Better Without God: Are religious kids “mean jerks”?

“He does not believe that does not live according to his belief.” ~Sigmund Freud

Religious people, especially Christians, have long been perceived as judgmental hypocrites—people who hold others to a moral standard they are unwilling to keep themselves. This reputation is so pervasive that many Christians have eschewed the term “Christian” and instead refer to themselves as “followers of Christ” or “committed Christ followers.” The hypocrisy of public Christians such as Josh Duggar or Ted Haggard garner extensive media attention; the hypocrisy of everyday Christians are the primary cause of Millennials leaving the church.

Now, a study out of the University of Chicago seems to validate that reputation. According to the study, religious children are more judgmental and less generous than those raised in non-religious households. Earlier this month, The Guardian covered the study accompanied by the headline, “Religious Children Are Meaner Than Their Secular Counterparts” and a number of other publications quickly followed suit, reporting the research with headlines such as “Religious Kids are Jerks”, “Is Religion Hazardous to Your Kid’s Moral Health?” and “Religious Kids Can Be Mean, Nasty Little Jerks.”

These headlines, while incendiary, might be fair if the journalists had accurately assessed the research findings and if the findings supported the researchers conclusions. The trouble is, neither is the case.

Researchers embarked on the study to determine how religion impacts moral behavior. They recruited 1170 children between 5 and 12 years old from local schools in Chicago, Toronto (Canada), Amman (Jordan), Izmir and Istanbul (Turkey), Cape Town (South Africa), and Guangzhou (China) and gave them three tasks: 1.) Watch videos of certain actions, such as pushing, shoving, hitting and rate how “mean” a certain behavior was, 2.) Prescribe a punishment for that action, 3.) Share stickers they earned for participating with others in their school who would not be able to participate.

Children from Muslim and Christian homes tended to judge actions more harshly and prescribe greater punishments than children from non-religious households. When asked to share stickers with their peers, religious children gave fewer stickers than non-religious children and the older the child, the less generous. Researchers argued that these findings indicate that secularizing moral discourse—that is, taking God out of the picture—actually enhances morality rather than diminishing it. The researchers take the secular humanist argument of “being good without God” a step further to “being better without God.”

At face value, the specifics of the study seem to be good, which one would expect of research conducted by the University of Chicago and funded by the Templeton Foundation. In the original research report, the researchers address at least one of the issues posed by those who have criticized it, notably the disproportionate number of Muslims (43%) and Christians (24%). The two groups were individually analyzed, and both religious groups were less altruistic than secular groups, Muslims less so than Christians.

However, a deeper analysis reveals a number of problems in both the research methodology and the discussion of the results.

  1. Researchers make the large, blanket claim that their study shows that religion negatively impacts altruism and that “secularization of moral discourse” will increase human kindness, but the sample population (1170 students from 6 countries) is too small to be applied to all religious kids everywhere, and certainly cannot be applied to all religious people.
  2. Participation in the study isn’t adequately explained. Were the schools strategically selected or because they were convenient for the researchers—schools the researchers simply had access to or were affiliated with in some way? How were participants selected? Were all students in each school asked to participate, or were the participants only those who responded to a plea for research participants? If the latter, were the participants compensated? How many responded to the plea? All of these can have a dramatic impact on the results because those who participate are often different from those who don’t in ways that directly impact how one interprets the results of the study.
  3. Correlation does not prove causation. In other words, just because one finds a link between two things doesn’t mean one caused the other, and there may be other variables that might explain the results. For example, the original research report fails to describe the demographics of their three broad categories: Christian, Muslim, and non-religious. Were they evenly distributed across the 6 countries? If not, cultural differences could account for differences in moral behavior.
  4. “Religiosity” was not adequately measured. Researchers simply used an open-response question to the parents (Such as, “What religion are you?”) and a handful of questions on religious participation to determine the religion of each child. Relying on self-report is complicated and unreliable in countries such as China, Jordan, and Turkey, where Christians are often either driven underground or face persecution.
  5. The measure of “altruism” is limited. This study runs counter to extensive previous research demonstrating that religious people are more generous than secular people. In this study, when they say that religious children are less “altruistic” than secular ones, what they mean is that religious children shared less stickers than secular children (less than 1 sticker difference). It is questionable whether altruism in religious children, let alone all religious people, can be inferred from a sticker test.
  6. Finally, researchers provided a single interpretation for religious children describing hitting, pushing, and shoving as “meaner” than their secular classmates—that they were harsher and more judgmental. They did not propose that it might be viewed as altruistic to empathically identify with the victim and to desire justice—to see the wrong righted. Instead, the researchers interpreted the behavior negatively.

