Are most religious kids really 'jerks'? Depends on how you read a survey

Headline writers had a field day last week with a story about an international survey involving the attitudes of religious versus non-religious kids. They ranged from “Religious Kids are Jerks” from the Daily Beast to the Oregonian’s “Religious kids are harsher and less generous than atheist ones, study says.”

The survey came out of the University of Chicago, but involved scholars (and kids) from six countries: Turkey (Istanbul), South Africa (Cape Town), Canada (Toronto), Jordan (Amman), China (Guangzhou) and Chicago itself. It involved 1,170 5-to-12-year-olds.

Now for those of us whose experience of grade school was akin to "Lord of the Flies," the thought of interviewing first through sixth graders for proof of moral grounding is pretty laughable. Why not slightly older children who've had a few more years of formation in their family's religion?

Here is how the Oregonian report began:

When it comes to teaching kids the Golden Rule, Sunday school might not be the best bet.
A new study in the journal Current Biology found children in religious households are significantly less generous than their non-religious peers.
At the same time, religious parents were more likely than non-religious ones to consider their children empathetic and sensitive to the plight of others.

Now I took a graduate-level research methods class two years ago, which taught me a bit more about looking to see how studies are conducted. What I found wasn’t quite what certain media described the situation as being. I’ll use a report from the Guardian to get to the meat of the study:

Almost 1,200 children, aged between five and 12, in the US, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa participated in the study. Almost 24% were Christian, 43% Muslim, and 27.6% non-religious. The numbers of Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and other children were too small to be statistically valid.
They were asked to choose stickers and then told there were not enough to go round for all children in their school, to see if they would share. They were also shown film of children pushing and bumping one another to gauge their responses.
The 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”.
Older children, usually those with a longer exposure to religion, “exhibit[ed] the greatest negative relations”.
The study also found that “religiosity affects children’s punitive tendencies”. Children from religious households “frequently appear to be more judgmental of others’ actions”, it said.
Muslim children judged “interpersonal harm as more mean” than children from Christian families, with non-religious children the least judgmental. Muslim children demanded harsher punishment than those from Christian or non-religious homes.

Well, this is interesting. I am guessing a lot of the non-religious folks were from China, where the government goes out of its way to discriminate and punish the devout, often pushing them deep, deep into the underground church. It’s possible Chinese kids of all kinds were influenced by Buddhism, Confucianism, etc., but it might not have been safe for their parents to tell surveyors so.

The more I looked at this report (and be sure to read it here), the weirder it got. I have some questions about lumping Christian and Muslim kids together as there are significant differences in these religions. The surveyors said the religious kids were “significantly less altruistic” than the non-religious ones, yet when I looked at the bar chart representing the three groups, I didn’t think the difference was all that massive.

The other part of the study involved showing “scenarios of interpersonal harm” to kids (the pushing and bumping) who were then asked how mean they thought those actions were. The kids who thought the harm was the most mean were dinged by the study for being judgmental. The Muslim kids scored highest on that one, followed by the Christian kids, with the non-religious children coming in as least judgmental. So -- if you think it’s bad to be mean, then you’re mean yourself? Why weren’t the Muslim kids rewarded for having the best-developed sense of justice?

It was at that point that I realized this study was quite skewed. Different cultures train their kids differently. Are stickers a good way to gauge altruism? (Most kids have outgrown stickers by age 7 or 8). And does one study prove a sweeping generalization about the world’s religions? And do we use that study to beat on those stupid religion folks because after all, now there’s proof that even their kids are rotten?

I wish that those who chortled will drive around any major American city on Thanksgiving day. They'll see that the folks dishing up food for the poor aren't the virtuous unbelievers the study holds up as examples. No, the charities out there will be those despised religious folks with the judgmental kids who don't want to give away their stickers. But I digress.

We can argue the merits of this particular study for some time, but what I wish to point out instead is the glee that some media displayed upon hearing the results. “Religion makes children more selfish,” said A real winner was from the New York Post: “If you raise your kids with religion, they’re likely to be judgmental jerks.”

Will add that the Post piece was the only one that got a dissenting scholar to disagree with the study. But that scholar was from Australia.

Odd. I realize reporters aren't statisticians but the original report was only a few pages long (compared with the enormous data dumps in a typical Pew survey) and those writing about it had plenty of time to get some expert opinion. Because the findings corresponded to the prejudices in some of the writers -- or those on the copy desk doing the headlines -- it got a lot more air than it deserved.

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