Category Archives: Love well

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.

Missouri: Growing Women God’s Way

992830_10201197757921776_309796495_nLast year, I joined a group of women in Denver, Colorado to discuss what type of event would best help women leaders thrive. Let me say that again: I joined a group of amazing women, and since then many of them have either shown up in my upcoming book or right here with the Invisible Army Project. One of those women was Christie Love, the founder of LeadHer, a ministry dedicated to “growing women God’s way”. LeadHer is a grassroots organization that strives not only to equip women for leadership, but also send them back into their communities to serve. LeadHer grew out of a painful period after her divorce, when Christie found the superficiality of the local women’s ministries woefully inadequate in helping her deal with life’s Here’s Christie’s story:

Tell me the story of how you came to start Lead Her.

I found myself as a single mom, recently divorced, sitting at a women’s conference. I wasn’t getting anything—it wasn’t clicking with me. I wondered, “How many women are here today wishing there was something different?” I knew there’s got to be something that pulls women together besides holding hands and eating chocolate.

I began praying [for something different], but I didn’t find anything and after several years, I realized God had given this to me. It was a tug of war, and I had excuse after excuse why I wasn’t the one to start something. I wasn’t qualified—I had no college or seminary training. I realized that there may have been another person more qualified, but nobody was more passionate. My heart’s broken—His heart’s broken—over what women go through. So, I trusted that God would show me how to do it along the way.



What were the specific needs that weren’t being met by traditional approaches to
women’s ministry?

I found myself in a very brown place Halee, longing for someone to say to me, “It’s going to be okay.” I was watching a lot of women go through struggles and getting polished stories of how it turned out. They’re lovely stories, but no one told me how to go through it. I was really hoping to get practical application, “Okay, here’s the problem, here things to try.” Needed more than a pep talk.

I’m like, “It’s not the social club. Women don’t need to go to church to get their hair done. That’s not going to challenge us or help us grow. Women need skills to do reality on a daily basis, to handle reality in a way that they can still make an impact.

Take me through the launching process. What was your first step?

Prayer –lots and lots of prayer. Don’t take any path without paving it in prayer. I needed like-minded women willing to invest time and energy, and skills to fill in gaps where I was weak. Let me tell you what. I started having people message me on twitter, “You’re doing something big, can I help?” I built a team of 25 women in 2 months and we met in a private Facebook group.

How are the women getting connected to the needs in their community?

That’s a huge one. One of the biggest ways is listening to their community, because we often project our needs on the families around us. Encourage them [to listen to their communities] as the chapters get going and find someone with a heart with outreach that’s able to keep a pulsepoint on the community and the struggles affecting our community. In one case, a group “adopted” a single mom with no money or family for awhile.

One of the big ones we see several groups involved in food banks. In Missouri, the local economy is rough and food banks are shutting their doors. Other groups are really passionate about [human] trafficking in their area. It really depends on the culture of that community and where they are at.

Did you always see yourself as a leader?

Great question. I think I did. However, I think there were a lot of times that that title intimidated me because as a woman, I felt like I had to apologize for it. They have been lots of times in my life when I was very aware I had influence and impact. I don’t have this perfect story, yet I’ve learned all of that had purpose and it’s important to lead in seasons of struggle. And I don’t have to apologize for the way He created me.

What kinds of things helped you grow as a leader?

Struggle. I don’t think anything has helped me grow more than struggle. Struggle plays a huge part in strengthening leadership ability and character.

1236395_10202113098812675_1011393799_nWhat are your next steps for Lead Her?

So many… I’ll pare them down for you briefly. I really see LeadHer with three big goals: 1.) Encouraging, equipping, and engaging women, 2.) Getting women to come together to build communities, and 3.) Getting women to see themselves as leaders. We can only pour into women to a certain point before we have to change the status quo and the context in which they’re leading.

Women deal with the same issues over and over. I’ve identified five core issues: emotions (women have got to learn we are not controlled by our emotions), conflict, identity, shame (my acronym for SHAME is: Satan hammering at me endlessly), and authenticity—being able to be who you are and not who you think you should be. As women we need to address these issues so we can help each other move forward.

LeadHer has already grown to 28 local chapters around the globe. To find out more about the ministry and how to start a local chapter near you, visit!

