The headlines are shocking, to say the least. “Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds,” The Guardian intones, adding, “Religious belief appears to have negative influence on children’s altruism and judgments of others’ actions even as parents see them as ‘more empathetic.’”
The Daily Beast is even harsher, with this headline: “Study: Religious Kids Are Jerks.” The aforementioned study comes from a four-and-a-half-page research note in the journal Current Biology by University of Chicago professor Jean Decety and six others scholars. There’s only one problem with the research—well, okay, there’s actually more than one problem!
In the study, researchers gave a non-random sample of 1,170 children aged 5 to 12 in Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, the USA, and South Africa 30 stickers apiece. The kids got to choose the 10 stickers they wanted to keep. But next the authors told them there wasn’t enough time to run the experiment with other children unless the child gave up some of his or her 10 stickers for another kid. The researchers then counted the number of stickers each one gave back as a measure of how “altruistic” they were.
Then the researchers determined whether a child was religious or non-religious based on interviews with each child’s parents. (Note that they didn’t talk to the children about their faith.) The researchers claimed that “non-religious” children shared one more stickers (actually 86 percent of a sticker more) than did the “religious” ones. That’s what all the screaming headlines are about—part of one sticker! The study also said that the “religious” children tended to be less tolerant of bad behavior from other kids and favored tougher punishments. Well.
The first problem is that the research is badly devised. Robert D. Woodberry, writing at the blog of the Institute for Family Studies, states, “Despite the huge diversity of people in their cross-national sample (e.g., Canada and Jordan) and the many factors that influence the generosity of children in such diverse contexts (e.g., poverty), the researchers assumed that the only difference between the ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ children was being religious. This is a big assumption.” Indeed it is.
Another problem, Woodberry says, is that the researchers failed to “interpret the religious children’s concern for people who were pushed or hurt by another child as a sign of altruism.” Instead, they interpreted it as “vindictiveness.” Doesn’t that tell us more about the authors of the study than the children? A third problem is that media reports largely gloss over the actual beliefs attributed to the kids. Here’s the breakdown: Muslim children (43 percent), Christians (24 percent), non-religious (28 percent). Why didn’t the media emphasize that?
There are other problems, but allow me to point out just one more. This heavily hyped research contradicts many, many other studies that show precisely the opposite. For example, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports, “The more important religion is to a person, the more likely that person is to give to a charity.” Woodberry says numerous studies show a “positive relationship between religion and helping behavior both at the societal level and the individual level.”
We’ve seen this throughout history, in everything from Christians in the Roman Empire caring for plague victims to William Wilberforce shutting down the British slave trade. Of course, we can never rest on our laurels. And religious children are still, well, children. Little sinners, just like their non-religious friends.
But this instance is yet another example that when it comes to the headlines, you cannot believe everything you read!
— by Eric Metaxas
Metaxas is the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary (www.breakpoint.org). Copyright© 2015 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.