Mean Religious Children

On November 5, 2015, a study titled,

“The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World”

was released to the international press.  This research was supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation (Science of Philanthropy Initiative).  Even though there have been questions raised about the validity of the study (1100+ children from 6 countries is not a great sampling) the conclusions presented by the study as summarized in its last paragraph are interesting.  The study concludes:

Overall, our findings cast light on the cultural input of religion on prosocial behavior and contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others. More generally, they 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 [29].

Certainly this study was limited, taking from a limited sampling from human and religious cultures.  Maybe this research was designed to reveal a presupposition of researchers against religious influence in the home.  Maybe this project had an underlying hope to spur further studies to deepen and broaden the data about important issues within the moral development of children.  From my perspective it would certainly be of interest to see how the moral teaching of young children (3-8 in this study) develops as they move into adolescence and then adulthood.  For instance, one blogger from the United Kingdom queried about the huge difference in individual charitable giving between those with religious backgrounds versus those who claim to be atheists.

For me the study caused me to reflect upon my own moral upbringing and altruism.  I generally assess my home and family as having been a loving one toward each other.  I was the youngest of 5 siblings.  We were very religious.  We were on the conservative if not fundamentalist side of the Christian faith.  We were in a very tight church.  We attended Sunday School, Sunday morning and evening worship, youth groups, Wednesday evening prayer service, and interdenominational youth events, we memorized bible verses, sang lots of Christian music, socialized with those of our church.  I saw myself as a “good Christian.”

As I began growing into adulthood I now look back at those years as being formative.  On the positive side of things I am still very involved in my faith and my church.  I am a minister.  I love the Bible and look to it for guidance in daily living.  I teach and preach from the scriptures.  I sing old and new songs of faith.  I enjoy hanging out with people of like mind.

On the negative side of the equation I find that my upbringing made me very judgmental.  I was taught to look at others as being spiritually guilty until they proved to me they were innocent (or as we would say, “born again”).  The sense of altruism I remember from those early years was inviting church folks over for dinner after church, sharing at church potlucks, and supporting missionaries who went to a variety of “non-Christian” locations to win the lost for Jesus.  I do not remember feeding the hungry or clothing the naked even though my family did some work leading worship services at Gospel Missions.  People were souls to be saved not individuals to be loved.

Somewhere in my moral/faith development I missed a core piece of the Gospel, a piece that I have spent my adult life attempting to capture and develop.  The piece? The Incarnation.  Jesus left the confines of heaven and became human.  Jesus was Emmanuel, God with us.  In Philippians 2:5-11, The Apostle Paul tells us that this person, the third person of the Trinity, emptied himself and became man.  As a man Jesus went through all the developmental stages human beings go through: conception, fetal development, birth, infancy, toddlerhood, etc.  He experienced pain and laughter, joy and sorrow, love and anger, community and isolation, poverty and plenty.  Jesus did not live in isolation from the culture but became immersed in it.  He lived our life, spoke our language, worked our jobs, and learned our history.  He became incarnate in our world.

The study mentioned above tried to measure the presence of altruism in children.  They define altruism as being that in which there is “cost for the donor and benefit for the recipient.”  Certainly Jesus lived a life of altruism to the point where he said to those closest to him, those whom he trained to take his place after his death,

For even the Son of Man (his self-description) did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.  Mark 10:45

Jesus’ altruism, “giving his life as a ransom for many,” was based on a two-fold presupposition.  The first part was that God had designed people to live as those created in the image of God and to live within the guidelines of God order.  Jesus called such living “The Kingdom of God” and said this Kingdom is present and available to anyone who will claim it.  The second part of that presupposition was that people are in various forms of bondage that rob them of God’s design and desire.  Jesus gave his life to deliver people from the latter so they might live in the former.  Jesus not only taught these principles but he demonstrated them by feeding them when they were hungry, healing them when they were sick, casting out the devil when they were possessed, and walking with them in between.  He didn’t just talk altruism he lived it.

So, how does this relate to mean children with religious upbringing?  A Christian needs to understand how Jesus saw the world.  I believe children need to be given the biblical understanding that underlies his worldview.  I also believe children need to see the significant adults in their lives becoming the incarnate love of God in the lives of others.  Christians for too long have talked a good game.  Children will learn altruism when they see altruism at work.  This study challenges all Christ-professing adults to live the faith they profess.  As a friend of mine once told me, “Hayden, talk is cheap.”