Have you heard the news? According to the Los Angeles Times, “Religion doesn’t make kids more generous or altruistic, study finds.” The Guardian chose a more negative headline: “Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds.”
Could this possibly be true? What study is this? How was it designed? Who ran the experiment? When something this counter-intuitive makes headlines, my brain immediately starts flashing a “caution” sign. In this case, my brain was right. There are a number of issues that make me cry “foul!”
First of all, it seems to me that measuring the effect of religion on altruism would fall into the realm of sociology. However, the experimenters were not sociologists—they were neuroscientists. Do neuroscientists know how to design a rigorous study outside of their field? In addition, the study was published in Current Biology, not a sociology journal. (You can read the published study here.) This is important, because studies are supposed to be peer-reviewed to weed out bad science. Designing a biology experiment is much more straight-forward than controlling for all the variables in a social science experiment. Would biologists even recognize any pitfalls?
Now let’s look at the study itself. The 1,170 children involved were from six countries: the USA, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa, and China. They ranged in age from 5 to 12. Their religious backgrounds included Christians (23.9%), Muslims (43% as Muslim), not religious (27.6%), Jewish (2.5%), Buddhists (1.6%), Hindu (0.4%), agnostic (0.2%), and other (0.5%).
Of course, these religions do not all teach the same thing, but the designers lumped them together as “religious.” In addition, the study didn’t control for how devout the households were. Some Christian parents hold family devotions, spend time in prayer for and with their children, and are heavily involved in a church. Others do not do these things. I’m sure this is true in other religions as well.
Further, the “not religious” group was assumed to be atheistic in the statistical analysis. But a recent Pew study found that 68% of the “nones” (those who do not identify with a particular religion) surveyed do believe in God.
The study’s authors used the “dictator game” as their study design, and the kids were told it was a game. Since this “game” was not described in the study, I looked it up. According to Wikipedia:
In the dictator game, the first player, “the dictator”, determines how to split an endowment (such as a cash prize) between himself and the second player. The second player, “the recipient”, simply receives the remainder of the endowment left by the dictator. The recipient’s role is entirely passive and has no input into the outcome of the game.
Everyday experience tells us that there is no correlation between game-playing behavior and altruism. My husband is one of the most generous people I know, but get him involved in a game of Canasta or Scrabble, and he’s cut-throat! Or, as Tom Trinko pointed out in his excellent article in American Thinker, look at professional athletes. They’re not the least bit altruistic on the playing field, but they donate significant amounts of money and visit children in hospitals.
Finally, the study concludes:
Children from religious households … believe that interpersonal harm is more ‘‘mean’’ and deserving of harsher punishment than non-religious children. Thus, children who are raised in religious households frequently appear to be more judgmental of others’ actions….
The authors accuse the children of being “judgmental” if they claim someone is being mean for hurting another person. Isn’t that what “mean” means? If I shove you and hurt you, I’m being mean. If that’s being judgmental, then, well, yes, I’m being judgmental, and it’s a good thing.
As far as being altruistic, repeated surveys show that religious people are actually more generous than non-religious people. They give more than three times as much money and volunteer more than twice as much time to charity. The article in Current Biology uses a lot of big words and mind-numbing statistics, and it sounds very impressive and scientific, but in reality, it merely reveals the biases of the authors.