December 10th, 2015
So in Q&A last Sunday I threw out this item about a study concerning the effect of religious upbringing on children’s propensity for altruism. Published in the journal Current Biology, the researchers from several countries started with the ostensibly reasonable premise that religion has a significant effect on the development of a child’s moral framework and behavior. So they wanted to test that premise through a series of experiments with children between the ages of 5-12 who varied not only in age, but in national origin and, obviously, religious faith, including those who were raised in households without any such religions training. Children from Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and non-religious homes were represented in the study.
Among the experiments they performed, one was a version of what’s called the Dictator game in which researchers showed a book of stickers to the child respondents, one at a time. The children were then offered to choose ten stickers from the books for themselves. Once they’d made their selections they were then told that the not all the children participating in the study would be able to receive stickers; time and opportunity would just not allow for it. Then the researchers would turn their backs to the children while handing them an envelope in which they could, if they so chose, “donate” some of their recently obtained stickers to the children who would not receive any. The researchers than tracked who donated stickers to their ostensibly deprived peers.
Another experiment involved asking the children to imagine particular scenarios of “interpersonal harm” between two people–for example one person shoving another to the ground. The researchers then asked the children how they rated the “meanness” of the act and what form of punishment they thought the offender deserved. Responses were tabulated according to the prescribed harshness of the punishment.
After conducting the experiments on nearly 1,200 children from six different countries on four continents, the researchers tabulated their responses, checking for other variables that might account for trends and reported this finding: religious upbringing has no appreciable effect on a child’s moral behavior. Furthermore, a child’s lack of religious upbringing in no way prevents them from developing a robust commitment to those behaviors we call moral.
So there you have it. Religion isn’t all its cracked up to be. And in fact it makes things worse from a social cohesion standpoint, according to they study.
As you would expect its publication set off a firestorm of what the Internet has come to term as clickbait: aggregated story after aggregated story parroting, repackaging, and teasing out wild implications of such a heretofore counter-intuitive discovery. “Religious kids are meaner than their secular counterparts,” ran the headline of one purveyor of the study.
So what does one do with a study that would seem to overturn the conventional wisdom that belief in a transcendent authority, from whom all derive their very existence, and to whom have an ultimate accountability, naturally translates into replicating the same divine benevolence?
First you look at the study itself. While comment boxes are notorious for noxious and unprofitable responses, if you look at just the comments on the journal’s publication of the study, you find a great deal of chatter about the study’s problematic methodology. Others argued that the study failed to account for other variables that might explain the behaviors–like socio-economic or household status. And these issues were being raised by people who don’t have a religious allegiance so much as a commitment to sound scientific practice.
Second you have to consider whether the personal biases of the researcher could adversely effect the construction of the study or its analysis. In an interview published in Forbes Magazine the lead researcher made his own presuppositions about religious faith and moral formation clear:
My guess is they’re just going to deny what I did – they don’t want science, they don’t believe in evolution, they don’t want Darwin to be taught in schools,” he says. “These people will say, ‘Oh that’s the evil scientists again’. Secularity – like having your laws and rules based on rational thinking, reason rather than holy books – is better for everybody.”
There in but two sentences you have logical fallacies of ad hominem, straw-man, and false dilemma–and this from a scientist championing logic and reason. No one is free of bias; everyone operates on certain convictions, whether critically or uncritically held. But the way one answers certain questions tends to suggest how one’s presuppositions could shape their creation of an experiment or the analysis of given data.
But third, for those of us who quickly glaze over when the nomenclature starts trading in words like “regressions,” “p-values,” and “standard deviations,” you have to appeal to others in the field to help make sense of the nuts and bolts of certain studies as well as their findings. So earlier this week I emailed Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith who’s written extensively on the moral development of teenagers and young-adults. He was kind enough to point me to comments he’d made to another one of those articles feverishly written in the wake of the study’s publication. To the question of what the study really discovered, Smith argued that its methodology of using 5-12 year olds had a certain inherent liability. He wrote, “[kids] aren’t really the best test case to understand the relationship between religion and generosity. . . .What we really want to know about is when people have been more fully formed, as teenagers, young adults, and full adults.” Smith was not alone in his critique of the study’s methodology and its fundamental premise.
I will not feign a familiarity with social science research. I took one class in my undergraduate years that studied marriages. But even as this layperson reading the study’s methods, I had to wonder why the experiment didn’t just ask the children once they made their choice why they made that choice, rather than extrapolate from the number of stickers donated? I know questions themselves can unfairly skew the kinds of responses given. And asking children that age why they do anything may not be the ideal way of ascertaining true motivations. But it would seem inviting the children to explain their decision might’ve done more to elucidate the connections between moral framework and behavior than making the inference that the determinative variable was one’s religious rearing.
