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How Society Works

Confusing Research on the Impact of Religion on Children’s Altruism

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A recent study by Jean Decety of the University of Chicago and his collagues sets up an experiment based on sticker-sharing and fake pushing among religious and non-religious children to arrive at a pretty hefty conclusion: “[The findings] 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 just the opposite.”

One might say that this conclusion is laughable, but the media reaction was disturbing. The web was bombarded with headlines claiming “Religious Kids Tend to Be Mean and Selfish Little Jerks,” “Religion Makes Children More Selfish,” and “Religious Children are Meaner than Their Secular Counterparts.” But despite these claims, rigorous social science has shown that religious practice delivers incomparable benefits to society. It is normal and healthy for academics to disagree on the impact of religious practice on different aspects of life. Over the long haul, this helps to clarify reality. However, it is an entirely different pursuit, and not an intellectually honest one, for researchers to intend to knock down religious beliefs and practice. Decety et al. may be doing the latter; their future research will tell. In this study, their handling of the known literature on religious practice and their poor method raises concern that, rather than seeking to add clarity to knowledge, they are only adding confusion.

Past research has repeatedly confirmed the overwhelmingly positive impact that frequent religious practice has on societal outcomes. The Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI) has shown that 44 percent of adults who attended religious services monthly or more as an adolescent have volunteered in charitable activities within the past year, whereas 33 percent of those who attended monthly or never volunteered. Arthur Brooks, then a researcher at Syracuse University and now president of the American Enterprise Institute, conducted the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey (SCCBS) that drew almost 30,000 observations from fifty U.S. communities, and used rigorous regression to control for political beliefs, income, education level, gender, age, race, marital status, and area of residence. Brooks found that, when all controls are applied, religious people are 23 percent more likely than their secular counterparts to donate money, and 26 percent more likely to volunteer. On average, a religious person gives $1,388 more than a secular person, and volunteers on 6.5 more occasions.

Moreover, Brooks points out that “Religious people are more generous than secular people with nonreligious causes as well as religious ones.” Religious people are 7 percent more likely than their secular counterparts to volunteer for neighborhood and civic groups, 20 percent more likely to help the poor or elderly, 26 percent more likely to volunteer in school/ youth programs, and 10 percent more likely to give to charitable causes.

Just last year a major German-Swiss study investigating issues similar to Decety’s summarized:

The question of whether religiosity is linked to prosocial behavior is currently hotly debated in psychology. This research contributes to this debate by showing that the nature of individuals’ religious orientations and their relationships to prosociality depend on their country’s social enforcement of religiosity. Our analyses of data from more than 70 countries indicate that in countries with no social pressure to follow a religion, religious individuals are more likely to endorse an intrinsic religious orientation (Study 1), engage in charity work (Study 2), disapprove of lying in their own interests (Study 3), and are less likely to engage in fraudulent behaviors (Study 4) compared with non-religious individuals. Ironically, in secular contexts, religious individuals are also more likely to condemn certain moral choices than non-religious individuals (Study 2). These effects of religiosity substantially weaken (and ultimately disappear) with increasing national levels of social enforcement of religiosity.

Let us look a bit more closely at the Decety study. Here are some of the primary mistakes in it:

1.  The reputation of religion now rests on stickers and bumping. Essentially, researchers assessed the altruism of religious and non-religious children by the children’s willingness to share stickers. Each child was presented thirty stickers and told to choose his/ her ten favorite. Next, researchers told the child that there weren’t enough stickers for all the children, and asked the child to anonymously place any stickers he/ she would be willing to share in an envelope. Christian children placed an average of 3.33 stickers, Muslims placed 3.20, and non-religious children placed 4.09.

Next, researchers measured how judgmental religious and non-religious children are by showing each child a series of dynamic scenarios in which one person is pushing or bumping another person (either purposefully or accidently), and assessing the child’s reactions. Muslim children labeled the interpersonal harm as meaner than did Christian children, and Christian children judged the actions to be meaner than non-religious children. Muslim children gave harsher ratings of punishment for the pushers, while there was no significant difference in punishment ratings between Christian and non-religious children.

The response that comes to mind: Give me a break.  That this rather simple study be flaunted to the lay public as proof of the impact of religion is an insult to the academy and to the profession of journalism. 

2. They use an unrepresentative sample. Lead researcher Jean Decety assessed 1,170 children between the ages of 5 and 12 years from six countries to represent the actions of religious children across the world. In the sample, 23.9 percent identified as Christian, 43 percent as Muslim, 27.6 percent as not religious, and 5.2 percent as either Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic, or other (0.3 percent are unaccounted for). There are a number of problems with this sample that the authors do not address.

