual their coven did for them, I see no benefit to anyone in telling them they didn’t (evidence on the benefit of prayer being hazy at best). But if that same someone then starts pontificating about how “Everyone knows prayer is better than medicine, anyway,” then I would absolutely feel called to step in and defend truth, even if it seemed lacking in compassion–especially if they were using that as a justification for not taking their child or animal companion to the doctor.

    • I agree Eli, but the folk you wish to step in against seem to have crossed the line from making a private truth statement ‘this worked for me and I think/feel that this was due to prayer” to an apparently public truth statement “prayer is better than medicine”. I say apparently, because context is everything, as you indicate. If the claim “Prayer is better than medicine” is presented as some fact to those who don’t already have that opinion and might take it without critique, and in particular if it is the motivation for certain potentially harmful actions e.g. not treating a child or serious illness adequately, then we have a right to challenge. Indeed it is an old druid ‘maxim’ (I think of Iolo) of “Truth Against the World” including i suppose,fellow pagans. However the naturalist can also improperly invade the ‘private truth’ realm e..g by going on a pagan forum for a particular pagan community and questioning rigorously the intellectual basis for, say, Reiki or Tarot reading. Generally these forums are not appropriate venues for such debate. People join pagan groups to find ‘like minded’ people and don’t expect to be accosted in this way. But there is no doubt that most know very well what the sceptic viewpoint is and don’t need to be reminded. Since the vast majority of pagans hold, in my experience, some degree of interest in things that are scientifically unprovable at best, one has to be able to tolerate other’s personal beliefs to a very charitable degree to be a naturalistic pagan. Unless one of course only wants to hang out with naturalistic pagans, in which case I’m probably accosting you unreasonably at this moment!

      • Philip, I struggle with that contextual issue a lot! I belong to both an in-person Pagan community and an online Pagan forum where I’m in the wee small minority of naturalists. Usually I do err on the side of compassion; as you say, most supernaturalist Pagans cherish the few “safe spaces” where folks aren’t telling them their beliefs are crazy.

        OTOH, our tradition’s concept of compassion also includes passion toward self, which, for me, making sure my own truth is heard in the debate. I consider this especially important when folks try to make sweeping statements of “truth” about “what Pagans know” (especially when they couch it as knowledge rather than belief. So even if I’m among fellow Pagans, if someone says, “Well, all Pagans know that blahblahgeneralizationcakes,” I will, with as much compassion towards all of us as I can, say that some Pagans, such as *this one sitting in front of them*, “know” otherwise. Sometimes this upsets people, but by and large I’ve found folks appreciate a gentle reminder of our vibrant diversity.

  5. Brandon-

    Great topic, and article! My position is based on compassion in the long term. I see compassion as the more important factor, if and only if long term compassion is considered.

    For instance, I don’t consider it right to tell, say, a grieving 16 year old who’s friend has just died that their friend is really alive, but on a vacation, because although it will make them happier for a little while (like a few hours or days), they’ll soon find out the truth, and be even more grieved than before (and will then know I’m a liar). To take this a little farther, I don’t think it is right to raise a child to think that a god will always keep them safe (even if it allays immediate fears) because it’s likely that later such a belief may lead to poor decisions that result in real harm (like failing to lock doors, etc.).

    This same approach, for me, resolves much of the question of “truth vs. compassion”. For instance, in the grandmother/prayer example you gave, failing to speak up could lead the kids to beliefs that will indeed cause real and terrible harm in later their later lives. While at the same time, if Grandma and I were alone at dinner, I would be more apt to let her say whatever prayer she wanted. In all the cases I can think of, my concerns for the wider ripples of an action (such as the loss of integrity when one’s kids see their parent lying by going along without speaking up) seem to resolve, for me, the question of “truth vs compassion” by showing that the actions seeming to favor “truth” are often those favoring compassion for everyone, in the long term.

    Is it really benign when a person is saying that their crystals or crucifixes heal them or bring peace of mind? Or, by “being compassionate” and letting them believe that, and I actually causing harm by enabling them to forego needed medical treatment, or enabling them to forego needed medical care for a child at some point 15 years from now? Would I not be partly responsible for that child’s suffering? Of course I would. Now, imagine the wider ripples of my enabling that supersition, stretched out to all those who it was passed on to, over 50, 80, 200 or more years? How much suffering did I just contribute to?

    Those wider ripples often affect dozens, hundreds or literally millions of people as people learn from each other to be silent in the face of wrongness, or falsehood. Thus, simple math shows how important – from a pure compassion basis – speaking up about wrongness or falsehood can be.

    Compassion – including long term compassion.


