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Stickers Can’t Prove Religious Kids Are More Selfish


Are you religious? Are you raising children? That’s a shame, because they’re probably selfish jerks. That’s the take-away from a new study (funded, oddly enough, by the John Templeton Foundation) purporting to show that children from Christian or Muslim homes are more selfish than those whose parents identify as “non-religious.” Score one for the “nones.”

It sounded fishy to me, too, so I pulled up the study and read it. Here’s how it worked. Schoolchildren between the ages of five and 12 were presented with 30 stickers and asked to choose their favorite ten. Those ten, they were told, were theirs to keep. That’s a pretty good day for a five-year-old.

Just one gloomy note threatened to spoil the fun. Not all the kids in their school would be included in the study. So the researchers asked: how many of their stickers would they like to give to an anonymous child (specified as of the same race) who otherwise would not get any?

The “non-religious” kids were willing to part with more stickers. So there you have it. Religious people are selfish.

Unleash the Anti-Religious Hounds

Liberal writers had a field day with this scrumptious news. The researchers themselves gleefully concluded that religion discourages altruism and that falling levels of religiosity might be great news for the world.

The researchers gleefully concluded that religion discourages altruism.

Rachel Gross at Slate noted (along with the authors themselves) that “nonreligious households encouraged children to use reason and logic to form moral conclusions, rather than laws and codes,” and that “Christianity tends to separate actions into right and wrong, with no shades of gray in between. While this binary worldview can provide a useful moral reference point, it fails to offer guidance when it comes to tackling the subtle, complex, and entirely less obvious ethical dilemmas that make up our everyday lives.”

In other words, Christians are blind rule-followers, and get tripped up in situations where there are no hard and fast rules. (The ethics of sticker-sharing are pretty tough, after all.) Non-religious kids, being more “logical,” more easily recognize that they should pony up the stickers.

Not So Fast

Isn’t this so typical of liberals? They want a quick, quantifiable way to measure generosity. So they ask: how willing are people to throw their stuff into a pot to be redistributed to anonymous strangers? That totally captures the true spirit of giving.

Got that, kids? The personal is always political, even when you’re five.

We have no idea what the “selfish” kids were planning to do with their stickers. Maybe they’d already selected the ones most likely to please their younger siblings at home. (Religiously observant kids are more likely to have siblings.) Maybe they were looking forward to sharing them with friends. Maybe they just wanted to keep their options open, which seems like a legitimate choice.

After all, it wasn’t as though the researcher was offering any kind of unique opportunity. It would be the easiest thing in the world just to ask one of their schoolmates, “Did you get to play the sticker game? No? Okay, you can have some of mine.”

If course, it’s also possible that some kids were itching to get back to class so they could gloat about how they got stickers when the other kids didn’t. But we don’t know, because the researchers didn’t think it was important to ask. That seems like the most interesting question. Why wasn’t it important to ask?

It gets better. Guess what name social scientists assigned to this little game? It’s called The Dictator Test. Got that, kids? The personal is always political, even when you’re five.

Who’s In Your In-Group?

I found it especially interesting that the social scientists in this study thought it was important to control for the possibility that the kids might be racist, but didn’t worry about any other possible variables in their subjects’ motivations. They went out of their way to specify that the anonymous sticker-recipient would be the same race as the participant, in the interests of ensuring that their results “cannot be simply explained by in-group versus out-group biases that are known to change children’s cooperative behaviors from an early age, nor by the known fact that religious people tend to be more altruistic toward individuals from their in-group.”

Apparently my in-group as a white person includes all other whites, and apart from that I don’t bother to distinguish among my fellow humans.

In normal-speak, they’re saying that children are more likely to be generous to people they identify as “one of their own,” and religious people in particular are inclined to show special solicitude towards fellow members of their own communities. So they tried to control for that possibility by anticipating that the kids might be racially biased.

Depending on how the point was made, it wouldn’t actually surprise me if the older children in the study were actually put off by the “same race” specification. In my own public-school days, I was relentlessly trained to avoid racial favoritism, so if a researcher had asked me in the fourth or fifth grade, “How many of these stickers should we give to a white kid?” I would immediately have been suspicious. That might have seemed like a good reason not to share, since generosity under such circumstances might seem to confirm the obvious underlying supposition that I probably prefer my own race.

Even if the kids weren’t worried about that, it’s kind of sad that the grown-ups equate “in-grouping” exclusively with “racial bias.” Apparently my in-group as a white person includes all other whites, and apart from that I don’t bother to distinguish among my fellow humans. How shockingly provincial.

Stewardship Is Not Selfish

We’ve heard the liberals’ obnoxious theories as to why religious kids are more “selfish.” Now let me take a turn at wild speculation.

We’re wildly mistaken if we think we can attain true justice in this world just by permitting authority figures to take charge of our stuff.

Most religions do encourage “prosocial” behaviors. Among other things, they teach us that kindness and generosity are good. But they also typically infuse some realism into what we can expect from this lifetime. Egregious injustice should not be ignored, but we’re wildly mistaken if we think we can attain true justice in this world just by permitting authority figures to take charge of our stuff.

Sanctioning redistribution doesn’t make you a socially conscious person. Instead of that, we should exercise good stewardship over our own material goods by considering where and how they can best be used. Progressives love government programs because they seem attractively “impartial,” which helps satiate the natural human craving for cosmic justice. My Christianity helps me appreciate that cosmic justice will never be achieved through mere human authority figures.

As a rule, then, I prefer the benefits of personal generosity to the beguiling universality of government. I’d rather give to people I know and can see. Families. Neighbors. Local institutions that serve people face-to-face rather than sending anonymous checks.

Where social programs undermine natural human ties, personal giving builds them up. It inspires human concern on one side, and gratitude on the other. When appropriate, it can also inspire shame from the unworthy recipient.

I prefer the benefits of personal generosity to the beguiling universality of government.

When people exercise stewardship over their own goods, they can also be prudent in ways that government offices cannot. If I give a friend a loan for badly needed home repairs, and he wastes the money on extravagances instead, I’ll know not to give that friend any more money. Personal giving inspires accountability on both ends.

Again, it would be ridiculous to assume that Christian and Muslim children are immune to ordinary selfishness. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that they were moderately less susceptible to the lure of authority-driven redistribution as a substitute for real justice.

Check Your Numbers, Liberals

Looking ahead to adulthood, we already have reason to believe that Sunday School tends to work out for the best. Guess which states have the highest levels of private giving to charitable organizations? How about Utah, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and South Carolina. (As a descendant of Idahoans, I must note that Idaho comes in at number six.)

Which states were stingiest? New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island. Do you notice some patterns here? States that favor redistribution are at the bottom of the heap when it comes to charitable giving. States that favor God are far more generous.

Maybe liberal social scientists should come down from their equine perches and attend a Sunday School class or two. True generosity may be about more than just giving the nice man your stickers.