Religion Makes us Meaner

I agree.

Like sharks smelling a drop of blood, the media is swarming around the latest ‘religion is bad’ news story. This time, it comes in the form of a report that has been published in the journal Current ­Biology, by a group of researchers at Chicago University.


Research leader, Dr Jean Decety, has said, “Together, these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism. They challenge the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior, and call into question whether religion is vital for moral development—suggesting the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact, it does just the opposite,”¹

That is one gargantuan call to make, and with significant implications should the assertion be true.

The Australian newspaper offered this helpful summary of the study (Nov 6):

“In the study, more than 1100 kids aged between five and 12 were asked to share stickers with anonymous schoolmates. The subjects lived in North America, the Middle East, South Africa and China, and included Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus.

Those from agnostic and atheist households consistently proved less likely to keep the best stickers to themselves. “The more religious the parents, the less altruistic the children, irrespective of the religion,” Dr Decety told The Australian.

He attributed the findings to a phenomenon dubbed “moral licensing”, where people’s perceptions that they were doing good — in this case, practising religion — exempted them from the obligation to perform other worthy deeds. “Apparently, doing something that helps strengthen our positive self-image also makes us less worried about the consequences of immoral behaviour,” he said.

The study also found that when the children were shown videos of “mundane” affronts, such as people bumping and pushing each other, religious kids were more inclined to decide harsh punishment was warranted. Dr Decety said this supported previous findings that organised religion promoted intolerance and punitiveness.”

I agree…in part.

I affirm the idea that religion can make people meaner and more selfish. This idea is hardly new, Christians have understood this since its earliest days, and it conforms to what the Bible has been saying since it was first written, millennia ago.

As Tim Keller put it in The Reason for God, “Those who believe they have pleased God by the quality of their devotion and moral goodness naturally feel that they and their group deserve deference and power over others. The God of Jesus and the prophets, however, saves completely by grace. He cannot be manipulated by religious and moral performance–he can only be reached through repentance, through the giving up of power. If we are saved by sheer grace we can only become grateful, willing servants of God and of everyone around us.”

According to Roman ch.1 religion stems from suppressing what is true, and creating and then depending upon things that are not true for meaning and salvation.

Subsequently, it is unsurprising to learn that religion is largely about self-justification; it is the human attempt to persuade God and others of one’s worthiness and goodness. Religion is about doing things and saying things in order to win God’s favour. Even acts of kindness can be a cover for gaining approval and for feeling better or happier about oneself. In other words, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that religion can make people, even children, mean.

The study doesn’t only suggest that religion makes children mean, it would have us believe that atheism makes children kind. Does unbelief enhance out potential for true altruism? A survey of non Government welfare agencies and charities will be hard pressed to find more than a handful that don’t have their foundations and funding in organised religion, especially Christianity. How many atheistic organisations can you think of that are working in our local communities and across the world to care for the poor and needy?

The average Australian gives away less than $200 each year, whereas Christians give on average, 5-9% of their annual income, and many give considerably more².

While I know some very friendly atheists, atheists are also among the most intolerant people in our society; listen to how many journalists, politicians, and social commentators now address Christians. For not subscribing to the secular agenda, Christians are labelled stupid and bigots, and Christian programs are being shutdown across the country.

History and contemporary society demonstrate that both religion and atheism are a problem. Should we debate who is worse, ISIS or Stalin? Surely evil is evil, whether it is perpetrated by the religious or irreligious.

How then, do we explain the findings of this outcome?

While I’m not dismissing the research, there are problems. For example,

1. In my opinion the study does not adequately differentiate between nominal religious believers and those who actually practice their religion. In particular, I am thinking of the distinction between Gospel (or Evangelical) Christianity and cultural Christianity. The use of the Duke Religiosity Questionaire may be useful as a sociology calculator but it is a poor theological and spiritual one.

2. The findings don’t properly differentiate between various religions. Islam and Christianity are at times lumped together, while other religions didn’t receive a large enough sample size to warrant analysis.

3. The research is making strong claims based upon limited research. Children completed a game and parents filled out a questionnaire, and from this we can now confirm that non religious families exude greater kindness than religious families? I think we call that, overreach.   

4. “Children from religious households favored stronger punishments for anti-social behavior and judged such behavior more harshly than non-religious children”. Why is this deemed a negative? It is quite possible that children from religious families have a stronger moral compass and therefore a greater sense of justice.

5. The study involved children from 6 countries: Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa, Turkey and the United States. To what extent have the researchers accounted for cultural differences, and how these affect the way children behave? The way that culture and religion relate in Jordan is different from China and indeed the USA.

In my view, there are simply too many questions for people to be jumping on the bandwagon. Remember, this is one study, and it is worth noting that its findings conflict with other research that has been conducted in recent times, which have found that belief in God makes people happier and more community oriented (

Dr Decety and the team from Chicago University have driven us to an all to familiar dead end street: we want to maintain that religion and irreligion are our only options, but there is a third way. That is why the message of Christianity is so subversive and why it does not fit with the dimensions of human expectations.

Christianity teaches that everyone is sinful, yes, even children. Isn’t it ironic that when Christians make this suggestion it is called ‘child abuse’, and when secular academics make the same observation it is called science! We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that young children exhibit selfish and judgemental traits; it is human nature. Sometimes we clothe it in God-speech and promises of eternal reward, and other times we simply call upon humanitarianism.

Altruism is unattainable because we simply cannot do it. Both religious and non religious people are capable of love and acts of kindness, but inconsistently, partially, and often for self-seeking reasons. The history of the world is our autobiography, and we are seriously kidding ourselves if we think that we have climbed up the evolutionary tree: domestic violence in 1 in 3 Australian homes, over 80,000 unborn children killed each year, the revelations on Ashley Madison, cruel Asylum Seeker policies, ka-ching and the masterminds behind the pokies industry, and on and on.

But in Jesus Christ we see perfect love, selfless service and sacrifice for the good of others; he is uncompromising in holiness and generous in mercy:

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins”. (1 John 4:10)

This is the essence of Christianity:

“The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” (Tim Keller)

When a person comes to know this declaration of God’s love, they are changed, forgiven and liberated to truly love God with our whole being and to love our neighbour. It changes us to give without expectation of return, and to sacrifice for the good of those who despite us. Religion and irreligion are proven dead ends, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ promises a light that changes how we see everything.


  2. See NCLS research for information regarding giving habits of Australian Christians. A summary of broader Australian giving can be found here –