Does religiosity affect morality?

November 9, 2015

For generations in much of the world the two were seen as intrinsically intertwined. In much of the western world this relationship has long been doubted as Europe has grown secular but in the States religion and morality as a package deal has been the normative view and a key aspect of the culture war. A recent study (one not bacon related) has been making the rounds titled when reported (as in The Guardian US) as “Religious Children are Meaner than their Secular Counterparts, study finds“. The study was helmed by Professor Jean Decety, a neuroscientist from the University of Chicago. Decety states she did not set out to study religion’s effect on morality but that she had been studying empathy and sharing and how those values differed across cultures. The data she gleaned, however, led her to publish the study with the conclusion that children in religious homes tend to be “meaner” or less empathetic and altruistic and less likely to share than their secular classmates.

I posted the story on social media and one of my best friends (my lifelong  best friend other than my spouse actually) had several concerns with the study and how it was being reported, promoted and shared. His comments made me realize there are a lot of issues worth unpacking about the study, the implications it has and even the rationale for why it is being shared and gaining traction in the first place.

First of all, lets consider the story itself and its use of “science”, a word which unfortunately in recent years has become a social media buzzword and ideological soapbox where many people draw no distinctions between types of science and competing data sources or take the time to understand key scientific processes or concepts–let alone read original studies versus the filtered media presentation of said studies–before making comments or proclamations on said studies. As a lifelong deep student of religion my study of science came later than it should have and I have only been reading in the field in-depth for maybe 5 years (playing catch up), understanding as much as I can as someone traditionally more at home using the other side of my brain with literature, music, art, philosophy and the humanities. Science and mathematics are fields I have grown to love, but I should have devoted more effort to as a young student. Anyway, this study though done by a neuroscientist ( a “hard” science) seems to be more of a social science experiment (a “soft” science)–correct me if I’m wrong science readers. As such it is a lot more anecdotal than say, chemistry. Furthermore, this is one study of 1200 children from many (but not all) countries almost all of whom are Christian, Muslim or “secular” (all other religious affiliations were statistically irrelevant in this study). There have been other studies, including longitudinal ones following children into adulthood (like Benston’s “California’s Longitudinal Study of Generations) offering similar conclusions linked to this coverage in some of the reporting (as in Forbe’s piece) but before any sweeping “religion makes you less moral” statements can be definitively made this study would need to be repeated and verified multiple times with larger groups, more inclusive groups (Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, etc.) and for longer periods of time (into adulthood).

But…based on just this study and the sources reporting it, what conclusions (if any) can we draw? What is the point of this study in the first place, why report it, why discuss it? I know the friend I mentioned as inspiration for this piece in many ways feels stories like this appear only to cast dispersion on religious folks. I’m sure that is some of it, at least as far as how it is titled and why some share it on social media, etc. I’ve certainly seen this study reported in less magnanimous ways than by the Guardian.

To put my own potential biases up front for readers to be aware, I am a life-long student of religion who no longer identifies as religious. I grew up religious, was very active in different Christian denominations and organizations, studied religion in both seminary and secular institutions and have friends and colleagues of every religious stripe and stride who are the best people I’ve ever known. I believe in understanding religion, promoting religious diversity and inter-faith dialogue and action, and respect legitimate religious belief and expression even when I disagree (as long as that belief and expression does no harm or causes no oppression) but do not personally follow the tenets of any religion. I have lived in many different places (at this point all in the South) and it has been my experience, particularly in my current state, that being religious would be easier professionally and personally for me however. Granted a certain kind of religion/religiousness would be best if I wanted to be most comfortable with my neighbors, business contacts and community but any religious expression (so long as Christian) would serve me well in a community where city hall, business meetings, networking luncheons and public college events all commonly incorporate public prayer, praise and religious proclamations. When the first question many people will ask you is “Where do you go to church?”  a certain type of religiosity is normative and deviance from that can be unacceptable. It is my fervent belief that religion/religiosity is morally neutral–equally capable of inspiring awe-inspiring great good and nauseating terrible evil. Most of my heroes are religious (MLK Jr., Gandhi, Malcolm X, Jimmy Carter). My journey throughout every corner of religion was exciting, intellectually inspiring and ultimately painful as there are a lot of things I wish I could believe and ways I wish I could be that would make every level of my life more comfortable and perhaps enjoyable, but I believe truth must lead you wherever it leads you painful or not. I also don’t claim to corner the market on truth as a lot of folks I know seem to know truth very closely and are yet religious.

