Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Sorrow for the troubles of another, accompanied by an urge to help. Although this attitude is encouraged probably in all religions (certainly in all the world religions), compassion is not equally important in all of them nor does it have the same meaning in all of them.

Within Islam, compassion is expressed as charity. One of the "five pillars" of Islam is payment of the zakat , that is, alms for the poor. In this way, income is redistributed to create a more just community.

In the Chinese tradition, Mo Tzu and Confucius offer two contrasting approaches to compassion. Mo Tzu favored a universalistic approach; that is, the degree of compassion should be determined by the extent of the other's suffering; it matters not whether the other is a stranger or a member of one's family. Confucius gave more importance to the degree of relationship, with priority given to family members (Wong 1989). The Confucian approach has been more influential.

Within Buddhism, one is to show concern for all living things; for example, compassion can be shown by feeding the homeless or by releasing caged birds. Buddhist practices are supposed to reduce egotism and lead to wisdom (the realization of "emptiness"). Insight results in nonattachment to everything, which is supposed not only to allow but somehow also to require compassion for all beings. Buddhist compassion is not passionate but "cool" (Piyadassi 1964).

The Christian notion of compassion is often expressed as love, in the agapic sense. The primary meaning has been a willingness to sacrifice for others. However, the understanding of whom one is to love as well as the meaning of love has changed over time. As evidenced by their interpretation of Deuteronomy 23:19-20, which forbade taking interest from a "brother" but allowed it in relation to a "stranger," Christian leaders slowly changed their interpretation of brother to mean a fellow townsman, fellow countryman, and then all Christians, until finally an unequivocally universalist treatment of the word brother was established during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (Nelson 1969). Similarly, Christian love is now interpreted universalistically. For example: "For agape enjoins one to attribute to everyone alike an irreducible worth and dignity, to rule out comparisons at the most basic level, to refuse to defer to the particular social and ethnic groups to which an individual happens to belong" (Outka 1972:269).

The nature of love is still debated. For some, it is akin to duty (e.g., Kant's "practical love") and can be directed to an aggregate of people (e.g., humanity); for others, love is a spontaneous identity with another rooted in the immediate experience of a particular person (Tamney 1992). Moreover, the equating of love and sacrifice is being reexamined; some Christians argue that caring for others should not mean disregard for the self; rather, they say, people should have more or less equal regard for themselves and others (Outka 1972).

Joseph B. Tamney


B. Nelson, The Idea of Usury , 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969)

G. Outka, Agape (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972)

T. Piyadassi, The Buddha's Ancient Path (London: Rider, 1964)

J. B. Tamney, American Society in the Buddhist Mirror (New York: Garland, 1992)

D. B. Wong, "Universalism Versus Love with Distinctions," Journal of Chinese Philosophy 16(1989):251-272.

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