Stickers & Shoves — Generosity and Hypocrisy in the news

By Michael

Hypocrisy today is considered by most to be a serious sin, “the sin of pretending to virtue or goodness.” The word has an interesting etymology.  The word appeared as ὑποκριτά, or ypocrita, when the two Evangelists Matthew and Luke recorded Jesus at the sermon on the mount. Being a hypocrite in Christ’s time usually meant to be an actor, to take on a different persona. Hypocrites have always ‘played the part,’ except that thanks to Jesus admonishing those who pretended to be just, it received a darker meaning. A hypocrite today is someone who lies about their morals, who pretends to be better than they are.

A New Study

In very recent news (in early November of 2015), there has been some schadenfreude in the secular press regarding a University of Chicago study. Loosely speaking, a small team of scientists found evidence that religious people are hypocrites. In the words of Dr. Jean Decety, the primary author,

A common-sense notion is that religiosity has a positive association with self-control and moral behaviors. This view is unfortunately so deeply embedded that individuals who are not religious can be considered morally suspect. In the United States, for instance,    non-religious individuals have little chance to be elected to a high political office, and those who identify as agnostic and atheist are considered to be less trustworthy and more likely to be amoral or even immoral. Thus, it is generally admitted that religion shapes people’s moral judgments and prosocial behavior, but the relation between religiosity and morality is actually a contentious one, and not always positive.

I have several concerns about the truth of Dr. Decety’s statement and the conclusions of his study. Dr. Decety, who identifies as both French and American, was previously best known for his studies into the nature of empathy in his field of neuroscience. While I have great respect for his work and current position at the University of Chicago, I would like to post some of my reservations publicly.

In the first case, I feel that Dr. Decety is not challenging his own received premises adequately. For example, in the above quotation, Decety points out that non-religious citizens of the United States are unlikely to win public office. He suggests that the non-religious are considered to lack the positive associations with morality and self-control enjoyed by the religious. Unfortunately, he offers no proof for his feelings in this case. It seems to me that one could actually imagine many reasons why the United States has yet to put a non-religious person in power. First, the vast majority of Americans are religious, whether or not they belong to so-called “organized” religions. A non-religious person might hesitate to run for office when they do not represent that aspect of the American majority. The religious majority crosses race, gender, class, and other category boundaries. Second, many  non-religious people of varying levels of fame have made public dismissals of religiosity, generally in rude statements of unveiled superiority. I would argue that the perception of poor morals cuts both ways. Some religious people may believe the non-religious to be amoral (a statement I do not accept in such blanket terms). However, one could find as many examples of the non-religious considering the religious to be worse: amoral and hypocritical.

Hypocrisy, Generosity, and Morals

My experience and life thus far informs a different point of view. Namely, all of humanity has the same capacity for hypocrisy. The non-religious have a similarly high call to morality from the universal principles of the Enlightenment best enshrined, perhaps, in the ideals of secular humanism. If one only pretends to live up to the expectations of the community and the social contract, that one is a hypocrite. The religious are, of course, also susceptible to hypocrisy. Jesus Himself saw fit to call His disciples hypocrites.

39And He spake a parable unto them, Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch? 40The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master. 41And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye? 42Either how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.

I love the King James Bible and its rich imagery, though I make sure to use multiple translations when I read the Bible. The above passage from chapter 6 of Luke’s Gospel seems sound to me.Whether the image is of a mote versus a beam, sawdust versus a plank, a speck versus a log — the point is quite plain. Do not pretend to judge your fellows and, if you do so, know that you are a hypocrite. It is not a terrible state of affairs. Rather, it is the human condition — we are trying and inevitably failing to be like Christ. Just because it is nearly impossible to live up to the ideals of the sermon on the mount does not mean we should not try. I think that one could argue that being labeled a hypocrite is very nearly a prerequisite for becoming a good Christian.