On Love as Medicine for Sick Souls

Last year was one of the more difficult periods of my life. The word “horror” comes to mind. Aside from a few years of teen angst and a few months living in the exurbs of Dallas, I’ve never really struggled with depression. Anxiety? Perfectionism? Sure, but not depression. So last winter, I was completely blindsided by an overwhelming sense of dread and hopelessness. It probably had something to do with being pregnant, but mostly I attribute it to living unwisely for a very long time.

During my doctoral program, I worked four jobs and commuted through L.A. traffic two or three times a week. I completed my dissertation in two semesters rather than five. And then a season of loss took its toll as well: I said goodbye to friends and family–home–when we moved from L.A. Said goodbye to a job I loved to be with Ellie and finish my dissertation. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to Laska, my sweet rescue dog, before she was shot and killed while staying at my parent’s. I almost said goodbye to Ellie when she contracted RSV.

Ultimately the piper demanded to be paid. The final straw was when winter came here to Holland, Michigan and I didn’t see the sun from November until May. There I was, great with child, staring at gray skies day after day, not knowing what was happening to me. Because of my pregnancy, I refused medication and took matters into my own hands. Although my doctorate is technically in leadership, my work focused also on spiritual formation and soul care. If I couldn’t help myself, well then, I had just paid several thousand dollars to learn something that couldn’t even make a difference in my own life.

Could I practice what I preached? Would it work? I asked myself, what I would say to someone if they came to me with the symptoms I had and I came up with a program of four steps to follow everyday: 1.) Scripture and prayer. My spiritual life needed to increase, not decrease, as is so often the temptation in times like this. 2.) Exercise. The body is important to our spiritual formation, and exercise benefits us not only physically but psychologically as well. 3.) Talk to people. Don’t isolate. 4.) Focus on others. Depression and anxiety become a microscope by which you analyze, over and over again, your own life and the problems you struggle with. Might turning this around and focusing on others, loving others well, get us out?

I made sure to do these steps every day. One, two, three, four, repeat. Of them all, I think number four had the most effect on my outlook, which really isn’t a surprise when you look at some of the research on clinical depression. Although it seems counterintuitive, high rates of depression correspond with high rates of self-absorption. In other words, depression is a vicious cycle because it makes us focus on our own problems, which in turn causes more depression.

See, I don’t think our problem is that we love ourselves too little–it’s that we love others too little. We are so quick to turn inward when things go wrong, and I believe that a great number of suffering people would benefit more by volunteering in a soup kitchen than sitting on a psychiatrist’s couch for an hour a week.

The way out is by loving others well. I’m not saying that medication is wrong or that this is the only solution–each case is different–but I am saying that loving others must be part of of any plan to get well and get whole. In the mind of Jesus, loving others flows out of our love for God. What is the greatest commandment? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength.” The second is like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

That is why the second pillar of this blog is loving others–because it is crucial to our spiritual well-being. I don’t exactly know how to love others well, all the time, but that’s what I’ll be exploring here. I do know that we need one another, far more than we realize.

Let’s Talk About Sex (and Sadism)

When my husband, Paul, tells me he’s going to spend Saturday morning at a meeting called Porn and Pancakes, I don’t even blink. I give him a kiss on the cheek and tell him to have

fun. Since before we were married, Paul’s worked as a therapist for men struggling with sexual addiction. Because of his job, I’ve heard more horror stories about the dark underbelly of the porn world than I care to think about or even count. But because of the violent nature of porn and way porn demeans women and causes a breakdown in relationships, I never thought that women would be drawn to the sexually violent, explicit material. Wouldn’t that, after all, be setting us back 50 years? Au contrare.

In the last few months, E.L. James’ first novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, has gone from an underground erotica novel to
mainstream literature, topping both the New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists. Labelled “mommy porn”, Fifty Shades is the story of Anastasia Steele, a naive college student, and Christian Grey, a troubled young billionaire with a taste for BDSM. Fifty Shades, which began as fan fiction for the Twilight seriesexplores the relationship between the unlikely pair, complete with a plethora of NC-17 sexually violent sex scenes.