    • You have raised a difficult issue of parenting Equinox, in which I have some ‘unfolding’ experience. It started with my child questioning whether Father Christmas is real, and the discussion has recently moved on to religion. My eldest (aged 6) goes to a Church School (that is, in the U.K. a church run by either Anglicans (Episcopalians) or Roman Catholics) though publicly funded; her grandparents are also very traditionally religious, so she has substantial exposure to religious beliefs that she initally accepted uncritically (though formal indoctrination we drew a line at) My daughter asked me the other day whether God exists. My answer was ‘some people believe that he does, some people don’t’. This seemed to satisfy her (for now). But was I ‘right’ to say this? If she had asked me whether I believed in God, I would have been honest (my nuanced answer would have been along the lines of ‘depends on what you mean by God’ with a discursion into notions of ultimate value, pantheistic ideas, and a final explanation that I don’t believe in traditional notions of a personal God). Though this more nuanced answer is a bit difficult for a 6 year old. Maybe in a few years? So have I done right, or have i destroyed my future credibility? And sent ripples of damage through time?. Frankly, I think that when kids become teenagers they are likely to doubt whatever you told them as a child (indeed this should perhaps be considered the hallmark of appropriate parenting – the worrying thing is if they don’t doubt). I think it will be more difficult when it comes to explaining whether there is an after life, particularly if a loved one dies. The answer may be different if it one’s pet, grandparent or closer family. My answer is that i know they ‘live in our hearts, in our memories’ and I literally don’t know more than that. I surely can’t be unique in hoping, emotionally at least, there is ‘more’ after death even while having seen no credible evidence for an afterlife. I think in these cases, if more information is needed the most honest, and least ‘ripple causing’ answer for me is, yes, basically ‘I don’t know’. Do you? And you can then invite one’s child to find out, to explore, to investigate the question and the plethora of offered answers for themselves using critical thinking ability (again, probably not at age 6!).

  6. Philip wrote:
    >Hi, thank you. You can add a part 2, though I need to clear up some typing errors that I noticed after posting! There doesn’t seem to be an edit function on your blog, but if you could oblige or point the way perhaps?

    Great. WordPress won’t let you edit your comments, unfortunately. Tell you what: why don’t you make your edits and send it to me in a Word doc. You can include your further comment, and anything else you prefer too. Send to: humanisticpaganism [at] gmail [dot] com. I would like to publish it Monday at the latest, if possible.


    • I haven’t gotten any draft from you yet, Philip, so I’ll go ahead and edit your comments myself and publish them tomorrow as a “Part 2″ follow up to today’s article. Thank you for your insights.

  7. Philip-

    Thanks for the reply. With so many details and nuances in every family situation, I’m not in a position to know if you handled things the best way possible. I think first and foremost that you at least didn’t do more damage by simply say there was a god, and so are doing better than so many other parents out there on that point. Being a parent is indeed a challenge (I’m a parent too). A general rule I use is to remember that if a child is old enough to ask the question, they are often old enough to hear the real answer. Also, I remind myself that children, before age 9-10 or so, are concrete literalists. They cannot understand many abstract ideas and nuances. When they ask “is there a God?”, they mean that image taught in churches, simple as that. The nuances can be added, but should be only after saying that the god taught in the bible doesn’t exist (if one is being open with them at that point).

    For the death issue, that is a really hard thing to face. If it’s been hidden from them until something traumatic happens (like a grandparent dies), then they have deal with two tough things at once. So I try to start making it clear to kids early on that everything alive will die some day, and especially that death is not bad, shameful, or evil, but rather a natural part of the world – without which nothing good would be around. See Connie Barlow’s death stuff here for tons of resources on this very point: . I’ve got a story about explaining death to a 4 year old that I hope to come back to post (no time now).

    Yes, critical thinking is a key gift we, as parents need to make sure the kids have – they’ll really need it, as will future generations.

    All the best- -Equinox

  8. (Hi Philip, I am really enjoying your comments and hearing about your experiences. A lot of what you say really resonates with me.)

    I find this juxtaposition of ‘truth’ and ‘compassion’ difficult. I think the term ‘truth’ is too strong a word here. I do believe there is such a thing as objective truth, but I also believe that we humans can only ever partly possess it. I do believe that science is our best method for understanding the world, but still it cannot fully escape our human limitations and biases. Although I often don’t succeed, I try to remember this when talking to people whose beliefs are very different from my own.

    Generally I don’t go around trying to dissuade people of their “false” beliefs (i.e. beliefs not supported by scientific evidence and opinion), not because I’m trying to be compassionate or because I’ve made some kind of utilitarian harm/benefit calculation, but because in general it seems a waste of time or at least I’m not very good at changing people’s deeply held, emotionally charged, beliefs (which are usually the ones that matter). These days everyone seems to have their own facts, and even when facts are not in dispute, those facts can often support a wide variety of legitimate interpretations. I do enjoy talking about various kinds of facts and interpretations and expressing my opinion on issues when it is appropriate to do so, but there is something kind of condescending in the notion of shielding people from the “Truth” out of compassion.


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