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.

Social Change, not Dehumanization: Using Language and Emotion Productively in Our Conflicted World

By Teresa

This post is a reflection on how we often inadvertently dehumanize others as we seek to portray our world through language, especially when discussing divisive issues.  Instead of contributing to this dehumanization, however, we can conscientiously use language and emotion as a recourse against violence.  Except in perhaps the most extreme situations (if at all), I do not believe that we can act or speak violently toward others whom we truly view as fully human, individuals of intrinsic value similar to ourselves.

Language is important because it shapes who we are; the language we use slowly influences the person we are becoming.  Negative or aggressive language changes our personality over time.  Consider, for example, the man who impersonated a slave owner for a historical program called Follow the North Star at the Conner Prairie open-air museum in Indianapolis. The yelling and insults he utilized in that role began to undermine his previously gentle, caring demeanor, even when he was not at work.

Continued exposure to, or use of, insulting and biased language leads us to view others as either allies or opponents, without seeing them as full human beings.  This type of engagement, of course, dehumanizes others and reduces them to a viewpoint or policy with which we either agree or disagree.  It seems we often bemoan how in the world today we frequently talk past one another, without listening in good faith to differing viewpoints.   I believe this lack of communication occurs because we focus on others as representing opinions, rather than as people.  When we effectively forget or ignore that we are dealing with other humans inherently equal to ourselves, we become most concerned with our own viewpoint triumphing.  Others “deserve” to be insulted because their worldview is in some way deficient.

Considerate language, on the other hand, enables us to maintain a fundamental respect for others.  We can identify the underlying concerns that motivate different viewpoints and work together for acceptable solutions.  I am aware that in many cases, adequately addressing and reconciling all underlying concerns is impossible.  However, even in situations when we cannot morally accept another person’s belief or action, we can still value their intrinsic worth as a fellow human being.  We can see them first and foremost as a person.

The dehumanizing effects of insulting language may seem obvious, but what about the other words we use to portray our world?  I would argue that categories we use to group people–nationality, race, creed, gender, political affiliation, economic status, profession, etc–are similarly dehumanizing because they reduce individual humans to particular characteristics that mark the group to which they belong.  I refer to the ‘group’ most immediately being referenced in any specific context; as people, of course, we occupy an infinite number of shifting affiliations.

Categories, unlike insults, cannot just be avoided, for they are linguistic tools that allow us to make sense of our surroundings.  Indeed, categories can be useful means to research and map the world, and they allow us to identify–and hopefully remedy–disparate privileges and rights between groups.  At the individual level, our affiliation in certain groups may give us a sense of belonging and/or notably mark our identity.   Categories, therefore, are not necessarily negative, and we may choose to embrace group monikers as essential elements of ourselves.

At the same time, categories dehumanize when we use them carelessly, passively, without actively remembering that no category fully encompasses the individuals of whom that category is composed. A corollary of this point is that we cannot assume we know something about an individual based only on our knowledge of their membership in a group. Most groups are so vast, with such diversity, that even baseline statements have occasional exceptions. Definitions, such as income designations, that we apply to mark off groups may be momentarily useful in particular contexts, but the information they convey is superficial and ephemeral.  We do not really know what any individual person believes, thinks, feels, or does solely because they, whether through self-identification or imposed definition, fall into any given category.

So, how do we ensure that we don’t dehumanize others as we read about and describe our world?

I suggest cultivating attitudes toward others founded on embracing our shared humanity. We can remind ourselves frequently that members of ‘x’ group are complex, individual people, whose views, actions, and histories may or may not align with those typically associated with the group. Even when we use categories, as we often must, we can be aware of their limitations; we must conscientiously negate their power to eclipse individuals. With these periodic mental checks, we acquire an underlying awareness of the human beings who populate our world, and we nurture our ability to recognize others as equally human. This attitude will ensure that our default mode of interaction is respectful and loving.

Most of all, I think a humanistic perspective can best be achieved by actively wishing good on those with whom we disagree. This can be difficult, especially if we consider people whom we truly believe to be doing harm in the world, such as influential politicians whose policies we despise, perpetrators of violent crime, or the leaders and members of ISIS. However, we immediately humanize our opponents if we authentically desire their well-being. Everything we would like in our own lives–joy, peace, love, self-realization, meaningful relationships, generic “good things”–we can desire for others. Not in a self-congratulatory, condescending, patronizing, or conditioned way (“You are very wrong/blind/self-deluded, but because I am enlightened and a better person, I will still wish you well.  I hope you come to a better understanding of the issue”), but with genuine desire for the person’s well-being (“You are a human being, just like me, and you have your own convictions, aspirations, trials, and joys, just as I do.  I think your beliefs on ‘x’ are fundamentally flawed, and I will do what I can to promote my own ideas, which I believe to be better for society.  Regardless, even if you never agree with me, I sincerely hope life treats you well, and I wish you happiness”).