First: Children were selected from Chicago (United States), Toronto (Canada), Amman (Jordan), Izmir and Istanbul (Turkey), Cape Town (South Africa), and Guangzhou (China). It is peculiar, to say that least, that, in a study assessing how religious sentiments are manifested in behavior, researchers include countries that do not allow the free practice of religion. That alone skews and invalidates the results, as the German-Swiss study shows.

Second: The child samples seem to be opportunity samples (or snowball samples). The co-authors are all psychologists, and therefore accustomed to extrapolating from numbers not nationally representative, much less globally representative. The children seem to be from the cities where the different co-authors work.  That is far from nationally random and far from representative.

Third: The breakdown of religions in the sample does not reflect the world’s breakdown of religions. In the study, 23.9 percent are Christian and 43 percent are Muslim; in actuality, 31.4 percent of the world is Christian and 23.2 percent is Muslim.

Four: The sample consists of children ages 5 to 12 years old—a period of major developmental change for children, including significant changes in notions of justice. For academics, experiments help clarify the psychological aspects of altruistic behavior of children in mid-childhood. Only after years of research that control for an increasing number of variables will these experiments yield insights. 

Five:  The study broadly concludes that religion is bad for altruism.  If that conclusion were granted, an even bigger challenge remains for the authors: What is it about religious practice that, in the years between childhood and adulthood, flips the results so that suddenly religion encourages prosociality (as it does for adults)? From academics hostile to religion (and hostility to religion is overrepresented in academia) the response can be anticipated: Religion has nothing to do with people being good. This very argument seems to be the objective of Roy Sablosky’s “Does Religion Foster Generosity?

3. The measures used seem far removed from reality. These researchers determined that generosity in our world is best understood by sticker-sharing and contrived acts of meanness. However, that fails the common-sense credulity test.  The professors need to come up with more realistic experiments.

Professor Luke Galen of the University of Nebraska has spearheaded much of the research debate on these issues, especially in his 2012 publication, “Does Religious Belief Promote Prosociality? A Critical Examination.” The conclusion of the abstract states:  “These factors necessitate a revision of the religious pro-sociality hypothesis and suggest that future research should incorporate more stringent controls in order to reach less ambiguous conclusions.”   

Galen is correct. Religious practice and teachings have an intricate impact on the everyday functioning of society, and should be further investigated. Religion has nothing to fear and everything to gain when the social sciences tease out the variables in play. 

Religion and Politics

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Every election cycle there is often an exploration of the religious affiliation of the candidates running for office. This election cycle is no exception. The New York Time published an article this week entitled, “Donald Trump Attacks Ben Carson, and Highlights His Religion”, illustrating how crucial religious affiliation has become in politics, especially to Republican voters. However, it is not an issue just for Republicans and Republican candidates.  This week the Washington Post delved into the ambiguity of Democratic Candidate Bernie Sanders’ religious beliefs.

Some argue that religion should not play a role in the election process, while others will not vote for a candidate who does not share at least some aspects of their religious beliefs. This interest in religious affiliation is well grounded, as much can be inferred about one’s worldview and policy decisions from their stated faith. But perhaps the American people aren’t asking the right question. The question we tend to ask is, “what is your belief?” Yet there is a more revealing question, one that social science brings to the forefront: “How often do you attend religious service?” 

From a social science investigation, there is not as much that can be known from a statement of faith as the frequency of religious worship or practice. For example, individuals who attend religious worship weekly, compared to those who never attend religious worship, are most likely to be better educated, have fewer sexual partners, and be compassionate. They are also the least likely to use hard drugs, marijuana or commit adultery. In every category measured in the U.S. data system the more people worship the more likely they are to do what is right. This is likely to hold for politicians too.

When looking at candidates in the coming election, it would be prudent to ask, not only, “Do you believe in God?”, or, “What faith do you ascribe to?” but also, “How often do you attend religious service?”  Actions speak louder than words — across all faiths and denominations.

God and Romance

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Frank Fincham, from Florida State University’s Family Institute, conducted research on the effect of prayer on college romances. He found that prayer caused a decline in premarital sex and an increase in a sense of belonging.  This was found to be the case not just with  typical “self-report” measures but in blind ratings by outsiders. Read about this wonderfully designed piece of research by an eminent Rhodes Scholar.

Obergefell and Non-Profits

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The American philanthropic community is in danger. The recent 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in support of same-sex marriages creates the potential for vast and encompassing regulations to take hold of the most foundational elements associated with 501 (c)(3) non-profits; namely their tax exempt status. Without the ability to maintain a conscientious objection right, Christian non-profits and individuals alike will become a jeopardized segment of the population at large. While “promises” have already been made, stating, “the IRS does not intend to change the standards that apply to section 501(c)(3) organizations by reason of the Obergefell decision,” the writing on the wall indicates that 501(c)(3)’s could be stripped of their tax exemptions.