Sorry for the lengthy detour but that should clue you in on any biases I may harbor. So why report on this story? Because in many corners of these United States  “secular” or “atheist” are pejorative terms and the thought of a parent who identifies as such being capable of raising moral children is inconceivable. But if there is no link between key moral virtues such as empathy or altruism and religiosity–even more so if there is a negative link between the two–then yes such parents are more than capable of producing good moral citizens.

Millennials are far less religious than their parents and grandparents. It seems that, however more gradually, the US is following Europe’s path into secular modernity. This in fact may (I believe will) actually work to religions advantage, producing a stronger “realer” Christianity in America devoid of folks who identify as Christian simply because it is politically or socially advantageous to do so. However, if we are to have healthy dialogue across the aisles of religion and secular life then we have to divorce the concept of “morality” from the institution of “religion” and admit that one may have no direct bearing on the other. That is why this study, if valid, is important.

There are variables worth considering in any follow-ups to the study–will opening the study up to  data sources which include all religions prove “empathy” and “altruism” have no (or a negative) link to all religions or just in relation  to monotheistic religions? If monotheistic then Judaism must be a  data source as well–but if it proves true only in Christianity and Islam, what could that signify? Furthermore, how do such studies deal with nominal religious households versus practicing religious households? Throughout most of the world people identify as belonging to the religion they are born into. Many Muslims are simply cultural Muslims and many American Christians who would never in a million years identify as secular (let alone atheist)  are less than Christmas and Easter church goers living lives in which religion plays little practical role. What about “progressive” versus “fundamentalist” religious people? A Unitarian, Episcopal and atheist might have much more in common politically and morally than any of those people would have in common with a Southern Baptist or a Mormon.

Consider all of this so far as a lengthy preamble and introduction to other issues this study and discussion has raised for me. I will leave you with these questions, which I hope to address in follow up posts in the near future.

What is morality? What function does it serve? Is it always a good? Is there an unchanging definitive basis for any morality?

What is the purpose and/or function of religion?

What relationship does (or should) religion have with morality?

Could these issues relate more to majority versus minority, insider vs outsider? E.g., does the majority religion oppress the minority religious due to scapegoating issues that have nothing to do with religion per se?

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4 Responses to “Does religiosity affect morality?”

  1. Eager to read your thoughts on the purpose and/or function of religion.

  2. […] my last post I concluded that religion and morality were two separate and distinct things–that a person may be religious and immoral or secular and moral (or vice-versa). I claimed […]

  3. […] So as I’ve stressed–I believe religion and morality are separate and distinct with littl…Islamic extremists just committed appalling atrocities in Paris. Though their acts violate every basic tenet of their text and tradition let’s not pretend that religion itself was in no way a factor in their decision-making process. It was, it’s just that it was filtered through a specific violent interpretation and implementation taught by an armed political terrorist group. Conversely, Muslims scholars, leaders and teachers all around the world are publicly denouncing ISIS, their theology and their actions. Muslims all around the world from every walk of life are denouncing these attacks and all others like them in the #notinmyname campaign. There are 1.5 billion + Muslims in the world and less than half of one percent of them are violent extremists. Right now in America, millions of Christians are defying the pleas of most Christian religious leadership bodies and are turning a cold heart to desperate hurting people. Those aren’t good stats. It’s ironic that many of those who follow a religion founded on the life and teachings of a Middle Eastern Jewish refugee have no love or compassion for similar people today. […]

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