These are two thought provoking posts from an interesting blog: theotheri.wordpress.com. Its authoress Terry Sissons –don’t miss her ‘About’ to appreciate where she’s coming from – has this to say: ‘This blog is to help me remember that there is inevitably another way of looking at things besides the one that seems obvious to me….’ I’ve saved and savored many of her posts that do as much to me too. Here we go:
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.
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 and 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.
In yesterday’s post I described some recent research suggesting the possibility that religion might paradoxically result in our being not more but less generous towards those less fortunate than we.
Following on from that somewhat surprising outcome, I wonder if children who are raised without being taught any particular religious ideology might actually be naturally more altruistic.
One of the surprising findings in science in the last 50 years or so is the extent of altruism that seems apparent in other species. We’ve seen examples of dolphins saving humans from attack by killer sharks, for instance, a lion protecting a baby rhino, a bear sharing his dish of food with a hungry cat that entered is cage in the zoo. There are thousands of examples. If you have a pet dog or cat or bird, you may yourself have benefited from this kind of altruism.
Where does this altruism come from? In non-humans, it obviously does not originate in religious belief. Some theories argue that all species, individuals will sacrifice their own lives in order to protect those who share our genes. It is, they say, basically a selfish response, in that I am really trying to maintain my own genes in the lives of future generations. But this theory breaks down when we are dealing with altruism toward those who do not share our genes, who are not even of the same species.
Is altruism, then, a result of evolution in all living creatures? Do we all have the potential to care about other life, not simply our own or those closest to us?
If so, might we then find greater altruism among those who are taught to understand and care about all life – without the additions of threats and rewards?
Religions typically exhort us to love others in order to gain an eternal reward and avoid eternal punishment. But if altruism is a natural response, then it is diminished by suggesting that caring about all other life is not intrinsically fulfilling in itself, as if we need to be bribed to love others.
We don’t need to bribe our children to enjoy playing with their train sets or i-pads, their toy dolls or pet animals. We don’t need to bribe them to do any of the million things they enjoy.
Why do we assume that caring about the life around us isn’t something we do naturally?
Actually, we probably often do that because, although we are capable of selfless love, we are also capable of incredible cruelty, of sadism, or even taking enjoyment in making others suffer.
But since religion does not seem to eliminate those negative impulses, and often even seems to encourage and justify them, perhaps we should explore whether religion actually does more harm than good.
Could we survive without religion? Could we survive without the certainty religious belief offers so many?
As I look around the world today, I don’t see the answer. I don’t know if or when religion makes things better or worse. Religion does not do a lot for me these days. I prefer to live in the mystery of a universe which constantly astonishes, exults and sometimes frightens me but which I know ultimately is beyond complete human understanding. Yet I know people who are more generous and courageous than I have ever been who are deeply religious.
The sect I belong to at least in name has enough of exclusivity and is replete with universally inclusive practices as well – a contradiction that I’ve as a layman not sorted out in my mind (without the benefit of a Guru?). Personally I’m taken more by the inclusiveness exemplified by the sect – strangely education did not address this aspect seriously at all one way or the other perhaps owing to the need to be socially correct in keeping with modern times. The elephant is sitting squat in our middle.
As Hindus we’re brought up to regard readily other forms of life including plants as ‘us’. Here again a contradiction emerges on the ground. All instances of kindness to and concern for other species as reported by the media are all from the west. Have we become callous and drifted from our moorings? Or I’m ill-informed about happenings here?
Curiously it seems easier to be kind to other species than our own?
Well, I’ll stop my rambling here for now.
Any thoughts and observations are always welcome on this post (preferred) or by mail.
A sage presented a prince with a set of three small dolls. The prince was not amused.
“Am I a girl that you give me dolls?” – He asked.
“This is a gift for a future king,” Said the sage. “If you look carefully, you’ll see a hole in the ear of each doll.”
The sage handed him a piece of string. “Pass it through each doll.” – He said.
Intrigued, the prince picked up the first doll and put the string into the ear. It came out from the other ear. “This is one type of person,” said the sage, “whatever you tell him, comes out from the other ear. He doesn’t retain anything.”
The prince put the string into the second doll. It came out from the mouth. “This is the second type of person,” said the sage, “whatever you tell him, he tells everybody else.”
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