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.
(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.