For these six reasons, as well as a handful of others that cannot be touched on here, the research doesn’t mean as much as the researchers claim and certainly not as much as journalists claim. We can safely say that this research does not prove that religious children are “meaner” than non-religious children.

But the researchers’ leap to such grand, unsubstantiated conclusions, as well as the viral nature of the study itself does teach us something important: many people, both secular and religious, expect religious people to be judgmental hypocrites. Though our faith is more than a moral code, we must persevere against this stereotype, ever watchful of the content of our character. Though we are forgiven and free, we must use that freedom to pursue the beauty of holiness. We must use that freedom to be a bright light in a dark world. We must use that freedom to bring peace and blessings to others. We must be the people we truly want to be.

Review: Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ

9k=The news came broken. Car crash. Overturned convertible. Care flight to Denver. ER. ICU. Broken neck. My friend Kari’s life had been forever altered during a casual drive in the country. In all likelihood, she’d never use her arms or legs again. What does one say in times of such tragedy? Baffled visitors drifted in and out of her hospital room. Some assured her of God’s miraculous healing; others mentioned dreams they’d had of her walking. Some prayed while others wept.

I remained silent. What words would suffice? I was angry—angry that God would allow so much life to be taken from my friend. And yet I knew God’s promises of abundant life. Without words to articulate this tension, I stumbled in the fog, suspended between my anger, my great sorrow, and my knowledge and faith in God’s promises.

This very tension between lament and God’s promises is the subject of J. Todd Billings poignant new book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. In September of 2012, Todd, a Reformed theologian at Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan, was diagnosed with incurable cancer at the age of 39. With the revelation came the questions, quick and acute: Why me? How long? Does God owe me a long life? What about my young children? Billings had spent the bulk of his years devoted to the study of God and the difficult questions of the Christian faith. Now, he returns to these questions, not with the detached observation of a systematic theologian, but with the urgency of a man confronted with his own mortality and deeply acquainted with sorrow.

In Rejoicing in Lament, Billings explores the tension between “a genuine lament and a genuine rejoicing in God’s promises—promises that, as expressed in the Psalms, are the basis for praise, trust, and also complaint and lament; promises that find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and life … while abundant, cannot be measured by a lifespan” (p. 6). Throughout the book, Billings intertwines his cancer story “with a much weightier story—the story of God’s saving action in and through Jesus Christ” (p. ix), showing us how to genuinely lament before God all the while rejoicing in His promises.

Billings, a gifted thinker and writer, is an able guide through difficult terrain. In ten chapters, he points the way through the “fog of uncertainty” that settles around us when calamity strikes; he tackles the “problem of evil” and why bad things happen to good people. (Spoiler alert: Christians don’t have the answer.) Billings argues that because of Christ, we can follow the script of the Psalms, especially the Psalms of lament, and “openly admit our confusion, anger, and grief without worrying that it will be the last word about who we are” (p. 43).

I wish I’d had Rejoicing in Lament with me in Kari’s hospital room to help me navigate through my sorrow and my faith in God’s Word. It would have better equipped me both to grieve and to help my friend. Whatever adversity you may be struggling with—an illness like Todd or a season of loss—you will find great comfort and clarity within it.

The Work Before Us: Reflections on the Dare Mighty Things Conference (Pt. 1)

Last week I met with hundreds of women and pastoral leaders from around New Zealand at the first Dare Mighty Things conference at Carey Baptist College in Auckland. The first half of the week I met individually with women leaders, brainstormed with a group of female academics on how to address the dearth of leadership on Christian female leaders, and spoke with a group of (primarily) men training to be pastoral leaders. The conference itself was a great success—registrations exceeded expectations and we spent two and a half days tackling three of the ten challenges I discuss in Dare Mighty Things.

I’ve been home less than 48 hours (with a massive case of jetlag to boot), but I’m already processing the stories and heartaches of women I met. Their stories raise several large concerns (and maybe others, as more time for reflection goes by) regarding the work before us, which I will cover here over the next few weeks. One of the most pressing matters is the way we unintentionally (not to mention intentionally) silence the voices and giftedness of women in our churches and parachurch organizations.

We unintentionally silence women when we support women in theory but not in practice. Officially, on paper, churches may support women leaders but fail to fill official leadership roles with gifted women. Many churches in both New Zealand and the U.S. have come a long way by changing their official position on women leaders, but this needs to be followed up by proactive decisions to identify and train women for leadership roles within those organizations.

