There was a study out this week that was reported all over the world. Kids raised in religious households are meaner, less altruistic, and lack empathy. There are many variations of this assessment with slightly different wording in the headlines and blurbs. The study itself, which was often not linked, is here. It’s a very respectable science journal, peer reviewed and everything.
What to make of it? One way is to simply ignore it as atheist propaganda and successfully forget it. The opposite reaction is to take it as real and dismiss it as related only to Christians and Muslims, two groups who are not known for their tolerance anyway. Yet another reaction is to challenge its validity and dismiss it as not reflective of real life. None of these solutions appeal to me, however. As far as I can see, the study is kosher and I have no reason not to believe that its results are correct. For me, the problem lies in interpretation – it simply doesn’t mean what people assume it means.
The study was conducted on over a thousand kids (5-12 y.o.) from several countries, as diverse as Canada and Jordan. Only Christians and Muslims were counted, though, because other religions weren’t represented in statistically useful numbers. There were two different components to the study. Kids were given a number of stickers, told that there aren’t enough for everybody in their groups, and asked if they’d be okay with sharing – with their own friends, not with hypothetical strangers. Kids from religious families were less likely to share.
Kids were also shown videos of slightly violent behavior, pushing and shoving, and asked to grade the seriousness of the offense and select appropriate levels of punishment. Religious kids scored higher, with Muslim kids assigning heavier punishment than Christians.
This was interpreted that religions fail in instilling morality, contrary to popular opinion. We have three layers of interpretations here. First, the study itself is accompanied by “discussion” where authors offer their take on the results. They also offer an introductory note and a summary explaining their position and reasons behind this research. Then there are quotes from the authors reported by the media where they go beyond what was given in the paper itself. And then there are journalists once again explaining what it all means to the readers. Personally, I can’t figure out the conclusions at the very first of these steps, and then these wrong, in my view, conclusions got amplified completely out of proportion, especially in the internet commentary on the subject.
Kids opting for heavier punishment were deemed to have less empathy. How come? Are they expecting them to act as if they were heart bleeding liberals whose main concern is welfare of the criminals? That’s a stereotype but it’s the only explanation I have. It’s as if they measured empathy by how much kids felt for people they punished rather than for victims of bullying and other aggressive behavior. Empathy towards real victims somehow didn’t register here at all. Religious kids thought it was unacceptable, a very serious offense deserving heavy punishment, and the researches didn’t think it as a sign of empathy?
Maybe I’m missing something here but no one down the reporting line thought of this point at all. They just latched onto “religious kids are mean” conclusion and magnified it.
Do I need to explain how not taking aggressive behavior seriously and not trying to correct it through punishment is a sign of indifference? What if it was a freshman (freshwoman?) student raped at a college party and “empathy” was how much people felt for the rapist when he was dragged to the police? I just don’t get it.
The first experiment, about stickers, is a more complicated one. I don’t see any obvious faults in their methodology there but I don’t see their conclusion that religious kids are more selfish as justified. It could still be true but my first question is – could it be that kids from Turkey and Jordan are more selfish, for example, and it has nothing to do with religion at all.
The paper doesn’t show breakdown of results by the country so it’s entirely possible that Canadian Muslims were the most generous but they were lumped with Muslims from Middle East, and when compared to Canadian atheists they scored lower. Conversely, if there were any Turkish atheists there they could have been the meanest but because they were so few of them they didn’t affect the overall atheist score, lifted by Americans and Canadians. I’m talking stereotypes here again, sorry. In the west sharing things like stickers is taught in schools as part of the curriculum but in the Middle East it might not be the case, and it has nothing to do with religion but with quality of education and focus on an aspects specific to some countries but not to others. What if Jordanian kids never get any stickers at all, like ever, so they are perceived as truly precious, while in western schools stars and stickers is a popular form of grading?
Never mind that. Judging religious lessons on morality by behavior of children is questionable, too. Kids might have been taught things but, if you know anything about spiritual progress, it’s not enough. In the atheistic West it might be enough to label someone as religious but from Kṛṣṇa conscious perspective it’s nothing, it’s a nice platform to start from but kids are kids, they are naturally self-centered and they have a long way to go before they learn to see Kṛṣṇa as a true proprietor of everything. It takes years and decades of dedicated practice, it takes massive efforts, it takes conquering one’s mind, and still one would regularly catch himself acting selfishly.
There’s also a question of routine – it’s easier to control one’s egoistic impulses when one is in a familiar situation and feels comfortable with surroundings, when one is trained to act selflessly and practiced it a million times. Any break out of the routine and the mind goes crazy. Not literally crazy, of course, but it reacts stronger and so one might instinctively make bad choices while his intelligence is still trying to make sense of the new situation.
Atheists might argue that this shows low level of maturity but that’s how it works, we don’t expect religious kids to be mature, kids are kids, and kids from religious families might be less impervious to disruptions in their routines and less able to think independently in unfamiliar situations. Religious upbringing provides safety and filters out bad influences so it might take longer for religious kids to learn to think for themselves, we won’t argue with that.
There’s another possible explanation – all children are taught moral lessons and all children take them seriously, on the strength of the authority. This study didn’t take any kids from “advanced” countries like Sweden or UK where children are taught to do whatever they want, teachers there are only to provide help. When the authority is there it doesn’t matter whether its religious or atheistic, kids will follow it. If children are taught to share things and other moral values the degree to which these lessons will be absorbed depends on the strength of the authority, not on personal understanding. This might mean that atheist parents are stricter, not that their moral values are any better.
With atheists children become disillusioned, too, by the age of twelve or thereabouts. They learn from personal experience that morals is just a facade, a social norm used for one’s own advancement, not anything of any intrinsic value. By fifteen they are in the full blown rebellion, which doesn’t normally happen in religious societies. It’s quite possible that a similar research with older kids would bring completely opposite results.
One last thing – the authors do not even try to hide their bias, they knew what they set out to prove right from the start, and this bias was confirmed again when they gave other historical examples, like Christian supported apartheid in South Africa, to prove that religions are not strong on morals at all. This kind of bias undermines their entire study, because in such cases researchers ALWAYS find what they are looking for. They design their experiments with certain outcome in mind and they interpret the results to fit with their worldview. It could be different but in this case I don’t see anything speaking for researchers integrity – see their observation that religious kids are meaner I discussed above.
At the end of the day – yes, it does look like another atheistic effort of no actual value, but at least now I know what went wrong with it.