“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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.
- 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.
- 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.