All of the churches I have attended in my adult life are theologically conservative churches who say they support women leaders—but the first time I preached from the pulpit on a Sunday morning (in two theologically conservative Baptist churches) was half a world away and aside from one church I attended early in my seminary career, I’ve never seen another woman preach, either. It is still far too rare to see a woman preach the word of God on a Sunday morning, especially in theologically conservative churches.

We unintentionally silence women when pastoral leaders fail to make supporting women into leadership a priority. As a seminary professor who has taught hundreds of young and aspiring pastors over the years, I know that part of the issue is simply busyness. Pastors have many competing demands on their time, and though they fully believe in supporting women in this way, more immediate demands consume their time, the issue falls to the back burner, and women will not bring it up for fear of being seen as arrogant or demanding.

However, there is also an issue in not wanting to upset the older “stakeholders” in the congregation. As one young man said last week, “I know there are gifted women in the congregation, but honestly, they’re just going to have to go somewhere else. We need to wait until some older members die off.”  Either you believe the spiritual gifts aren’t gendered or you don’t, and if you do, you have a moral imperative to steward the spiritual resources of your congregation as well as you would the financial resources, regardless of how busy you are or how some older members might feel about it. There are wise ways to slowly incorporate this change, but it is a change that must be a priority.

We unintentionally silence women when men are not taught to support their wives. Most (if not all) of the married women leaders I have spoken with over the years have attributed much of their success to supportive husbands. They spoke of husbands who not only believed in them but also pulled more than their fair share of household and childcare duties as they worked overtime to achieve their ministry goals. But not all women get that support. Last week far too many women told me, through tears, of how their husband was dismissive of their desires to go into ministry—they grunted, laughed, or put them down. Some were shunned by their whole family simply because they chose to go to seminary.

If we support the giftedness of women leaders on paper, in theory, we must also be committed to follow through and support them in practice.

Depression: The Dark Night of Body and Soul

By all appearances, I had everything we Westerners say we need to be happy: a strong marriage, a fulfilling career, and a quaint home with a picket fence in one of the fastest growing communities in the United States. I even had a new car. And yet, there I was, sitting with the doctor discussing my near-debilitating depression. It had taken months to come to this, to admit I couldn’t shoulder the burden alone and I needed the care of a professional.

By all appearances, Robin Williams seemed to have it all, too, in even greater measure: wealth, celebrity, a beautiful home in an exclusive community, and a lengthy, successful career for which he was greatly loved and admired. He exuded a kindness and warmth that touched many—even those he never met. And yet, the manner of his death revealed a profound loneliness and hopelessness. Behind his surplus of wit and good humor was a deep darkness, a burden so great he despaired, finally, of shouldering it. We are stunned, in part, because of this contrast. If Robin Williams can find himself (or lose himself) at the edge of such an abyss, any of us and any we love can also.

The suicide of Robin Williams has stoked a national conversation about how we think about depression, despair, and how we respond to those who suffer. An appropriate response to those and for those struggling with depression depends upon a robust understanding of human anthropology. Humans are both material and immaterial, spirit and substance, and when one of these aspects is emphasized over the other, we end up in responding to depression in ways that are inadequate or even insensitive.

Some responded as though we don’t have bodies. Some have said that suicide is a deliberate, selfish choice driven by cowardice. Fox News host Shepard Smith insinuated Williams’ death was cowardly. Blogger and radio host Matt Walsh stated in a viral blog post that Williams “died by choice, not by disease”. Smith’s and Walsh’s statements, along with others of their ilk, are rooted in a anthropological view that minimizes the fact that humans are embodied creatures. In this view, bodies aren’t as important as the mind or the soul.

This is the mistake I made when coping with my own depression. I thought I could spiritually strong-arm my own depression with more prayer, more Scripture reading, or better obedience to God. Mind over matter. But the harder I fought, the deeper I fell because I failed to understand the role of the body in depression.

Depression is a disease of the body, not simply the soul or the “mind” or however one describes the immaterial aspect of our being. When depression burrows itself into our brain, it is often outside the reach of positive self-talk and rational decision-making. This depression is so deep we feel it (and whatever actions stem from it) beyond our control, outside of our free will, regardless of whether it is in truth.

Others responded as if we have no soul. They liken depression to a disease like cancer or AIDS. This response stems from a common materialistic view about humanity, which theologian Anthony Hoekema describes as a view that sees humans as a “being composed of material elements, his mental, emotional, and spiritual life being simply by-products of his material structure.”

