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Challenging the View

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

My letter-to-the-editor, which follows, was published recently in our local weekly newspaper here in midcoast Maine. I had titled it “Religion and Moral Development,” but apparently the editors didn’t like that title. C’est la vie. Anyway, I thought I would offer it here, too, since it shows the non-religious in such a positive light.

Challenging the View

If you want your kids to grow up to be moral, altruistic, and tolerant of others’ missteps, you get them to church and Sunday school. Right? This belief is so widely accepted in our culture that it’s generally taken as simple “common sense.” As Christian teaching puts it, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matthew 22:39)

Hold the presses! A new study just published in Current Biology turns this “standard wisdom” upside down. Those scientists get up to some silly stuff, don’t they?

The lead author of the study, Dr. Jean Decety of the University of Chicago, collaborated with other developmental psychologists in the US and 5 other countries to test whether religion really leads to greater altruism and moral sensitivity. The subjects were 1,170 children between the ages of 5 and 12 from 6 countries.

The children were arranged into three groups according to their families’ religious inclinations; Christian, Muslim, and non-religious. The degree of religiosity in the children’s families was also measured through a questionnaire concerning religious observance administered to their parents.

For the altruism test, the children played a version of the “Dictator Game,” where each child was given 10 attractive stickers and given the opportunity to share some of them with another, unseen child who, they were told, would not get to play the game.

The children of religious families were significantly less likely to share their stickers than children from non-religious families. And, there was no significant difference between the children from Christian and Muslim families in their propensity to share.

Moreover, on average, the more religious the child’s family, the less she shared. These results proved to be independent of the families’ wealth and status, the child’s age, or the nationality of the child.

For the moral sensitivity test, the children watched short animations wherein one of the characters pushes or bumps another, either accidentally or on purpose. Then, the children were asked about how mean the offending character was and the amount of punishment he deserved.

In general, the children from religious households judged the offending character’s behavior more severely and favored harsher punishment for him.

Dr. Decety concluded, "Together, these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children's altruism. They challenge the view that religiosity facilitates pro-social behavior, and call into question whether religion is vital for moral development - suggesting the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact, it does just the opposite."

Ah, those crazy scientists, huh? Never just accepting the standard wisdom, but testing, testing, testing.

So, maybe next Sunday morning, instead of trundling the kids to church and Sunday school, folks should just send them off to play with their friends instead? Could it be that that’s really a better way to encourage their moral and altruistic development?