Dr. Henry Potrykus, a Senior Fellow within the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI) at the Family Research Council, is currently conducting a study that will examine the impact of regulations on the Christian non-profit community. The study, which will characterize the non-profits tracked by the IRS, especially the more than 84,000 Christian non-profits listed by GuideStar, will inform and empower efforts that are already well underway both inside and outside the philanthropic community to ensure Christian non-profits are afforded their tax exempt status. 

A Look at the Black Family

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Only 17 percent of African American youth who reach age 18 have always lived with their married mother and father. In the District of Columbia, this number drops to 9 percent. Any policy initiative or social movement to ameliorate the plight of the black community must first address the deterioration of the black family. Contrary to popular public opinion, violent crime, drug abuse, and mass incarceration among African Americans is not a matter of race, and positing it as such fatally distracts from the root problem of family breakdown.
Across every race, the non-intact family poses significant challenges and development barriers to youth. The prevalence of non-intact families in the black community is especially high. As shown below, the black family is the least intact of all races/ethnicities. Almost four times as many Asian adolescents are raised by their married parents as black youths. Because black youths are least likely to come from intact families, the public frequently confounds the role of race and family intactness in shaping adolescents. 

As Kay Hymowitz pointed out in her Atlantic article this week, although racism has significantly decreased since the 1960s family brokenness has significantly increased. Between 1950 and 2012, the percentage of black youth raised by their married parents was cut in half. Rather than rejection stemming from race, black children now face rejection stemming from their parents’ relationship, and resulting in their family being broken. Put a lot of these families together and you get a broken community. As shown in the Violence in Baltimore report, non-intact families tend to foster frequently detrimental environments for children. According to the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect:

Compared to the intact married-parent family, the rate of physical abuse is:
    • 3 times higher in the single parent family
    • 4 times higher if the biological parents are cohabiting
    • 5 times higher in a married stepfamily
    • 10 times higher if one biological parent is cohabiting with a partner

Compared to the intact married-parent family, the rate of sexual abuse is:
    • 4.8 times higher in the single-parent family
    • 5 times higher when the biological parents are cohabiting
    • 8.6 times higher in a married step-family
    • 19.8 times higher if one biological parent is cohabiting with a partner
Children frequently respond to this rejection in externalizing behaviors like aggression and crime. State-by-state analysis indicates that, in general, a 10 percent increase in the number of children living in single-parent homes (including divorces) accompanies a 17 percent increase in juvenile crime. Compared with children raised in intact married-parent families, the rate of youth incarceration is 2 times higher in mother-only families, 2.7 times higher in mother-stepfather families, and 3.7 times higher in father-stepmother families.

The link between family structure and crime and abuse rates is well-established, and downplaying its significance is detrimental to our youngest citizens. As Ms. Hymowitz states, “Waving all of this away as ‘respectability politics’ ignores this history; it ignores anthropology; and it ignores many decades of research. It also risks neglecting the real suffering of black children and their communities.”

The Pope, America, and the Family

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Pope Francis’s recent visit to the US and to Cuba was focused, repeatedly, on the family. Here are a few excerpts from different speeches:

“It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
“The family is, forgive me, a factory of hope, of life, of resurrection. God was the one who opened that path.” “We renew our faith in the word of the Lord which invites faithful families to this openness. It invites all those who want to share the prophecy of the covenant of man and woman, which generates life and reveals God!”
“I leave you with this question, for each one of you to respond to. In my home, do we yell, or do we speak with love and tenderness? This is a good way to recognize our love.”  “Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work.  Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work.”
“Family is beautiful, but there’s effort involved, and there are problems. Husbands and wives quarrel, and end up badly, separated. Never let the day end without making peace. Let’s protect the family, because it’s in the family that our future is at play.” 
“In families, children bring headaches. I won’t speak about mother in laws. But in families, there is always a Cross. Always.  Because of the love of God, the Son of God opened up that way. But also in families, after the Cross there is Resurrection.”
“When one doesn’t live as a family, one will strengthen the part that always says: I, me, my, with me, for me. One totally centers around these things and doesn’t know solidarity or fraternity.” 

At the end of the event, it was announced that the next World Meeting of Families would take place in Dublin, Ireland in 2018. It will be the ninth time it has been celebrated since 1994 when Pope John Paul II launched the first event in Rome.