Apart from depression that stems directly from the body, such as through genetics and certain medications, depression is a response. “Depression is telling you something that is wrong,” my doctor said. “And when it goes untreated, it’s almost impossible to cure apart from community support and medication because it creates changes in our brain and body.” In my case, I’d made a wrong vocational turn; I was supposed to be getting a PhD in Los Angeles, not launching a writing career in Frisco, Texas. But any number of things can stoke the hot embers of depression. Drug or alcohol use and abuse. Catastrophizing personal worries through overexposure to world news. An elevated level of empathy for the suffering of others. Divorce, death, conflict, social isolation, and loss.

Reducing depression to simply a bodily disease minimizes the immaterial aspect of our being. Depression is not always—or even often—simply caused by a disease of the body; it begins when we find our selves, our lives, and the world not all we hope. Not as they should be.

Human beings are a fusion of body and soul, material and immaterial, and our response to depression and to those who suffer must reflect this reality.

If you’re struggling with depression, or want to know how support someone who is, here are five essentials:

  • Get adequate care. Ensure you are in the care of a physician. Follow their recommendations. If they say you need medication, take it and don’t apologize.
  • Be honest. Talk about your feelings, fears, and emotions with friends, family, or a support group. Tell them where you’re at mentally and emotionally. Let them support you. I know it’s difficult to reach out to others, especially when we feel weak for doing so or we believe someone will judge us negatively, but it is essential to not bury feelings or emotions and let them rot and fester.
  • Consider the root of your depression. Is there a relational or spiritual cause to the depression? Are you overusing or abusing drugs or alcohol? Or maybe, like me, you’re a sensitive and become overwhelmed with depressive thoughts when following the news for too long. What’s the cause of it? What might you need to change? How might God want to heal you in that area?
  • Physical activity. Move. Study after study indicates a reduction in depression—even major depression—with regular physical exercise.
  • Look outwards. What can you do to serve others? Depression and anxiety become a microscope by which you analyze, over and over again, your own life and the problems you struggle with. There is a growing body of research that has demonstrated a positive correlation between self-absorption and depression, and a negative correlation between altruism and depression. Meaning, the more focused you are on yourself, the more depressed you become and the more altruistic behavior you demonstrate, the less depressed you are.

You may have to do these things every. single. day. Depression is a daily battle, but don’t give up. Annie was right: the sun will come up, maybe not tomorrow, but someday. Things are not as grim as they look and you’re not as alone as you think you are.


Providing Aid to the Children on our Doorstep

In recent days, I’ve been contacted by numerous individuals and groups seeking information on how they can provide aid to the children coming across the border. So, I’ve been gathering sources in order to provide the best direction possible. Due to the rapidly changing nature of the situation, in conjunction with political and legal complexities, it is difficult for faith organizations and individuals to know how to respond in this situation.

As Marla Bearden, the Texas Baptists disaster recovery specialist related to me in our correspondence, “It is not HHS (limiting access to the children), it is Home Land Security from what I understand. It has to do with liability. We are hoping and praying that we will be able to help out with the children but we want to keep in mind what is best best for the children. This is why I am working to find ways we can assist even if we don’t get to work directly with the kids.”

One thing I want people to know, without reservation: people of faith care deeply about the welfare of the children crossing our borders. I’ve met them. I know them. And so do you.

Please, people of faith, let us not harden our hearts against one another, believing, erroneously, that our fellow brothers and sisters do not care about these children. Yes, there are political reservations about the process of immigration in our country, but this is a separate issue, at the moment at least, from the babes at our doorstep. With that said, here is what I’ve been able to find out about how we can help.

Every night, around 300-400 children arrive at the border in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV). I’ve tried to find information about whether these children are crossing borders in New Mexico, Arizona, or California to little avail (if anyone has info on this, please let me know). Apart from the protestations against the busloads of immigrants arriving in Murrieta, California, it seems the bulk of children immigrants are coming from the RGV. Because of the massive influx of children, children are being transported to facilities across the country, including other areas in Texas, Arizona, California, and Oklahoma.

At the moment, it seems that Catholics, Baptists, and interfaith organizations are leading the way in this area. I’ll be following this more in upcoming days, but wanted to draw your attention to a few helpful resources if you wish to help:

If neither of these suit you, simply google “churches in McAllen, Texas” and most have links on the front page of their websites indicating how you can help.