When the old law proscribed the practice of an Eye for an Eye, it was Jesus who suggested that when someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. When someone asks for your shirt, give them your coat, too. If you are forced to walk one mile, walk two with that person. Love your enemies — how stupid is all of this? So much of the modern era is the struggle between the logic of the world (which changes and shifts) and the logic of the next world (whose interpretation also shifts with the times).

When we get down to the details of the study, the results themselves are somewhat more complicated than many of the journalists suggested in their coverage–which, as usual, has been misleading and awful, serving only to inspire me to find out for myself. I do not suggest clicking any of the following links, but some of the headlines included:

Before we get to the study, I think that every single one of the above stories is wrong. The study found that religious children are slightly less generous than non-religious children. It found that religious children were more likely to view interpersonal violence as mean. It found that while some religious children were more likely to proscribe stronger punishments for such violence, others — notably Christian children — were less likely to ask for strict discipline. If that’s the case, how do we get the above headlines?

Details of the study

The study involved 1,170 children, ages 5-12, from seven major urban centers around the world, including Chicago, Istanbul, and Guangzhou. More specifically, there were roughly 200 children represented from six countries — only six because Turkey’s study was divided between Istanbul and Izmir. The median age was approximately 8 years and about 47% of the participants were female. 280 were labeled Christian, 510 as Muslim, and 323 as non-religious.

The study consisted of two games for the children, outside of various demographic and categorizing surveys for the parents and children. In the first game, a variant of the “dictator game,” children were given a sheet of stickers and told to select ten to keep for themselves. Having done that, a research informed each child that, of those ten, they would need to share with other children. There weren’t enough stickers to go around! This is considered a test of altruism, or the principle of giving at a cost to the giver. The largest conclusion of the study hinged on the fact that the non-religious children gave away an average of four stickers to their classmates, while the others gave away an average closer to three. Quoting the press release, “in the study, children growing up in households that weren’t religious were significantly more likely to share than were children growing up in religious homes.” I believe that this is a confusing use of the word ‘significant.’ In statistics and related fields, the fact that a difference or statement is true can be measured in its ‘significance,’ which is the meaning in the quoted statement. The religious children in the study did, in fact, give fewer stickers. Did they give significantly fewer stickers? No, the difference was less than a single sticker. It is a “significant” difference because it is a real difference, but it isn’t a “significant” difference because it was a small difference.

The second game of the study measured “moral sensitivity” by showing videos to the children that depicted one individual pushing, bumping into, or aggressively shoving another individual. The researchers then asked the children two questions. First, the children were to judge the meanness of the actions on a set scale. Second, the children were to assign an appropriate punishment from a list of possibilities. The study found that religious children saw the various actions as being meaner than the non-religious students. With regards to punishment, Christians and non-religious children were too close in their answers to establish a difference, while Muslims tended to hand out harsher punishments.

…paired comparisons showed that children in Muslim households judged interpersonal harm as more mean than children from Christian  and non-religious households, and children from Christian households judged interpersonal harm as more mean than children from non-religious households. Moreover, children from religious households also differ in their ratings of deserved punishment for interpersonal harm; this was qualified by significantly harsher ratings of punishment by children from Muslim households than children from non-religious households. There were no significant differences between children from Christian households and non-religious households.

Children from Religious Households Judge Interpersonal Harm More Severely Than Children from Non-religious Households
Children from Religious Households Judge Interpersonal Harm More Severely Than Children from Non-religious Households
Some problems with the study

There are many conflicting points within the study, from my point of view. In no particularly order, I would first point out the small size of the numbers in the study. For me to accept that religion teaches a lack of generosity, I would expect a study with tens or hundreds of thousands of students from similar backgrounds but different religious affiliations. If, in that study, the religious children shared only 3 of the 10 stickers and the non-religious children shared 7… that would be significant in both meanings of the word. However, if such a difference truly existed, we would not need a study of sticker-sharing to illustrate it.

