Condescension and Religion

Condescension and Religion

I used to think the mocking expression Nyeah, Nyeah children repeat in a lilting chant was an English language phenomenon, until I heard children chanting it in Spanish some years ago in the Mediterranean town of Torremolinos. I learned later that it is common in many other languages, as well.

Nyeah, Nyeah is a childish way of letting others know that we think we are, at least in some respects, superior to them. Adults have the same “mine is better” perspective, but they usually try to disguise it. Nevertheless, their condescension usually manages to show through.

Such condescension is even present in religion, particularly in matters concerning theological truth and/or salvation:

  • The idea that the Jews are a “chosen people” invites condescension toward Gentiles because it clearly suggests that they are unchosen. In fairness, Jews did not invent this designation—it is declared both in the Tanakh and in the Christian New Testament. Moreover, most Jews do not flaunt their chosenness before Gentiles—in fact, they generally avoid condescension in the practice of their faith.
  • The temptation to condescension is greater for Catholics because of their Church’s traditional doctrine, “Outside the Church there is no salvation (extra ecclesiam nulla salus).” In recent times, the Catechism has qualified this doctrine with this statement: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.” This qualification may lessen the temptation but certainly does not eliminate it.
  • Some Protestant churches reverse Catholicism’s condescension by teaching that Catholicism is a pagan cult whose members will not be saved. In other words, they say, “Inside the Church there is no salvation (intra ecclesiam nulla salus). Of course, this view invites condescension as much as does the view it opposes.
  • That Muslims are as strongly tempted to condescension toward members of other faiths is clear from these passages in the Koran: “As for the unbelievers, neither their riches nor their children will in the least save them from God’s judgment. They shall become fuel for the Fire.” “Say to the unbelievers: ‘You shall be overthrown and driven into Hell—an evil resting place!” “The only true faith in God’s sight is Islam. . . . He that denies God’s revelations should know that swift is God’s reckoning” (Koran 3:10, 12, 19, respectively.) It is sometimes stated that Islam exempts Jews and Christians from the fate of “unbelievers” because they are “People of the Book.” But this statement is contradicted by Koran 3:110: “If only the People of the Book had faith, it were best for them: among them are some who have faith, but most of them are perverted transgressors.”

(Hinduism and Buddhism are not condescending toward other religions largely because their lack of dogma permits greater tolerance of other belief systems.)

It would be easy to classify religious condescension as hypocritical, given that it violates the respect and even love of neighbor that most religions teach. But the matter is too complex to support that classification.

People form their religious views early in life from sources they trust implicitly, and in most cases they continue to retain some form of those views throughout their lives. (Even those who change religions often maintain some of their early beliefs.) Furthermore, most people hold their religious beliefs sincerely, and often passionately. Thus, they tend to have warm feelings toward those who share their beliefs and cooler feelings toward those who do not. Cooler feelings can lead to condescension and downright cold feelings can lead to acrimony and even violence.

Yet both negative reactions can be avoided, and the key to doing so is to practice humility—that is, to realize that since faith is neither earned nor deserved, we have no reason to laud ourselves for having it or to disparage others for not having it. Simply said, humility means being sufficiently thankful to God that we have no room in our hearts for condescension toward others.

Copyright © 2015 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero