By Rachel Puryear
For the most part, I simply don’t engage with people who deny that highly empathic (also called HSP) people exist, and that our real-life experiences are genuine. It’s usually not worth engaging with these people.
However, recently I encountered someone who claimed that “being an empath is just another religion” – and I had to laugh.
Seriously, though, I will address – and critique – that person’s argument.
No, being empathic/HSP is not a religion, and it’s not a made-up thing. Let’s unpack why.
Religion Versus Neurodiversity
A religion can be loosely defined as a set of beliefs regarding spiritual matters. Spiritual matters can include beliefs in supernatural beings such as deities, and/or a spirit world. It often includes beliefs about an afterlife. A religion may also include a prescribed set of moral dictates.
Being a “highly sensitive person” (HSP), however, is a common neurological variation found in about a fifth of the human population. This variation is also found in similar proportions of many other animal species.
“Highly sensitive person” (HSP) is the clinical term for this neurological variation, as coined by psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron.
I believe that Dr. Aron had good reason to go with that term, although many HSP people don’t care for the term “highly sensitive”. Many of us prefer colloquial terms including “empathic,” “empaths,” or “highly empathic people”. (These terms are used interchangeably on this blog.)
See here for Dr. Aron’s questionnaire to determine whether you might be an HSP.
People usually belong to religions either because they were raised in them and stayed, or they decided to join when they were old enough to do so. Others reject religion entirely, or it’s not important to them.
It’s not like that with being an empathic/HSP person – we’re born, not made.
If you’re not born an empathic/HSP person, you will never become one. If you are born one, you will always be one. You cannot raise a non-empathic/non-HSP child to be an empathic/HSP person, nor can you raise an empathic/HSP child to not be one. It’s an inborn trait.
There is, accordingly, no comparison to being an empathic/HSP person, versus belonging to any particular religion or faith.
Grain of Truth?
Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t a few grains of truth in some claims made by those who deny that being empathic/HSP is real – even though, again, their ultimate denial of a whole (even if currently under-explored) body of neurological science is fundamentally wrong.
There have been con artists who made big money by convincing well-to-do parents that their children had special powers, including clairvoyance, telekinesis, and other supernatural gifts.
These con artists have sold crystals, seminars, “alternative health” treatments, and all kinds of new-agey stuff. Look up the “indigo children” scams, for instance.
Such children and their families were not necessarily empathic/HSP people. They were victims of scams, with con artists blowing smoke up the parents’ asses.
It’s possible that many of these children were simply shy, sensitive, and/or some kind of neurodivergent (including ADHD). Parents may have fallen for explanations from the wrong kind of sources, and gotten seduced by the notion that their children had magical powers.
Note that con artists are usually not empathic/HSP people – even if the latter are so inclined, which we’re usually not; we don’t make good con artists. We tend not to be good bullshitters, and our empathy would usually stop us from proceeding. Guilt weighs heavily on us.
In any event, though; empathic/HSP people don’t usually claim to have supernatural powers. It would be pretty cool if we did, though. Nonetheless, these are still my favorite kind of people.
Empathic/HSP people tend to be highly attuned to others, and notice things that others might miss. This can lead to perceptions that we have abilities that others might not understand – but that doesn’t mean there’s anything supernatural about it.
Most empathic/HSP people already feel different enough from most others, and like they don’t fit in with the mainstream. We don’t aren’t inclined to try to get everyone to look at us, make fantastical claims, and emphasize our differences from most other people.
People who do those things are probably not genuinely empathic/HSP people.
Religions and Power
Part of what rubs me the wrong way about the false comparison between empathic/HSP people and religions, is that major religious organizations are some of the most powerful – and dangerous – institutions throughout the world, and have been throughout recorded history.
Empathic/HSP people have never wielded that kind of power and influence as a group, not in any society or time period that I’m aware of.
Churches and other religious institutions have, in many times and places; been synonymous with or influential as a government body. They have held very strong political, social, and economic power over societies, including – very importantly – dictating morality to the masses.
That latter point is particularly poignant for anyone with a uterus, or an ethnic minority, or a LGBTQ+ person, or anyone who questions religious teachings.
I will say, though, that if empathic/HSP people had been running governments and wielding the kind of power and influence over human societies that churches have all along; we could have a much different world by now – probably a much better one.
Jesus as an Empathic Person
Interestingly enough, the legend of Jesus Christ portrays an empathic/HSP person – one focused on loving others, welcoming people who had been ostracized, helping the needy, forgiveness, selflessness, and – yes – socialism.
Yet, for the most part, what we have largely seen from the powerful institution of Christianity since Christ has been the opposite of empathic values. (With a few exceptions, but these are a small minority.)
If only empathic/HSP people actually did run religions on an institutional level, all the way to the top – I wish.
Empathic/HSP people are usually the types who support things like equal rights, avoiding violence, combatting oppression, diversity, bodily autonomy, sex positivity (consenting adults), fairer economic systems which reduce poverty and provide opportunity, art and science and education, and other forward-thinking values.
Empathic People and Spirituality
Empathic/HSP people often have a keen interest in spirituality. We’re not typically religious zealots, and in fact most of us find such fanaticism repulsive and scary.
We tend to be wary of most traditional organized religion – especially those which want to suppress critical thinking, demand total obedience, preach bigotry, and fleece the poor.
Dr. Aron’s book devotes a full chapter to HSP’s and spirituality. It’s one of the best parts of the book, if you have – or decide to – read it. At the same time, we tend to be private about that aspect of our lives – not in spite of its importance to us, but especially because of its importance to us.
Many empathic/HSP people gravitate towards spirituality. It’s often an important part of who we are. Many of us identify ourselves as spiritual, but not religious.
At the same time, we can also be non-believers, atheists, and agnostics – and that doesn’t make anyone less of an empath/HSP.
Some empathic/HSP people join decidedly progressive and welcoming religious sects, and thrive in those communities.
At the end of the day, you could say that if empathic people had a religion, it would be kindness and compassion.
Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Here’s to acknowledging the existence of, and lived experiences of highly empathic/HSP people. If you enjoyed this content and want to see more of it, please hit “like” and subscribe, if you have not done so already. xoxo
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