Is faith good for kids? A paper published in Current Biology last year posed this question. The authors of the study, Jean Decety and his colleagues, conducted experiments with young children from the United States, Canada, Turkey, Jordan, South Africa, and China and measured how many stickers they were willing to share with other children. Their conclusion: Kids from religious homes shared fewer stickers on average than those from non-religious homes. The findings were picked up by national and international news outlets and reported with damning headlines like, “Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds,” and “Nonreligious children are more generous.”
A recent study published in Current Biology has called these findings into question. Azim Shariff, a psychologist at the University of California–Irvine, and his colleagues found that the authors of the first study had miscoded the data and didn’t properly take into account differences across countries. It was the equivalent of comparing two girls—for example, a religious girl from Turkey and a non-religious girl from Canada—and concluding that the difference in their sticker sharing was due to religion. However, it’s obvious to most observers that you have to account for the cultural environments in which the kids live. Once Shariff and his colleagues corrected this coding mistake, there were no longer significant differences between religious and non-religious children. (It’s worth noting that even without this new analysis, the original study had other significant problems, chronicled here by the sociologist Robert Woodberry.)
Although Shariff and his colleagues have undermined the claim that religious children are less altruistic, nonetheless, these two contradictory studies raise larger questions about the role of research in helping us understand the social world around us as well as the world of the church. Flawed science like the Decety study provides justification for those of us who would rather ignore research that makes us—or our kids—look bad. These studies also feed a distrust (common among some Christians) of “secularized science.” Yes, we ought to be cautious of running after the latest catchy headline. But, in the words of my grandfather, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
As thinking Christians, then, how ought we to approach these studies? Between total rejection on the one hand and blind belief on the other, there is a middle ground worth inhabiting, and it involves taking a “slow” approach to science. As the church, it’s important that we thoughtfully consider, rather than react to, each study that comes along—even those that are critical of us.
With that in mind, here are five suggestions to consider when evaluating new research findings:
Read studies in context
When I teach undergraduate sociology students, one of the first things I tell them is that both the beauty and the frustration of social science is that we never get to definitively “prove” anything. Instead we talk about adding to the ever-expanding canon of knowledge. Each study should contribute to a larger conversation that, taken as a whole, gives us more information about our social world. With each new study, the key question is: How do these findings expand on what has already been discovered?
For example, if you’re mingling at a party and see a group of people engaged in a lively discussion, you listen to the direction of the discussion first before you attempt to join in. In the same way, social science researchers don’t start talking about a subject without first listening to what other scholars are already saying. If the findings of a single study conflict with prior studies and contradict the bigger conversation about a subject, that’s a signal to slow down and take a closer look. Contrary findings require scrutiny and serious examination: What’s different about this study? Why do its outcomes differ from other research outcomes?
This step was overlooked by Decety and his colleagues and by most of the journalists who accepted the study results at face value. The conclusions of the study ran counter to the existing research on religion and altruism, but there was no acknowledgment of that larger body of work or of the many scholars who have studied these issues and discovered different results. Instead, the Decety study was taken as a stand-alone authority on the subject.
Consider alternative explanations
In the case of new or divergent research findings, there is an additional burden on scholars to offer not only theoretical explanations for their findings but also to consider alternative explanations. These explanations are often telling. If a researcher is adamant about a single interpretation of the data, claims to have “proven” a new social reality, and doesn’t acknowledge other possible interpretations of the data, be very cautious about accepting the theory at face value.
For example, in one part of the Decety study, the children under assessment were shown pictures of kids doing harm to others. The religious kids rated these acts as meaner than the nonreligious kids did and even suggested harsher punishments. The author interpreted these responses as vindictive and harsh. But as Woodberry points out, one might also conclude that religious kids are more merciful for being sensitive to meanness and valuing justice and fairness in response.
Be aware of your own biases and beliefs
Sometimes “believing is seeing.” The altruism study was so widely reported in part because the results confirmed some common, pre-existing beliefs that religion is harmful. It’s easy enough to criticize the authors of the study as well as the journalists who reported on it. However, we Christians can be equally guilty of seeing only what aligns with our beliefs. The Pharisees believed the Messiah would come as a political conqueror, and they held this belief so tightly that they were unable to recognize the Messiah in front of them. With that in mind, it’s important to be aware of our own beliefs and biases and how they affect our response to scientific research. If we find ourselves reacting with immediate dismissiveness or defensiveness, that might be a caution flag that suggests we slow down and allow ourselves to consider new and potentially challenging ideas.
Consider the source
Before it’s published, scientific research is anonymously reviewed by a panel of scholars with expertise in the field. As Woodberry points out, the Decety study was written by psychologists who chose to submit their manuscript to Current Biology, which means the article was likely reviewed by scholars of biology. Had the article been submitted to a reputable social science journal, it would have been reviewed by scholars who understand the sociology and psychology of religion. Most likely, they would have caught the study’s mistakes. With any study, it’s always worth asking: Was this research published in a peer-reviewed journal appropriate to the topic?
For most of us, however, exposure to research comes from mainstream media reports. Here again, it’s important to consider the source. In the case of the Decety study, a number of headlines drew conclusions that went beyond what was reported in the study. One headline stated that “Children of atheist parents are kinder and more tolerant.” However, the original study didn’t include a specific measure for atheism or tolerance, so the claim reflected the opinion of the journalist (or the editor), not necessarily the original study. For average, non-academic readers, then, it’s important to have critical engagement with a wide range of mainstream media sources. If all of your news comes from the same source, you might only get one side of the story.
Take the long view
For obvious reasons, the Decety study was upsetting to Christian parents (as well as other religious parents). Who wants to find out that kids of faith are more likely to be selfish? With the release of this new study, it’s easy to feel vindicated and relieved. However if we’re quick to accept research that is flattering but refuse to consider that which paints us in a negative light, we’ll discredit ourselves with a watching world. Alternatively, if we critically engage the academic research of our day, we can take our place at the table of public discourse and join in the conversation.
More importantly, research results that are not particularly flattering for the church provide us with an opportunity for self-reflection and growth.
In a recent social experiment, for example, researchers measured racial discrimination in churches. Posing as families who were new to the area and seeking a church home, the researchers sent email inquiries to over 3,000 churches. They used the same message but varied the family names. On the whole, churches were more responsive to families with white-sounding names than those with names more likely to be from black, Hispanic, or Asian families. The results varied by religious tradition, but all traditions showed some level of racial bias in their responses to the potential newcomers.
This study is only one of many (including the altruism study) that we have to consider as a church. It’s hard to hear findings like this and tempting to dismiss them as not applicable to our own congregation. But what if we respond to these findings not with defensiveness but with a humble desire to learn and become more Christ-like? The church and its people are broken vessels, which means there is always room to grow in ways that bring us closer to our professed values and closer to the model of Christ. By taking social science seriously, we can allow research to be one of the many tools God uses to draw us nearer to his ideal for the church and its role in his larger plan of redemption.
Melinda Lundquist Denton is an associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). Her research examines the intersection of religion and family life in the United States. Her publications include two books drawing on findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion, A Faith of Their Own: Stability and Change in the Religiosity of America’s Adolescents with Lisa D. Pearce and Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers with Christian Smith.
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