Divorce and Children

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Six-year-old Tiana made headlines this week as she asked her divorced mom and dad to treat each other as friends. In a video posted by her mom, which would go viral, Tiana said, “I don’t want you and my dad to be replaced and meanies again. I want you and my dad to be placed and settled and be friends.” This young girl’s plea to her parents exemplifies how impactful divorce can be on children.

Research has shown that, on average, children in divorced families receive less emotional support, have weaker relationships with their family, and have a weaker ability to handle conflicts, among many other negative repercussions. However, for those children who grow up in an intact-married family structure (raised by a mom and a dad), the benefits for the child are numerous. They are less likely to get into fights, less likely to have gotten drunk, less likely to have had intercourse at age 14 or younger, less likely to have had an unwed pregnancy, and almost four times less likely to have stolen from a store.

To read more about the effects of divorce on children, please read MARRI’s synthesis paper on the topic 

Pew Research on Religion Growth Projections

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Continuing our praise of Pew Research Center’s work on Religion and Public Life, we draw attention to their projections of the growth of different religions around the world between now and 2050.  Christianity does not grow by percentage (though it does in numbers) while the Muslim religion does in both percentage and numbers, with both being rather close by 2050.  If, in the context of overall Muslim growth, militant Islam expands as Christianity remains constant, it is worth pondering how this will affect religious liberty throughout the world. It is also worth noting that Pew Research projects that “Nones” (unaffiliated) will decline worldwide.  A few months ago Pew told us how our own religious affiliation has changed recently in the US: Christianity decreased while “others” increased

Pew Research on Religions Freedom

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The Pew Research Center is a major social science resource for the nation. Its Religion and Public Life sector has produced some very informative and tellingly illustrated reports. Earlier this year they produced Restrictions and Hostilities around the World.  It is worth noting that in this ranking the U.S. does not rank number one in religious freedoms.

Last year, their comparative report on increasing levels of hostility to religious people and their practices illustrates the growing and very large percentage of the world’s population that lives under such conditions.  

Parenthood is Still a Good Thing

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Margolis and Myrskyla’s parenthood study initially gained notoriety from a misleading claim that parenthood is worse than divorce, unemployment, and even the death of a partner. To draw this conclusion, researchers compared the dissatisfaction, allegedly due to parenthood, to the dissatisfaction due to divorce, unemployment, and death of a partner of an entirely different sample. This assertion can be refuted with basic logic, biology and research.

  1. Simple logic is proof enough to discredit this assertion: Parents are always eager to talk and brag about their kids, but rarely does that kind of joy and praise come from someone who just lost a parent or has recently become unemployed.
  2. Biology and social science also substantiate this logic. During childbirth women release a package of hormones associated with euphoria—oxytocin, endorphins, adrenaline and noradrenaline, and prolactin. Oxytocin and prolactin are also released during breastfeeding.
  3. Other studies have found that overall parents (especially fathers) report relatively higher levels of happiness, positive emotion, and meaning in life than nonparents. Dr. Arthur Stone, author of a study on parental happiness published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, put it this way: “[Parents] have higher highs. They have more joy in their lives, but also they have more stress and negative emotions as well.” All in all, Stone and colleagues assert that it is a matter of choice: people who want kids will derive more joy out of parenthood, and those who desire to remain childless will derive happiness from that. 

Margolis and Myrskyla’s study is limited in scope and should be appreciated only at face value. The researchers found that life satisfaction increases leading up to and in the year after first birth, that satisfaction decreases from the baseline level after the first year of birth, and that those who have a second birth gained more in life satisfaction around the time of the first birth than those who do not bear more children.

Margolis and Myrskyla are correct that these findings lend insight into the low fertility rates afflicting many countries. The fertility crisis is a consequence of a growing abhorrence for anything that requires self-sacrifice, even if it could produce long term joy. It is far more likely that the true cause of this shortage in births is the rise in non-intact families and decrease in religious practice.

Children raised in non-intact families face parental rejection, which can make giving to others more difficult. These children are also less likely to want to have children of their own. Religious practice on the other hand, improves fertility rates. Religious worship contributes to a sense of selflessness: religious people contribute more to charity and are more likely to volunteer their time. Not surprisingly, very religious women are also more likely to want more kids and to have more kids. 

Overall, parenthood is a rewarding, joy-filled adventure if the parents are willing to share their life. Although a couple’s first birth can, and frequently does, bring unanticipated stress and marital discord, it also concurrently brings much happiness. Future research should control for and then highlight the benefits of religious worship and intact families, and the likely dangers of self-centeredness. A revival of the intact married family that worships weekly is an essential, natural solution for the fertility crisis. It will make parents happier, children more abundant, and countries richer.