The Other I

November 19, 2015

Does religion make us feel superior?

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:22 pm

For the first 6 years when I was a nun, we dressed in traditional habits, covering everything except our faces and hands.  Obviously, no one would mistake us for anything but nuns, Christians dedicating our virginity to a higher calling.  We younger nuns eventually received permission to wear habits that were a little less traditional, but the mark of our “chosen way” of life was still pretty clear.  Everybody with whom we worked knew who and what we were.MM%2520group%25202

(FYI, I am in the middle of the bottom row)

When I left the convent after nine years and began life as a student in New York City, I realized that I’d been divested of a cloak of sanctity.  Strangers on the streets no longer held doors open for me, for instance, or offered me a seat in place of theirs on the subway.

But the bigger change was in myself.  I no longer thought of myself as holier than a mere  lay person.  And I realized that just putting on that habit had made me feel morally superior to the layman who did not aspire to the level of sainthood which I sought for myself.  Indeed, which to some extent I assumed I had already achieved for myself.

That insight was close to half a century ago and I have tended to reflect on it occasionally with some embarrassment at my arrogant egocentrism.

But I read a research review in the Economist this month, Matthew 22:39, that has made me wonder if my personal experience is not far more significant and widespread than I realized.  Jean Decety, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Chicago has studied more than a thousand children between 5 and 12 years of age in America, Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa and Turkey from many different religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews. Decety and his colleagues played a game with each of the children in which they had a chance to share their winnings with other children who had not had a chance to win anything.

Children of families of non-believers were willing to share significantly more of their winnings than were children of families who said they were religious.  Not only that, but religious parents predicted with a fair amount of confidence that their children would be more generous than children of families that practiced no religion.  Their predictions were wrong.  Children raised in religious families were less generous than children with no religious background.  Significantly so.

As the world today is facing repeated murderous onslaughts from young people who believe they are killing and dying for the One and Only True Religion, I am beginning to wonder in a way I have not done before if the problem is not one religion or another, but the underlying message, whatever version it may be.  Does teaching a child that they belong to the One and Only True Church – whether it is Roman Catholicism or extreme Islam or all those True Religions in between convince us by that very fact that we are intrinsically morally superior?  Is it equivalent to donning that nun’s habit which somehow transformed me into someone wiser, holier, more righteous than everybody else?

Wars, as we know, are often fought flying religious banners, often on both sides.  This has led some thinkers to argue that religion causes war.  I’ve always tended to think that if there is a causal link between the two that it is not religion that causes wars but rather that religion was a potent force for energizing those who were fighting for their own people, their values, their identity, and most especially, for greater wealth.

But now I’m beginning to wonder.  Does religion itself make us feel superior?  is it in the very nature of religion to convince us that we are right, that we deserve everything that is given to us and that anybody who opposes us are on the side of the devil whom we must fight with all our strength and energy?  Obviously, that fight does not necessarily manifest itself in war.  But I wonder if, even in our charitable activities,  it does not manifest itself in an attitude of moral superiority.



  1. As always, food for thought.

    The experiment’s outcome was quite unexpected at least to me. I thought the moral superiority implicitly or explicitly assumed by the religious would translate charitable behaviour to wards others. So why were the children reared by the religious not willing to share? Parents did not transmit the true purport? How do the religious explain this outcome?

    I’m assuming the children did not know the religious disposition of others in the group.



    Comment by tskraghu — November 19, 2015 @ 4:34 pm | Reply

    • To answer your implied question, my understanding of the research (I haven’t read the original research publication, only a review) is that the children were simply asked if they would be willing to share some of their winnings with some children who didn’t have a chance to play the game.

      The result surprised me too. If I weren’t retired, I would love to carry out some follow-up research. The first question I think I would ask is the same one you have asked: would knowing the religious disposition of others make a difference? would it make a difference to children in some religious backgrounds but not others? In particular, I wonder if religions that teach that it is the only one and true church create a stronger “us and them” psychology, and would those children therefore be more apt to help their own or others, or would it make no difference.

      One might also play the same game with children, but suggest the ethnicity or national background of the children who had not been able to play. Would religions that emphasize we are all God’s children as opposed to teaching that only some of us are among the saved be more or less generous.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by theotheri — November 20, 2015 @ 3:06 pm | Reply

      • Yes, the children with religion perhaps were not charitable assuming the others were not one of them. Of course this is only a speculation.May be there other factors at play.


        Comment by tskraghu — November 20, 2015 @ 4:56 pm | Reply

  2. […] Does religion make us feel superior? […]


    Pingback by Exclusivity And Religion | Sanmargam — November 22, 2015 @ 11:45 am | Reply

  3. After reading your blogs, I thought you might be interested in the new novel, Terrifying Freedom. The novel grapples with nuns, bishops, Vatican II and social justice. The website is All the best, Linda Smith


    Comment by Linda Smith — January 24, 2016 @ 10:50 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for the suggestion. I will check it out. Terry


      Comment by theotheri — January 25, 2016 @ 2:12 pm | Reply

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