A FLAWED STUDY OF NON-RELIGIOUSNESS ALTRUISM
by Alvin J. Schmidt, Ph.D.
Recently, a study published by Jean Decety, et al., in Current Biology (November 16, 2015) purported to study religiousness and children’s altruism. Articles about the study stated that the study showed that children from non-religious homes were more altruistic than those from a religious background. The articles also claimed that this association was true across the world, given that the researchers had studied children between the ages of five and twelve years from six countries. The countries were Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA, and South Africa. The finding of the study that the articles seemed to have found most interesting was the following: “There were no significant differences between children from Christian households and non-religious households.”
The findings in the Decety, et al., study are derived from a methodological technique known as the dictator game. This technique has been used by some behavioral scientists for several decades to explore unselfish behavior. It is derived from game theory that involves mathematical modeling of interaction behavior between human beings.
Some Problems of the Study
One problem pertains to the study’s use of the dictator game methodology. In 2008, the British scholar Nicholas Bardsley, in the journal of Experimental Economics, argued that findings analyzed by dictator game studies “may be an artefact of experimentation.” Bardsley further stated that dictator game research “should not exclude context-specific social norms.” Interestingly, there is no evidence that the study, as reported in Current Biology, looked at context-specific social norms.
A second problem is the study’s sample. Forty-three percent of the children were from Muslim households, 27.6 percent from non-religious households, and 23.9 percent from Christian households, amounting to 94.5 percent of the entire sample. The remaining 5.5 percent of households were from Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic, and “other.” The study does not indicate that the researchers took into account whether these highly unequal groups (especially the number of Muslims vis-à-vis the number of Christians) did or did not affect its findings. This is a major omission.
A third problem in the study pertains to what the researchers call “Christian households.” There is no indication whether the Christian households were conservative, liberal, or nominal. To assume that all Christian households have the same Christian convictions is an erroneous assumption.
Enough research exists that shows conservative Christians are more altruistic. In 2006, Arthur C. Brooks published his book Who Really Cares. Using nationwide data, he found religious conservatives, primarily Christians, gave “away the most dollars per year ($2,367 versus $1, 347 per household) in the country as a whole.” He also found “children of givers are more likely to be givers of themselves.”
A fourth problem pertains to the study’s title: “The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World.” This title implies that this finding was all that the study found regarding children and altruism. Thus, it ignores another equally significant finding of the study with respect to altruism. That finding states, “Children from Christian households were significantly higher in parent-rated justice sensitivity than children from Muslim households.” If this finding is valid, why did the authors not in some manner include it in the study’s title? Is “parent-rated justice sensitivity” not also a characteristic of altruism? (This finding was also not mentioned in the articles. Hence, one must ask, was it omitted because it would have appeared politically incorrect to note that “Children from Christian households were significantly higher in parent-rated justice sensitivity than children from Muslim households,” as noted in the study?)
Finally, given that the researchers focused on children between five and twelve years, they obviously assumed that the understanding of altruism on the part of five-year-old children was equal to those who were twelve years of age. This is a highly unwarranted assumption, and the researchers seem to have not even considered this problem.
A Note from History
The study’s authors say, “A common sense notion and theoretical assertion from religious metaphysics is that religiosity has a causal connection and a positive association with moral behaviors.” Then they say their study’s findings contradict this notion. Numerous accounts in history, however, show what the authors dismiss as “a common sense notion,” is nevertheless factually true and verifiable. For when Jesus interacted with his followers, he not only was concerned with people’s spiritual condition but also with their physical well-being. He sent his disciples “out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:2, emphasis added). He also said, ”I was sick and you looked after me” (Matthew 25:36). These words did not go unheeded by his followers, for history shows that the early Christians, among other altruistic concerns they had, did indeed care for the sick, regardless of who they were, Christian or pagan. Thus, in the fourth century, Christians brought hospitals into existence for the first time in human history.
Corroborating the Christian introduction of the first hospitals in history, the historian David Riesman in his The Story of Medicine in the Middle Ages (1936) notes that the ancient Greeks, for instance, had their iateria where sick people went to have their ailments diagnosed by physicians who prescribed medicine, but the iateria provided no nursing provisions where patients could rest and recuperate. And, Howard W. Haggard in The Doctor in History (1934) declares, “Charity hospitals for the poor and indigent public did not exist until Christians introduced them” [emphasis added]. Additional supporting sources could be cited.
The researchers in the Decety, et al., study seem to have been primarily interested in finding “evidence” to support their anti-religious assumptions regarding altruistic behavior, prompting them to use the dictator game methodology that did not include context-specific social norms. They also assumed all Christian households held the same Christian convictions, and that the youngest children had the same understanding of altruism as the older ones. And, they titled the study in a biased manner, ignoring one of their own significant findings, namely, “Children from Christian households were significantly higher in parent-rated justice sensitivity than children from Muslim households.”
This anti-religious bias is also evident in the articles that made the general public aware of this study. It too ignored this finding. Unfortunately, biased reporting is becoming the norm of our day, especially when the opportunity exists to cast a negative light on Christianity.
Submitted by Alvin J. Schmidt, Ph.D.
Professor emeritus of sociology, Illinois College, Jacksonville, Illinois.
Author of How Christianity Changed the World (2014), now in six foreign languages.
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