But let’s for a moment grant the study’s findings as conclusive and unequivocal–that in fact attendance at church, mosque, or synagogue, and participation in the events typical to those venues has no effect on a child’s moral posture. Say that’s true. What does it tell us? Nothing, really. The patterns and rituals a family follows as part and parcel of their involvement in a religious community could quite easily translate into nothing material to a child’s moral formation. In the sage words of that modern theologian Justin Bieber, “if you go to a Taco Bell, that doesn’t make you a taco.” In other words (for those who aren’t true “beliebers“) one’s presence in a context in no way guarantees embrace of what that context embodies unless other factors are involved. That the researchers defined “religious upbringing” by its most superficial entailments means whatever findings emerged would at best implicate a superficial form of bringing up a child in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord.”
The soundness or lack thereof of the research notwithstanding, what should be more disquieting to us all–whether parents, or those who assist parents in their rearing–is a phenomenon too well attested by something Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said (which will play prominently in our sermon on Ruth 3 this Sunday):
The greatest danger for a child where religion is concerned is not that his father or tutor should be a free-thinker, not even his being a hypocrite. No, the danger lies in his being a pious, God-fearing man, and in the child being convinced thereof, but that he should nevertheless notice that deep in his soul there lies hidden an unrest which, consequently not even the fear of God and piety could calm. The danger is that the child in this situation is almost provoked to draw a conclusion about God, that God is not infinite love.
What matters most, Kierkegaard might say in response to a study like the one aforementioned, is that a household must, if it wishes to participate in instilling benevolence in children, reflect a belief in one thing only: that God is in fact infinite love. Apart from that, no religious training or upbringing or catechizing can ever hope to inculcate the great commandment to love the Lord utmost and one’s neighbor as oneself. Nothing else is furnished to do that.
The study represents something more profound than a debate over what forms our children’s moral framework, though. It signals a shift in the way western culture regards religious faith. Where once religion might be viewed by the irreligious as something with which they might disagree, now it is increasingly seen as something unwelcome–even immoral. That was the thesis of Rev. Greg Thompson at the inauguration of Redeemer Seminary’s newest President Martin Ban (whom you heard from last month). Thompson is a PCA pastor at a church in Virginia who is also a colleague of James Davison Hunter, whose phrase “faithful presence” we borrowed as an orienting principle for the vision of CtK.
Rev. Thompson was invited by President Ban to give a charge not only to him, but to the whole seminary community–student, faculty, and board alike. He placed the future of the seminary, and any seminary, in the context of that observed larger cultural shift, and in doing so sought to help the seminary understand afresh its identity. No longer can it see itself as primarily ordered toward answering the drift of protestant liberalism. It must now think of itself as an entity that must grapple with the rising tide of modern secularism. Only by embodying a new missionary-mindset to a culture increasingly hostile can it fulfill its calling.
I am posting Rev. Thompson’s remarks here in their entirety (apologies for the sound quality: turn up your volume to hear him speak). They are winsome, bold, and encouraging–genuinely muscular words. And while they are directed primarily to a theological institution and its president, they speak as much to how a church must understand itself, and how individual believers must rest in the presence of Jesus to be faithful to whatever their task is. We as members of a local body need to hear these words. I needed to hear these words. I therefore heartily commend to you these frank, transparent, and thoughtful words.
duc in altum
In the wake of recent tragedy, deliberativeness has given way to hysterics in the ongoing debate over immigration policy. It’s not the first time.
Mark Amstutz of Wheaton College argues there are two broad schools of thought that collide, each grounded in sound principle. The “cosmopolitan” view insists the dignity of individuals trumps (ha) any national concerns that would restrict immigration. Whereas the “communitarian” mentality argues that a nation’s capacity to be of true assistance in the surrounding world depends on its intrinsic solidarity which an influx of foreign persons would compromise.
If you’d like to read his explanation of each of those views and what a way forward might be you can find the whole article here.
I hadn’t heard of Brett Foster until after he died of cancer last month. People I respect suddenly filled their writing spaces with homages to one who was to them not only a great poet but an abiding friend.
Here’s one of his more light-hearted pieces about a providential preservation of Christmas confection (HT: Prufrock):
POETRY: BRETT FOSTER (1973-2015)
Vessel of Sweets
We left the Christmas party feeling festive,
yet navigating unfamiliar streets
left us uncertain that we weren’t repeating
lefts and rights. Something’s just not right, I guessed.
Just then it hit us: we’d left the stoneware plate
of iced sugar cookies on top of the car.
We found our way, and in a Walgreen’s parking
lot we stopped to look, take in the loss, its fate.
O little miracle! Our dread set aside!
“Well, I’ve never seen that before,” said she,
and he said, “It was sort of like a ghost
kept holding it until we knew.” Abiding
like that, it moved us, newly grateful. Gleefully
we drove with plate and sweets recovered, unlost.
With this being his family’s first Christmas without him, they will have to appeal, perhaps like they haven’t had to before, to what most makes Christmas merry. They will need the Grace to rejoice in their lament. Last week, Christy Keating shared her review of J. Todd Billings’ book with that title. Billings has shared this week some stories of people finding their way to that paradoxical place through reading his book. One reader even composed the following video to articulate his wrestling with God in the season of sorrow.
Finally, we like to find good art to accentuate all else we do around here. Advent is a rich time for beholding all the art inspired by the season. Here’s a site we found last week you might enjoy if you like art but, like us, can’t make it to galleries. There’s a short video about a particular piece for each day.