I am an Atheist. I shouldn’t have to note that in order for people to critically reflect on the claims that I am going to make, but it probably bears repeating: I am an Atheist, and science does not indicate that children from religious households are less altruistic (and the recent study that says otherwise is terribly flawed).
Academics from a number of different universities recently came together to study Christian, Muslim and non-religious children in order to try and determine the role that belief systems have on morality—whether or not said beliefs make us good and moral people. Their results, which were published in Current Biology, found that religion makes children immoral. More specifically, they found that, “religion negatively influences children’s altruism.”
In their paper, the team states:
Our findings robustly demonstrate that children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households. Moreover, the negative relation between religiousness and spirituality and altruism changes across age, with those children with longer experience of religion in the household exhibiting the greatest negative relations
For the study, the team looked approximately 1,200 children from 6 different countries. The researchers showed the children 30 stickers and asked them to choose their 10 favorite stickers. Next, in order to see if they would share, the scientists then told the children that there weren’t enough stickers for the other kids. As a further test, the children were also shown a film that showed people pushing and bumping into one another in order to gauge their responses.
Yes, we are determining how altruistic a child is based on whether they share a sticker and how they respond to a video.
Of course, the media took the study without even a hint of skepticism, and they ran with it. From The Guardian we have, Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds. From ScienceAlert we get, Study finds religion actually tends to make kids less generous. Then there is, Religious children are less generous according to science. And that is just the start of the sites that covered this. Sadly, hardly anyone mentioned any of the study’s limitations or attempted to seek commentary from additional experts. So let’s take a moment to look at some of the limitations.
To begin, consider that the sample size is 1,200…and there are 2.2 billion children in the world. So the study was a little limited in its scope (kind of an understatement).
Also, when one considers “altruism,” you usually think of self-sacrifice…of placing the fundamental needs of others before your own. And while it may be “nice” to share stickers, it is not a material component of altruism. At least, it’s not according to me, as no one is going to suffer greatly because they didn’t get a sicker. I’d hate for anyone to think that I am not terribly altruistic (or that I am a bad person) because I didn’t share my chicken McNuggets.
Now, note that I said, “according to me.” This is because I am talking about how I define altruism. This is an important point to note because “altruism” is very poorly defined in the study. The team claims that the kids aren’t altruistic, but what does that mean? That they always place their desires first? But in what context? I am sure they would give a dehydrated person some of their water, even if they were a little thirsty themselves.
So how can they measure altruism if they can’t even define it?
I’ll answer that for you: They can’t.
However, the most damning issue is that, as any good evolutionary psychologist or cultural psychologist will tell you, nature and nurture both play significant roles in human psychology. In other words, who you are—your personality, your temperament, your ability to empathize and sympathize—stems from both your genetics and what you learn from society.
This study gives absolutely no consideration to any evolutionary influences and instead relies entirely on cultural influences, which calls the legitimacy of the methodology into question. And, frankly, it does an abysmal job of looking at culture.
Instead of interrogating the actual beliefs of the adults in question—do they teach their kids that Hell awaits all sinners? Do they teach them that non-religious people are ‘outsiders’ who shouldn’t be trusted? Do they teach them that they will get to Heaven based on works or grace?—the researchers relied on whether the parents checked a “Christian” or “Muslim” box and how often they went to church.
How often people go to church and how they label themselves is a very poor way of ascertaining their actual beliefs. Beliefs are far more nuanced than such all encompassing labels as “Christian” or “Muslim.” There are Christians who believe in the death penalty and Christians who don’t. There are Muslims who believe in equal rights for LGBTQ individuals and Muslims who don’t. There are non-religious individuals who are pro-choice and non-religious individuals who are pro-life.
In short, labels and church attendance say very, very little about one’s actual beliefs.
So even were we to assume that nurture (what one is taught) is the only factor that contributes to one’s altruism, the team’s methodology would still be flawed because they do a rather poor job of determining and defining the the ‘nurture marker’ (the parents’ religious beliefs) that they are saying influences children.
If you need another reason to question the findings, previous studies have shown, again and again, that individuals are influenced by a number of cultural factors, such as social class, nationality, family life, sex, age, etc. Studies also indicate that friends play a vital role in one’s development. Indeed, in some situations, the friend’s influence rivals that of the parent.
The study takes almost none of these factors into consideration, and any one of them may have influenced the child more than the parents’ supposed religion. Taken together, it’s almost certain that they contribute enough to have a notable influence.
Of course, the team attempted to measure cultural influences besides just religion (emphasis on the “attempted”). They state, “as a metric for socioeconomic status, parents were asked to specify the level of education of the mother.” What the what? What, exactly, does the mother’s education level say about socioeconomic status? Wouldn’t it make sense to ask about income? And why weren’t the fathers asked about their education level?
To add to the list of problems, they looked at children between the ages of 5 and 12. And study after study has already shown that there are significant differences in how “altruistic” people are based on their age. The team fails to offer a discussion of any of this past research, and instead concludes that, “altruism changes across age, with those children with longer experience of religion in the household exhibiting the greatest negative relations.” Really? So we’re just going to do away with all that research without even interrogating it, and the heck with the markers that other teams analyzed? Nice.
Look, let’s be real here. This isn’t how science works.
Case in point, in 2013, the imprisonment rate for black females (113 per 100,000) was twice the rate of white females (51 per 100,000). If I stated that the difference is caused by skin color without looking at other known influences (age, sex, education, economic status, etc.), I would be unscientific at best and terribly racist at worst. And this study (and subsequent media coverage) borders on the same kind of bigotry.
That said, Forbes had some pretty good coverage. They talked a bit about the limitations and the researchers offered some more commentary, which made their argument seem more nuanced and less damning. However, their study had little to none of that. It boldly proclaims that the evidence is “robust” — being religious makes you less altruistic.
But being religious does not make you a bad person. It doesn’t make you less altruistic. Neither does being an Atheist, Muslim, or any other generic label. Science has yet to say otherwise and, honestly, I am guessing that it never will. Our world is far more complex than such simple black and white assertions.
I am an Atheist. That’s because I demand evidence. I demand that claims be supported by the scientific method. This study isn’t.