I have tried to ignore it, pretended it isn’t out there, attempted not to think about it. But it has popped up too many times in too many places to be ignored.

The “Daily Beast” gets the prize for announcing it with the most eye-catching provocative title announcing:

“Study: Religious Kids Are Jerks”


“It” is a study called “The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World.” It was conducted by a group of international scholars who studied over 1,170 children, from ages 5 to 12, in the United States, China, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa. In preparation, the children’s families were asked to identify their religious affiliation.

510 families self-identified as Muslim, 280 as Christian, 29 as Jewish, 18 as Buddhist and 5 as Hindu. 323 claimed no religious affiliation, 3 were agnostic and 2 ticked the box marked “other”.

The children  were put through a number of tests to examine the degree to which their attitudes and behaviour were characterized by sensitivity and compassion towards other children

The “highlights” of the study as outlined in the scholarly synopsis are three:

The leader of the study, Professor Jean Decety an American and French neuroscientist specializing in developmental neuroscience, affective neuroscience, and social neuroscience, concludes that,

Our findings contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others. In our study, kids from atheist and non-religious families were, in fact, more generous.

Scholarly studies are never without bias; findings are often shaped by the preconceptions and worldview of those conducting the study. In the interests of intellectual honesty, it would be helpful if the scholars behind this study offered a short summary of their religious views. It would certainly encourage one to take the study more seriously if it turned out that faith-based scholars were equally represented on the team as those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or just no-particular-affiliation.

Any study like this is also shaped by the individual subjects in the study. If the families in this study volunteered to participate, they are already self-selected. Certain kinds of people volunteer to participate in studies. They do not constitute a neutral unbiased sample. A self-selected group of volunteers is not typical of the whole group they are called upon to represent.

It is also true that the category “religious affiliation” is so broad as to be almost meaningless. There are Muslims and there are Muslims. Christians come in such variety that the category is hardly a meaningful designation. And Judaism runs a vast gamut of commitment, understanding, and worldview. All religious labels contain a vast range of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours.

If you ask a child raised in a fundamentalist Christian home a set of questions, you will get one type of response. If you ask the same questions of a child raised in an open, tolerant, broad-minded Christian home, you will probably get different responses. Which one accurately represents a “Christian” religious affiliation?

I know some seriously mean people who self-identify using the label “Christian.” Their presence in any study would skew the findings away from anything I would recognize as legitimately religious. Certainly, the attitudes, beliefs and world-view of many Christians do not represent the religious affiliation that characterized the household in which I grew up as a Christian child or which I have tried to nurture as a Christian parent.

People of “religious affiliation” are not all one thing. It is simplistic and unhelpful to lump the incredible variety of religious people together into one general category. It is unlikely that all the people connected to each other in this study, would agree on anything. It is unimaginable that they accurately represent the whole group of people in the world who subscribe to the label “religious.”

With these cautions in mind, however, Dr. Decety’s study is worth pondering for anyone who considers themselves a religious person.

The study’s conclusion that actually causes me the most concern is the second point in the three-point summary above.

Religious parents consistently assessed their children as more sensitive to injustice and more compassionate toward others than non-believing parents’ judged their own children. Religious parents thought their children were more kind and generous than in fact they turned out to be in situations that called for an altruistic response.

Religious parents apparently are deluded about their children. They have chosen to see their children in an unrealistic light. This is alarming.

When we intentionally choose to be blind to the realities of our own behaviour or the behaviour of family members, we are heading in a dangerous direction.

Jesus is reported in John’s Gospel to have declared,

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. (John 8:32)

Truth-telling is a fundamental Christian value. Self-awareness and self-honesty are the essential ground in which truthfulness and authenticity grow.

Dr. Decety may not have intended to offer an object lesson in honesty and self-awareness. But, underlying his findings is a profound call to take a serious look at our own lives and our family and church life. We need then to be deeply honest about what we see.