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BREAKING NEWS: Religious children don't share stickers

Kids playing trainsMany people believe that religion teaches children to be just and moral. Even if adherents dispense with the unscientific dogma, there’s a lingering sense that religious tradition is necessary to hold society together. Jean Decety disagrees. The distinguished neuroscientist recently led a worldwide study which, according to his team, shows the opposite is true: kids brought up outside the faith are more “prosocial” because they are more generous and less punitive than those raised in religious households. Therefore, the authors assert, a secular society will produce kinder people. Cue group hug and drop the needle on John Lennon's “Imagine.” But what if Decety's entire approach is skewed by faulty definitions of “prosociality”?

Certainly, the lead author carries the proper credentials to engage questions of moral learning. Decety is Director of the Brain Research Imaging Center at the University of Chicago Medicine, where he also directs the Child NeuroSuite. His far-ranging research includes developmental psychology, moral judgment and decision-making, empathy, altruism, and prosocial behavior. He’s certainly familiar with the territory.

There's a wealth of previous research showing high correlations between religiosity and prosocial behavior, but Decety's paper makes it clear that he and his team doubt these studies’ validity. The authors step up to the plate and boldly claim their experiments “call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do the opposite.”

How were they able to shatter the old paradigm so completely? With a handful of stickers.

Decety's research team was tapped from around the world, working with a total of 1,170 children, aged 5 to 12, in six nations: Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, the U.S., and South Africa. Of these, 43% children were Muslims, 23.9% were Christian, and 27.6% were not religious. These children were given two tests to gauge moral sensitivity and altruism, and in addition to this, their parents were given a questionnaire to gauge how they viewed their children's empathy levels. Unsurprisingly, the religious parents attributed greater empathy to their children than secular parents.

The moral sensitivity test was administered via laptop computer. Each child was shown a few short video clips depicting “interpersonal harm.” Most were scenarios one would typically find in school, such as pushing or bumping. The participants were then asked how they felt about these scenes and what the appropriate response should be. Children from both Muslim and Christian households considered these infractions to be “meaner” than non-religious children. That's right, religious children were more sensitive to perceived injustice than non-religious children, just as their parents thought they would be. Decety's team did not highlight this clear correlation in their paper. However, they did note the propensity of religious children to want to punish the harmful behaviors. Muslim children were particularly punitive. In the authors' interpretation, “children who are raised in religious households frequently appear to be more judgmental of others' actions.”

Even if we ignore the loaded term “judgmental,” it remains curious that Decety saw no reason to connect the finding that “children in Muslim [and] Christian households judged interpersonal harm as more mean than children from non-religious households” to the fact that “children from religious households are more likely to be identified by their parents as more empathic and more sensitive to the plight of others.” Yet significant emphasis was put upon these religious children being more likely to seek punishment for the perpetrator. We'll get back to the latter point momentarily, but first, let's consider the other measure of “prosociality.”

Decety's team used “the dictator game” to test each child's propensity toward altruism. One by one, the children were taken to a room where they were shown thirty stickers. The research assistant then asked them to choose their favorite ten, which they would get to keep. Sadly, the assistant informed the participants, there wasn't enough time to give stickers to everyone in their school. But that didn't necessarily mean the other kids would have to go without. There were two envelopes on the table, and each child was given the option to donate some of his or her stickers for kids who would otherwise have none. The experimenter then turned around until the child made a choice. This way, the decision would be between the child and God (or in the case of the non-religious children, the child and his or her conscience).

Wouldn't you know that, out of ten stickers, non-religious kids gave away an average of 4.1, Christians gave 3.3, and Muslims relinquished a paltry 3.2. For Decety's team, these results are unambiguous. By a margin of nearly one sticker, we have reason to believe that “the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness.”

If civilization collapses tomorrow and the only thing left to eat is a massive stack of stickers, let's hope that religious children aren't in charge of distributing them.

It's not that the experiment's outcome is trivial. To the contrary, given the consistent results of previously conducted research, one would expect religious children to be more generous. Decety's paper should inspire us to question many of the assumptions underpinning the relationship between religion and morality. However, a number of serious questions should also be directed toward Decety's study and the overreaching conclusions he draws from it.

Let's start with the stickers. Are these prizes valuable enough to children across cultures to accurately gauge something as fundamental as overall “altruism”? According the paper, both age and socioeconomic status had as significant an impact upon the number of stickers given away as did religiosity (p < 0.001 for all categories). Still, the authors claim that controlling for age and SES, religiosity predicts less generosity in participants. Either way, we are still left with the non-religious children giving away an average of (almost) one extra sticker. This is interesting, and certainly worthy of further research. But one extra sticker out of ten is hardly clear evidence that secular societies would be more generous with crucial resources, such as food, shelter, or money.

Another confounding factor is the effect the research assistant might have upon the children's performance. There is evidence that religion's positive effect on moral behavior is largely due to the believer's heightened desire to maintain an upstanding reputation. Other research implicates the role of the researcher in the experiment, suggesting that religious people are more prone to present a positive image in order to please this person. This is interesting for two reasons: despite the fact that the research assistant turned his or her back in the Decety study, the children may have been primed by the presence of an authority figure, and may have (rightly) suspected that their actions would be monitored and recorded. If this influence did in fact occur, this would make Decety's results even more interesting, because past research give reason to suspect that religious children would tend to give more stickers in order to appear good to the authority figure.

To take this line of reasoning a step farther, what if the adult had been perceived as a religious authority? It’s quite possible that the presence of a religious authority would stimulate greater levels of altruistic behavior in religious people than a secular authority figure would. Perhaps this effect would have compelled religious kids giving away extra stickers. This is purely speculative, but could be a fruitful premise for future experimention.

Perhaps the most important problem with the paper arises from the complex interaction of “religion” and “morality,” and the fuzzy distinctions between both domains. Decety's team interprets the more punitive response of religious children as being out of line with the supposed prosocial effects of religion. According to cognitive psychologists Ryan McKay at the University of London and Harvey Whitehouse at Oxford University, it's common for researchers sanitize the term “prosocial.” In a religious context, punishing transgressions is frequently viewed as the proper means of eliminating injustice. From an evolutionary or sociological perspective, punishment is used by communities to reduce intra-group violence, discourage free-riders, and maintain social order. In both cases, a punitive response is “prosocial” to the extent that it is undertaken for sake of the group. Given this definition of prosociality, the fact that religious children in Decety's study were more likely to be concerned by perceived injustice—and more likely to suggest more punitive measures—actually supports the claim that religiosity correlates with prosocial behavior. On the same grounds, one could argue that the non-religious children's indifference to interpersonal harm is somewhat antisocial.

Again, the biggest problem is not in the experiment itself, but in the careless ideological leap the authors make from interesting results to suggestions for a properly organized society. We see this on both sides of the religious/secular divide. Too often the proponents of traditionalism use the well-established correlation between religion and altruism as propaganda for greater religious influence. This theocratic conclusion is unwarranted. It's not at all clear that “religion” has a linear positive effect on “society,” as there are many religions and many sects within those religions; there are many societies and many groups within each society; and there are many complex interactions between the diverse components of what we call “religion” and “morality.” With this in mind, it is no less brash for an eminent neuroscientist to make spurious claims against the value of religious tradition.

Who knows? Maybe Decety is right. Maybe a purely secularized society would ultimately be superior to a religious one. We should be open to any evidence in either direction, but it’ll take more than an extra sticker to arrive at that conclusion.

For more, read “The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children's Altruism across the World ” in Current Biology.

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