Progressives are tremendously excited about a study that purports to show that kids raised religiously are less nice than atheist children:
According to a new study published in the journal Current Biology, children that come from non-religious households behave significantly more altruistically than those from religious households, as measured by greater acts of generosity towards others.
Over 1,100 children, aged 5 to 12, from the United States, China, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa were chosen to participate in the study. Most of the children came from Christian, Muslim, or non-religious households. To test whether children raised on religion would behave more morally than non-religious children, they were asked to play what’s called a “dictator game.” In this game, children were shown 30 stickers and told that they could pick their favorite 10 to keep for themselves. The children were then each told that the experimenter didn’t have enough time to play this game with everyone, so some of the children at their school wouldn’t get any stickers. What the results showed was that children from Christian and Muslim households were both significantly less generous than children from non-religious households when it came to sharing their stickers with anonymous peers.
The findings not only show that religious kids aren’t more altruistic than non-religious kids; it suggests that not being religious may actually increase moral behavior. To most this would seem counterintuitive. The authors of the study have an explanation that involves an interesting phenomenon called moral licensing. The term refers to a sort of mental glitch—whereby doing something that enhances one’s positive self-image makes them less worried about the consequences of immoral behavior. For instance, research has shown that men who report being very opposed to sexism later go on to hire men for what would traditionally be considered a man’s job. They do this because they feel that since they are not sexist—at least, in their own minds—a decision to choose a male over a female can’t be immoral.
The study also showed that children from religious households were more willing to give harsher punishments to people who committed acts that harmed others, like pushing or bumping into another. Although this could be interpreted as showing that religious children are more concerned with justice, it may also demonstrate that non-religious children are more tolerant of others’ behavior, and more willing to forgive.
Please, please let me count the ways in which I part ways with what I perceive as a ridiculous excuse for science.
First, I distrust any sociological study that proves conclusively that conservatives and religious people are mean, stupid, selfish, cruel, etc. As a starting point, we know that the vast majority of these sociological/psychological studies can’t be reproduced, which is one of the basic requirements for the validity of any purportedly “scientific” study. That means that the findings here are inherently suspicious.
Second, these lab studies are suspicious when their results run counter to the real world. For example, endless lab studies from Leftist institutions show that conservatives are dumb and ill-informed. The problem is that actual data derived from real world subjects reveals that they’re better informed than their Leftist peers. And with specific regard to religious people, the reality, outside of children in the psychologist’s lair, is that religious people give much more generously to charity than their non-religious peers, something shown, not by little games, but by the hard numbers of actual donations.
Third, the “dictator game” the kids played had nothing to do with the real world because kids understand the difference between real and pretend. Here’s an example: when my cousin and I were little, we loved playing poker. We’d wager tens of thousands of imaginary dollars and cheat like crazy. Those behaviors, however, were not predictive of our actual approach to the world. In real life, my cousin and I are, and always were, both honest and financially conservative.
In other words, these lab games merely predict lab game outcomes, not real world outcomes. (And I always suspect that there’s a little of this going on, whether the researcher’s biases involve religion, sex, money, race, etc.)
Fourth, maybe my brain got fried by the faux intellectual language in the study, but I can’t find anything telling exactly what that dictator game is. The Daily Beast gives an explanation, though, that tells me this game is about as meaningful as my cousin and my forays into poker gambling:
To test whether children raised on religion would behave more morally than non-religious children, they were asked to play what’s called a “dictator game.” In this game, children were shown 30 stickers and told that they could pick their favorite 10 to keep for themselves. The children were then each told that the experimenter didn’t have enough time to play this game with everyone, so some of the children at their school wouldn’t get any stickers. What the results showed was that children from Christian and Muslim households were both significantly less generous than children from non-religious households when it came to sharing their stickers with anonymous peers.
The only thing we’ve learned is that, when it comes to stickers in labs, Muslim and Christian kids don’t like to share with hypothetical people. Perhaps these kids are smarter than their atheist peers and understand that they’re being toyed with and that nothing that happens in the lab really matters. Or perhaps these children, rather than being less moral or altruistic, have a higher regard for individual property rights — something that, when they’re little, results in their believing that one hangs onto property, rather than blithely letting it go. Perhaps their regard for the individual and his rights means that, as they mature, they’ll develop that individuality, leading them to become more, rather than less, respectful of the needs of the individual. Perhaps their atheist peers are already imbued with the wonders of socialism. As children, with loving parents making everything fair, it seems like a good system. As they grow older, they’ll learn (or perhaps they’ll never learn) that it’s a system that leaves everyone but the high-up apparatchiks in terrible condition — but at least they’re all in it together.
I could create “perhaps” hypotheses for hours . . . which just goes to show how stupid the study is.
Fifth, the study assumes that the children’s behavior is predictive of adult behavior. As noted above, however, we already know that in the real world, outside of little lab games, Christians are more generous than their atheistic peers. So by pointing out that their children are, initially, less generous, we’ve proved precisely nothing.
Sixth, the study purports to conclude that, because of this one little game, all religious people are selfish and awful, with less altruism and core morality. Do I need to develop why that assumption proves only that the study’s creators and cheerleaders are lacking a few necessary brain cells?
Yikes! I just looked at the clock. I have to run. I invite you — no, I urge you — to look at the study yourself and either expand upon what I got right or explain to me why I’m wrong.
UPDATE: I’ve written a follow-up post that you can find here.