This is not to wish for the success of policies, viewpoints, or actions that we oppose, but to desire another’s good at an inner, fundamental level.  This practice can also lead to humility as we remember that, for someone in the world, we also represent a person with detestable ideas or actions on whom it is nearly impossible to wish well-being.

With an awareness of others’ inherent worth as human beings–which one might characterize as a true, unconditional love of neighbor–we can then strive for our actions and speech to correspond appropriately.  We might reflect on the messages we communicate as we speak, write, and share media.  We can choose carefully what we read, and how we portray others.  The more we expose ourselves to or utilize dehumanizing language, the more likely we are to act accordingly, perhaps even with violence toward those with whom we disagree.  The less likely we are to work together constructively to seek and implement actual solutions that improve society.   Conversely, if we view people as fellow human beings and not merely as members of an ‘other’ category, we can respond to conflict and disagreement with compassion.

My argument may raise ethical concerns; members of under-privileged or oppressed groups have historically, perhaps personally, been denied the compassion, equality, and inherent humanity for which I am advocating. Am I asking them to extend these same attitudes and ideals to all, including those who have historically or individually perpetrated injustices? Ultimately, I am. I believe that the only true way to minimize injustice in the world is to embrace the idea that everyone, even one’s opponents, are equal human beings. Otherwise, we are perpetuating dehumanizing viewpoints and language that will lead to further violence or oppression.

Lest my perspective appear too naive, as a passive “turn the other cheek” or a simplistic “two wrongs don’t make a right,” let me hasten to say that everyone should feel compelled to actively fight for justice in our social structures, laws, and relationships. Humanizing people who commit injustices does not displace advocacy to improve the world. I am not arguing for complacency, nor am I suggesting that all opinions are equally valid.  Rather, I emphasize that all people are equally people regardless of their beliefs, however harmful or deplorable when practiced.  We can demand justice even while recognizing the essential humanity within all involved.

An emphasis on others’ humanity also leads us to respond to injustice and suffering with sadness, rather than anger. Much has been made of anger as a catalyst for change, but I would suggest that sadness is a more effective emotion. We can use anger appropriately, especially if we keep it impersonally focused on injustices themselves. Too often, however, our anger at a situation spills over and becomes directed at individuals associated with that situation. Sadness, on the other hand, can mobilize us to action without inciting us to lash out at others. It leads us to demand more of ourselves as we ask,”What can I do to help?” “How can I alleviate this suffering or promote societal change?” “How might I be inadvertently contributing to this or other injustices?”

Sadness propels us to self-reflection, collaborative action, and compassionate service. Whereas anger often leads us to blame or impose change on others, sadness places responsibility on our own shoulders. It compels us to alleviate our fellow human beings’ suffering.

I am reminded of the story of a mother who, angered that her children had left the door open, slammed it closed.  Only later did she realize that she had crushed a toad who had been sitting in the doorway. The mother’s anger seemed justified, for her children had not obeyed her specific instructions to close the door, but as a result the toad lost its life. This story does not contain the seriousness of many real-life issues and situations, yet it demonstrates that anger used to redress valid, authentic grievances may inadvertently do harm.  In his article about literature’s ability to teach compassion, Gary Saul Morson reflects that “nothing makes us less capable of empathy than consciousness of victimhood. Self-conscious victimhood leads to cruelty that calls itself righteousness and thereby generates more victims.” If our cause leads us to stereotype and belittle others, than we too are perpetrating injustices. We must address societal wrongs passionately, visibly, and effectively, but let us do so in a way that recalls that every individual involved is a human being.

Although we think of violence as the terrible events we see on the news, most violence occurs quietly in our everyday lives. It does not even take the form of explicit insults or aggression. Rather, we sow the seeds of violence within ourselves whenever we assume knowledge of a person and then judge accordingly; whenever we dismiss a group of people as ‘flawed’ or ‘deficient’ in some way because they view the world differently; and whenever we, fueled by righteous indignation at how we or others have been wrongs, reduce others to opponents or enemies. Let us, instead, create a foundation for communication, cooperation, and genuine change by actively seeing and portraying the humanity of everyone even as we fight the injustices around us.

A reflection on the Chaplet of the Seven Sorrows of Mary

By Teresa

The following thoughts are personal, devotional reflections that arose during prayer and meditation. Perhaps they may be useful to others; I share my reflections for this purpose, and to promote the chaplet as a powerful tool to strengthen us in our spiritual journey.   Continue reading A reflection on the Chaplet of the Seven Sorrows of Mary