What Toddlers and Chihuahuas Can Teach Trump About Religion

Syrian refugees sit on the side of a road that leads to the Akcakale border gate as they wait to return to their home in the
Syrian refugees sit on the side of a road that leads to the Akcakale border gate as they wait to return to their home in the northern Syrian town of Tel Abyad, in Sanliurfa province, on June 18, 2015. Almost 60 million people worldwide were forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution at the end of last year, the highest ever recorded number, the U.N. refugee agency said. UNHCR said Syria, where conflict has raged since 2011, was the world's biggest source of internally displaced people and refugees. There were 7.6 million displaced people in Syria by the end of last year and almost 4 million Syrian refugees, mainly living in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

The other day Leo Sam, our two-year-old, climbed up on the couch behind me as I read the news on my laptop. When I clicked to a photograph of a Syrian refugee child arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos after a sea crossing from mainland Turkey I heard a small voice behind me: "Baby cry."

For the last few months Leo has been fascinated by tears. He's starting to get interested in the mental states of other people and how they compare to his own. "Colin cry," or "May-May cry" or "Colton cry," he'll report from day care. It's an early developmental stage in the universal human process of modeling other minds known as 'empathy.'

Empathy is not an outstanding feature of American political rhetoric right now. On Monday Donald Trump, the American real estate speculator and "reality TV" actor, made headlines when he called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" -- especially those fleeing the violent implosion of the Middle East.

Trump's lack of empathy is far from isolated. Fellow Republican candidate Marco Rubio complained about a call by President Obama for religious tolerance: "Where is there widespread evidence that we have a problem in America with discrimination against Muslims?" he asked.

In fact Muslims are five times more likely to be the victims of a hate crime in 2015 than they were 15 years ago.

The failure of empathy reflected by all this rhetoric is especially disappointing because our inborn tendencies in the other direction are so powerful. The urge to model other minds is not even unique to Homo sapiens, as any dog owner knows -- and canines aren't thrown off the way we are by irrelevant identity groups like 'breed' or 'fur color.' The next ethical step, responding with kindness, is rarer in nature, but it appears that "consolation" is practiced by chimpanzees as well as humans. For example, if one chimp is hurt by another, a bystander will often make it a point to stroke and groom them.

Some scientists now think that ethical reciprocity (the "Golden Rule" of behaving towards other people the way you'd want them to treat you if you were in a similar situation) is so common in world religions because it's a trait that evolved in human brains over many millions of years of cooperative primate social behavior. David Pfaff argues in his book The Neuroscience of Fair Play that despite the frequency of violence and war, the durability of the "Golden Rule" points to "a balance between the forces in the nervous system that support society and the forces toward aggression."

As I look from Leo's face to the face of that terrified child on Lesbos I'm sad, but hopeful. Maybe aggression against the weak, and the orchestrated fear of the stranger that have been driving our headlines in recent weeks can be balanced by simple insights like a child's connection between his own tears and the distress of another human being.

Jewish fathers always risk transmitting the "messiah complex," so I won't make too much of it, but Leo seems to have discovered the building blocks of the religious experience! 'Do to other people as we would want done to us.' Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Donald Trump or any other politician who forgets this principle should be recognized for what they are: not inhuman, unfortunately, but stunted and incomplete.

Your average toddler could do better.

More reading

Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics (Chicago 2007), Chapter 8.

Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton, eds., The Golden Rule: The Ethics of Reciprocity in World Religions (London and New York 2008).