Why Empathy Trumps Sympathy in Religious Dialogue

Shinto_PriestWhile flipping through a photo album from my brother’s trip to Japan, an Evangelical friend of mine paused on the image of a Shinto priest bowing before an altar. Dressed in traditional vestments, the priest was fulfilling one of his primary duties to offer food and clothing to a kami—a local Japanese spirit or deity.

With genuine pity my friend said, “Its so sad to see that, I wish they could know the hope we have in Jesus.”

From a western Evangelical perspective, a Shinto shrine certainly is as “other” as you can get. Even in the midst of my graduate studies in religion, I know nothing about Shintoism except for the vaguest caricatures of its beliefs. However, the sympathy that she expressed does more to hinder than help our interactions with other religions. What we need is true empathetic understanding to foster connection.

Last week the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts released this viral video that pinpoints four attributes of empathy as opposed to sympathy:

1. The ability to take another’s perspective and recognize that perspective as their truth.

2. Staying out of judgement.

3. Recognizing emotion in others.

4. Communicating that recognition effectively.

Sympathy, on the other hand, involves trying to comfort the individual, find a silver lining in the situation, or offer advice on how to alleviate the other’s pain. Genuine or otherwise, sympathy lacks the key element of sharing the other’s perspective.

In short, “empathy fuels connection” while “sympathy drives disconnection.”

Much of our inter-religious interactions (and indeed inter-denominational interactions within Christianity) falls into the latter category. We are so assured of our own religion’s truth that we pity others for their ignorance or obstinate refusal to accept our truth. This expresses itself when we judge others for beliefs we deem wrong or objectify others as potential converts, offering our own religious convictions as a stronger panacea for their brokenness.

Although our expression of sympathy may stem from genuine concern for the other, it belies a deeper failure to empathize with the other. To create true connections, we must set aside our preconceptions and try to understand the other’s truth and why they believe it.

Ways we can exercise religious empathy:

1. Avoid creating simple caricatures of other religions.

The mainstream Evangelical critique of Mormonism is a prime example. I was taught growing up that Mormonism was a “cult” and that they held all sorts of strange beliefs (“Did you know Mormons believe you become gods in the afterlife?”). I never bothered to meet any Mormons or even “research” the religion on Wikipedia. I simply accepted the caricature painted for me. All religions though are far more nuanced than what our preconceived notions tell us. Empathetic religious dialogue requires that we resist stereotypes and attempt to understand others’ beliefs. Only after that occurs can we raise any meaningful disagreements.

2. Recognize your own beliefs as weird.

We tend to view our own rituals and beliefs as normative. Baptism and the Eucharist are familiar, and therefore, “normal.” Offering food to a kami, though, is “weird.” Ironically, Christian belief and rituals—corporate singing, dipping bread into wine, reenacting ancient Jewish cleansing rites—are just as weird for the outsiders looking in. In fact, the ancient Romans thought “eating the body of Christ” was so odd, they accused the early Christians of cannibalism. Exoticizing each other’s rituals does nothing but solidify difference and entrench us in an “us vs. them” dichotomy.

3. Stay out of judgment

When in the midst of suffering, the last thing we want to hear is judgment (the biblical story of Job and his three friends immediately comes to mind). Likewise, in religious dialogue, we might judge others for what we perceive as shortcomings in their worldview. However, when we make these value judgments, we view other worldviews as inherently inferior to our own, invariably driving disconnection.

Empathy in religious dialogue means making yourself vulnerable. It means reaching deep inside yourself and recognizing that we are all broken and that our religion does not equip us with all the answers to life, the universe, and everything. So when someone cries out, “I’m stuck, it’s dark, I’m overwhelmed,” you can respond with, “I know how you feel,” instead of with pity.

Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.


  1. Wow, so powerful Andrew. Thank you for this! I totally agree. I’ve come to feel that empathy was one of the most important virtues–besides love of course. Empathy means we can relate despite our differences. It helps in any relationship–personal, religious–anywhere. This is right on target. I can understand people are judgemental because we were never taught to reach out and see what the world looks like through another’s eyes. It reminds me of the story Dad told us when he was at a major Buddhist temple in Burma. His missionary companions were skeptical, wanted to leave because there were “evil spirits” or whatever lurking there. But Dad had met a monk there and were talking about the temple, and looking through his camera at the tower and forming a brief connection–not understanding why his fellow travelers were being so uptight about it. Empathy is always a better path. It doesn’t mean you need to “water down” your own religious beliefs, or become wishy washy. It doesn’t even need to mean you need to agree with everything someone believes or does. But it does mean to set aside your pride and open your mind to understand. Thanks so much for this. Really encouraged me today.

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  1. […] brings me back to a topic covered in an earlier post: how to exercise empathy in religious dialogue. One strategy to converse with “the Other” is to […]

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