[It's important to emphasise that empathy does not imply abnegation, or the constant sacrificing of one's own interests for others. It merely means that one treats others as one treats oneself. In other words, we must be kind to ourselves as well as to other people. Overall, empathy is a fairer concept than either selfishness or martyrdom.]
However, I find the beliefs of "spiritual" people irrational because I cannot believe in mystical notions without proof. Fundamentally, I cannot believe in an immortal soul that outlives the physical body any more than a person can believe that Windows continues to run after they have shut down their computer. Functional MRI has demonstrated the specific areas of the brain that are responsible for various thoughts and feelings, and these aspects of consciousness consume measurable amounts of energy. Once brain cells die, it doesn't seem feasible to sustain the "consciousness" (i.e., thoughts and feelings) that a soul is supposed to be capable of. The hardware and the energy required for such computation are no longer in existence. Therefore, the notion of the immortal soul just doesn't make sense to me, and once this notion is demolished, the entire edifice of "spiritual" belief comes crashing down (although the empathy-based moral system should remain intact). That's why I use the word "spiritual" within quotes. There is probably no "spirit" to speak of.
We will need to protect ourselves against psychopaths by smoking them out and branding them. (I think it's fair to say, with just a touch of irony, that I have no empathy for psychopaths! What are known as "non-criminal psychopaths" are those, I believe, who haven't yet committed a crime or who haven't yet been caught for a crime that they have committed. Their congenitally conscienceless, selfish rationalism practically ensures immoral behaviour.) Although their prodigious manipulative skills help psychopaths elude detection through psychological testing, science seems nevertheless to have found a way to identify them - they lack a sense of smell. What a fortuitous coincidence! If there is a yellow sun that gives these villains their super-powers, there is also a green kyptonite to which they are vulnerable. The same mental impairment that prevents psychopaths from feeling empathy also prevents them from recognising smells, and that is how society must smoke them out, figuratively brand them on the forehead, and steer clear of them thereafter. If future neuroscientific advances can help psychopaths acquire the capacity for empathy afresh, then they could be re-admitted into society.
When these people do good, they generally do so in order to secure a better afterlife for themselves (whether the eternal heaven of the Abrahamic religions, or karmic credits for an inevitable rebirth as per the Dharmic religions). When they refrain from evil, they do so out of fear (of eternal hell or bad karma as the case may be). It is scary to think of how these people would behave if they should ever lose their faith in the mystical afterlife, since these imaginary carrots and sticks will then fail to ensure their good behaviour. The morality of religious people is a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, and the harmony of a social system based on this foundation is a rather fragile one.
On the flip side, we have seen too many cases when religious dogma has caused people to commit immoral deeds, such as killing perceived blasphemers, or punishing those who violate religiously sanctioned codes around sexual behaviour (i.e., the harassment of homosexuals, stoning of "adulterers", etc.) These are cases where dogma trumps empathy, and many otherwise empathetic people go against their better natures because of their superstitious beliefs and peer pressure, and end up causing harm to other living beings.
I think there are three possible strategies to deal with Religious Adherents:
- Contain - continue to use greed and fear to ensure good behaviour, i.e., exploit the notions of heaven and hell, or of karma, to make them behave in a fashion that roughly resembles true morality.
- Sublimate - a better strategy would be to raise their thinking to a level beyond narrow dogma so that while they may retain their foundational superstitions (such as their belief in a soul, a God and a few others), they also begin to see the oneness of all humanity (indeed, all living creatures). In other words, turn them into "spiritual" people. Once empathy trumps dogma, they should begin to practise, rather than mimic, true morality.
- Educate - best of all, make them realise the irrationality of their beliefs by convincing them that there is nothing beyond the physical world, and simultaneously, of the need for empathy. In other words, turn them into Moral Atheists. This is best done with children. Train schoolchildren relentlessly in the scientific method, emphasising the importance of evidence over blind belief. And since empathy is often a trained response, train them by example to be empathetic to others, not just towards their own kind but all living beings (except maybe the psychopaths who are by now locked safely away! - You can tell I don't like psychopaths :-).