Recently Current Biology published a study in which children being brought up in religious families were measured against children being brought up in non-religious households to see how altruistic they acted compared to one another. This was measured by things like sharing stickers and reacting to videos of children pushing and bumping. Overall, the study found that “…children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households” with children from Muslim homes being the most “judgmental” and children from secular homes being the least.
The article states that “Overall, our findings … contradict the commonsense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind towards others …More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that secularisation of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness – in fact, it will do just the opposite.”
After the publication of the study, Adjunct Professor of Statistics at Cornell, William Briggs raised some questions about its validity his response article, pointing out that the scattering of resulting p-values from the study are statistically questionable. He also questioned the way in which the “religiousity” of families was identified, stating that, “The authors never assessed the ‘religiosity’ of kids; they did it for the kids’ “caregivers” instead. …The authors asked parents to name their religion. They also asked parents questions like “How often do you experience the ‘divine’ in your everyday life?” They took pseudo-quantified answers from these and combined them scientifically with a quantification of religious attendance and derived a complete scientific quantification of “religiosity.” This was assigned to each kid in the study.”
Definitions turn out to be very important when questioning something like this:
Firstly, the study calls into question the notion that “religion is vital for moral development.” This presumes that religious people believe that one must be religious in order to be moral. This, of course, excludes the possibility that morality is grounded in the existence of an actual God. If morality exists eternally and unchangingly, then it applies to all people equally throughout history – religious or not – because God exists unchangingly. Morality is discovered rather than made up as one goes along. Belief in God can, indeed, be divorced from moral behavior. However one cannot believe that all people ought to act altruistically if there are not transcendent moral laws which apply to all people.
Secondly, it should not surprise anyone – least of all Christians – that religious practices can tend to have the type of effect described by the study. Tragically, most religions – even those claiming to be Christian – operate under the idea that one must live up to a series of moral laws in order to win favor with God. Islam has its five pillars, Judaism has its extensive religious code – as does Mormonism – and Catholicism has the sacraments. People who work to live up to these laws live under the constant fear of failure, and the consequences it might bring. And, of course, those who do not live up to those codes are already under the condemnation of said consequences.
This creates an “in-group/out-group” effect. Those who embrace the values of the religious person are part of the in-group, because they are working toward the same goal, those who do not are part of the out-group. They are under the condemnation of the religious person’s God, and by extension, the religious person. But there’s more. Because this constant effort to live up to a standard promotes a kind of competition within the group, wherein each religious person has the tendency to look at the other under a kind of scrutiny to see how their behavior lives up to the goal. It is truly a “holier-than-thou” way of living.
This is exactly the kind of religion which Christ himself condemned in the Gospels. When one examines the Jesus of Scripture, it may be surprising to find that he had practically no words of condemnation towards sinners, pagans and reprobates: his litany of verbal abuse was almost entirely against the religious elite. He says “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” He calls them “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
He tells them, “…with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
In the Scripture, Jesus made an effort to make enemies of the religious while making friends of thieves, drunks and sex offenders. He told his disciples that “The greatest among you shall be your servant.”
What is misunderstood about Christianity – sometimes even by Christians – is that it is not about winning God’s favor with good deeds. This is a task beyond anyone’s power. Christians believe that Christ forgave because of his works, not theirs. No person is better than another. There is no “in-group” or “out-group.”
Christians who understand and operate under this kind of religion are not altruistic because they have to be under threat of divine condemnation. Rather, they “love because he first loved us,” they “do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return …and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
Contrary to the caricature of Christianity, the motivation of a Christian’s moral behavior, as described in scriptures, is one of gratitude for the love and forgiveness they have already received. They are paying it forward, so to speak, imitating the God who loved them first.
So if studies find that religious people, broadly defined, raise their children to be legalistic and condemnatory, this is no less than history has already shown of religions which operate according to the law of self-righteousness. But scriptural Christianity operates by another law entirely, and history has also born testimony to the power of this kind of Christianity.