Second, let us challenge the idea that these games adequately prove the conclusions of the scientists. Is the sharing of stickers a universally accepted and equivalent practice? Do stickers signify the same kind of toy, the same kind of gift between the major urban centers of the world? I am doubtful that that is the case. I expect such disparate cultures also to view the nature of bumps, pushes, and shoves in interpersonal behavior? We should not equate culture with religion. Moreover, there is the problem of those conclusions which were uninteresting to the scientists. Their study found that Christians were more likely to mete out less-strict punishments for actions they felt were more harmful. In the surveys given to the parents of the children, Christian parents were more likely to describe their children as sensitive to injustices in the world.

Third, the children were asked by adults to judge the actions of people they did not know in a series of videos. The study found that

religious children judged interpersonal harm as being meaner and deserving of harsher punishment than did children from non-religious households.

We do not have at our disposal the videos which the children watched. We do not know what kinds of punishments the children were offered to hand out to the transgressors. This is problematic because I believe the average person would want a child to recognize wrongdoing, apart from their desire to right wrongs through punishment. The researchers did not collect qualitative data, meaning they did not ask the children to explain themselves and their actions. Their responses are the only measure of their supposed meanness and strictness. How can we account for the empathy of the children? To what degree did they feel for the person being pushed, as opposed to feeling vindictive against the aggressor? Indeed, the researchers directly gave permission to the children, instructing them to judge total strangers.

Fourth, I have concerns with how adequately the study accounted for the backgrounds of the various children. The study claimed to “account” for the “country of origin,” but no specifics were given for that accounting.

To be more specific on this point, let us consider the numbers. I consider it safe to assume that majority of the non-religious children (about 300 total) likely came from China (providing about 200 of the total). Similarly, it seems like that the majority of Muslim children came from Turkey and Jordan, while the Christian children likely came from Chicago, with likely pluralities from Toronto and Cape Town. There were also minorities of Jewish and Hindu students included in the religious category, and I assume that Cape Town and Toronto provided the most diverse populations. In other words, there were some pretty huge cultural divergences apart from religious identity. Would it not be possible that Chinese children might have a great likelihood to share their stickers with the community? And that this was not because they were non-religious but rather because the social network in China is quite different from that found in other countries, unrelated to the existence or nonexistence of Christian, Muslim, or Jewish communities?

Fifth, there is the issue of forgiveness. The study found, for example, that Christian children were more likely to view actions as “mean,” and to a greater degree. Yet, simultaneously, those same children were less strict in meting out punishments to the offenders. To reiterate: Christian children gave lighter punishments to those whom they identified as being deserving of punishment. However, the authors of the study did not highlight that finding — I would argue it is because it did not fit the larger anti-religion narrative they supported.

Having cast some doubts on the process and conclusions, I would close by criticizing later comments by Dr. Decety. Namely, he suggested a possible reason for the perceived lack of generosity by religious children — moral license. This theory suggests that when people perceive themselves as doing something good, it leaves them less concerned about the consequences of immoral behavior. In this case, however, Dr. Decety implies that the children view their own religious identity as a self-righteousness which allows them to be less generous. This goes against the study itself, which only identified the religious identity of the parents, so that the children were no more aware of their religious identity than they were of their ethnic, gender, class, or other identities. In this case, I feel that overly broad conclusions were drawn from too little data. I also hesitate to expect convincing arguments about the altruism or kindness of various sets of people coming from a journal like Current Biology. Explaining that is as simple as pointing to my own research in the humanities. I think there are many questions which the hard sciences do not, should not, can not ask or attempt to answer.

The good news from this study is clear enough to me: all children share! The amount by which they show their generosity increases with age and does not differ significantly between various religious affiliations. In my opinion, this study offers examples of the variations in generosity and forgiveness between groups of people, but offers no significant evidence for differences between religious and non-religious people.

Published by

Michael Hancock-Parmer

PhD, 2017 History & Central Eurasian Studies Indiana University Bloomington