From radio to TV to online columns, people are raving about Fifty Shades, so in keeping with my commitment to stay on top of the popular literature in our time (a commitment that has introduced me to character greats like Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, and Lisbeth Salander), I read Fifty Shades. There is so much to be said about it. It’s poorly written with a terrible plot and poor character development. It’s hard evidence that the use of pornography and erotica is on the rise among women, that it’s not just part of some fringe culture (as I naively mistakenly thought), but mainstream. It is, indeed, a backsliding among a generation of women who take for granted their hard-won equality and fantasize about sexual subservience. It’s an illustration of how far our desires have fallen, how twisted and off-the-mark they have become.

But what concerns me most about the Fifty Shades phenomenon is how deceptive these fantasies are in how they twist the realities of violence against women. This week, The Atlantic published a story that documented the lives of six women from the Pakistani city of Karachi. Aeyesha, 18, was raped in her uncle’s house while she was trying to get bread for her family. Rehana, 37, says that since her husband sees her as an “animal with no rights”, broken ribs, broken teeth, and miscarriages are “routine”. Salma, 39, is often threatened with acid and cries in the shower when she sees her battered body, broken and bruised again and again by her husband.

These are only a few of the handful of stories emerging from Pakistan, the third most dangerous place in the world for women. in 2009, 8548 cases of domestic violence were reported in the four provinces of Pakistan. Four in five women face some form of domestic violence. But that’s Pakistan … surely things are not so grim in the Western world? Au contrare. In the U.S., the number of abused women falls to one in four, but domestic violence is still the leading cause of injury for women between the ages 15 and 44–more than car accidents, muggings, and rape combined. In America, a woman is beaten by her husband or partner every 15 seconds.

But Fifty Shades is all in good fun–it’s consenting sex, and after all, Anastasia is presented with a contract that if signed, will be her consent to be a Submissive. By signing the contract, she will knowingly be agreeing to stipulations such as, “The Dominant accepts the Submissive as his, to own, control, dominate, and discipline during the Term. The Dominant may use the Submissive’s body at any time during the Allotted Times or any agreed additional times in any many he deems fit, sexually or otherwise.”

The real harm in Fifty Shades–and other “literature” like it–is that it dulls our conscience to the hideous crime that domestic violence really is. Studies show that repeated exposure to violent pornographic material–(like Fifty Shades) is linked to more aggressive behavior. Feminist writers have rightfully long argued that pornography “promotes a (cultural) climate in which acts of sexual hostility directed against women are not only tolerated but ideologically encouraged”.

(Un)Twisted Sisters

Most of us have memories of them. Those girls on the playground, in high school, in our sorority house and even in our workplace, who were bent on making life miserable for anyone not included in the elite “clique.” They teased, bullied and alienated. These are the girls now epitomized in a slew of Hollywood teen films such as the “Mean Girls,” but it’s a relational dynamic that strings it way through human history all the way back to Rachel and Leah: the harsh reality of female rivalry.
In politics, business and our personal lives, both men and women are guilty of merciless competition, envy and cattycriticism. We don’t need to look any further than ESPN or E! to know that competition and envy abound in relationships regardless of gender, but in relationships between females, it takes on a new form because of the scarceness of opportunities for women and even the scarceness of “good” men.

Often times envy is spurred on by fear: fear of rejection, of alienation, of anonymity, of a perceived purposeless of one’s life because ‘someone else’ did it first. Unfortunately, these expectations and fears can cause women, even more so than men, to have twisted relationships in which we are constantly comparing or criticizing one another.

As Kelly Valen, author of Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships, stated in an interview regarding an incident of alienation and abandonment by her sorority sisters, “Although the incident obviously involved both men and women, it was that lingering hurt that I had from women and that betrayal … we have expectations of support from women.”

Yet, in 1 Thessalonians 5:11-14, the apostle Paul calls Christians to rise above these contentions and set an example for those outside the faith.

In this passage, Paul exhorts us to “untwist” our relationships by encouraging one another, building up one another, helping one another, and seeking the good for each other. Matthew Henry comments, “We should not only be careful about our own comfort and welfare, but promote the comfort and welfare of others also. He was a Cain who said, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ We must bear one another’s burdens, so as to fulfill the law of Christ.”
I’m learning that to truly “untwist” our relationships, as Christian women leaders, we must be willing to stretch ourselves and let go of both our judgments and perceptions about other women—as well as our fears about our own perceived shortcomings—by acknowledging and supporting the giftedness of other Christian women.