All sorts of stories are circulating the internet about a recent study by Jean Decety, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, which argues that religion makes children less altruistic. Of course, the flavor of the headline will vary according to the bias of the media outlet. Science Alert (I can here the sirens already…) goes with “less generous.” The Guardian attempts greater precision and says that religious children are “meaner.” The Daily Beast places them in the scientific category of “Jerks.”
So what does this actually mean? As far as the study itself, it’s typically hard to get any kind of relevant details from a frothing media (the Economist probably has the best article in this regard), but here’s what seems to be the case: They somehow acquired a sample of 1170 volunteer families from Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa, Turkey and the US—most of whom were either Muslim, Christian, or unaffiliated. Then one and only one child from each of these families was subjected to two tests. One involved giving them stickers and then offering them opportunity to anonymously donate some of them to others who might not receive any otherwise. The other involved showing them scenes of “interpersonal harm” that seem to consist of kids pushing each other, and then soliciting some kind of judgment about the aggressors.
The results of the first test are that according to regression analysis, the more religious a household was, the fewer stickers were donated. The second test (which was curiously left unmentioned in over half the articles I read) revealed that Muslims were more punitive towards the aggressors than either Christians or the unaffiliated. The conclusion of the study as reported by most media outlets is that religious children are some combination of less generous and/or more judgmental than their secular counterparts.
Now, even if it’s true, this isn’t really a deal-breaker for my faith. Christianity is all about how Christ died to pay for the sins of sinners, and as part of that, I publicly confess that I’m a poor miserable sinner every single week. So if someone tells me that I’m jerky and mean to boot, well… I can’t say that the observation is world-shattering. Prostitutes and tax collectors are preceding Pharisees into the kingdom of heaven, after all. Nevertheless, there’s something about watching the secular world fellate itself over the news that makes offering a cold shower irresistible. In their rapture over the being vindicated through this (rather dubious) study, they seem to have missed a rather significant implication.
So put yourselves in their shoes, and take the study at face value. Forget, for a moment, some of the details about this study that make it dubious. Forget the fact that it reduces altruism to a laboratory procedure of anonymous sticker donation. Forget that being less judgmental towards others can be just as easily (and perhaps more accurately) described as being more lenient towards violent aggressors. Forget the potential differences in an atheist child’s attitude towards someone wearing the vestments of science. Forget all the sampling issues—for example, the supposedly global selection of volunteers which resulted in a group that was 43% Muslim, 28% unaffiliated, and 24% Christian in a world that is 23%, 16%, and 31% respectively. Forget the study’s failure to distinguish between 5 and 12-year-olds or how it focused on only one child per family while ignoring any others (in a study measuring the impact of the family’s religiosity!) And of course, like every gleeful article, ignore the study’s disclaimer about how the results are provocative but not conclusive (or just tuck it away at the end). Even apart from those, there’s another elephant in the room that nobody mentions.
An objective appraisal even of the study’s conclusions apart from its methodology should immediately raise a followup question: What happens to atheists when they grow up that makes them less altruistic? After all, the tendency for adult atheists to be less charitable than the faithful has far more statistical grounding than this one dubious study. So even if (to use The Guardian’s terminology) atheism makes children so much nicer, it only makes the fact that it makes adults meaner that much more remarkable. Unfortunately, the irreligious press seems too busy patting themselves on the back about how wonderful they are to notice this massive disconnect.