Friday, October 19, 2007

More kids vs. religion

Former Daddy Dialectic blogger Chip (who is now retired from blogging, alas) wrote a number of posts on raising kids without religion--posts that, not surprisingly, provoked quite a lot of discussion.

Though I am every bit as atheistic and philosophically materialist as Chip, I often disagreed with him about the need for secular social structures that can connect people to something larger than themselves and reinforce moral behavior.

A new study published in the journal Psychological Science finds that thoughts about God do indeed encourage people to share what they have. But researchers also discovered that secular concepts of civic responsibility and social justice do just about as much to promote altruism.

In two related experiments, University of British Columbia Associate Professor Ara Norenzayan and Ph.D. graduate student Azim Shariff divided 125 participants into three groups.

In the first group, researchers asked participants to unscramble sentences that contained words like spirit, God, and sacred. The second group played the same word game, but with non-religious content. The third played the game with words like court, civic, jury, and police—thereby priming them with thoughts of secular moral authority.

Then each participant was given 10 one-dollar coins and asked to make a decision about how much keep for herself and how much to share with another person--this is a standard laboratory test for altruism called the Dictator's Game.

The results: The religious group offered to share an average of $4.56 with another person, the secular group shared $4.44—and people who were not primed with any moral thoughts at all shared only $2.56.

Researcher Azim Shariff told me that their experiment shows how important it is for people to be reminded of their social responsibilities, but stresses that faith in God is optional. “We added the secular institutions as an afterthought in the second study, mostly because we wanted to demonstrate that religion wasn’t the only thing that could do this," Shariff said. "In our history, we’ve developed a lot of cultural institutions designed to reign in our selfish behavior. One of the earliest and most effective ones, we believe, was religion. But that’s certainly at this point not the only thing that does it.”

Not only did secular thoughts do almost as good a job at priming altruistic behavior as God thoughts, but people who described themselves as religious did not behave more altruistically than godless counterparts--a finding that a lot of other studies have echoed. (In one study that had different groups of Princeton seminary students walk by a man slumped and groaning on the sidewalk, researchers discovered that their willingness to help depended on one variable: how late they were for their next appointment.)

“Our study adds to a growing body of evidence to suggest that there has been all these cultural institutions that have evolved either purposely or through some blind process of cultural selection that serve to reign in our selfishness so that we can live in larger social groups harmoniously," said Shariff. "We evolved to live in much smaller groups, with more limited range of prosocial behavior, but we’ve developed rituals, beliefs, practices that allow us to overcome our more base natures and cooperate more, which has allowed us to build civilization.”

So can we raise moral children outside of structures of supernatural belief? I believe the answer is yes, and there is evidence to support my belief. But I don't think individual parents can do it alone--and there's evidence to support that contention as well. To curb selfish behavior and cultivate meaning in our lives, we need to be constantly reminded of our interdependence with other people and the natural world. So do atheists need a church? I'd say they do.


Chip said...

Interesting study you cite in that post. But I don't think atheists need a "church" (and the study certainly doesn't say that); by saying that you are framing the whole issue of community and values in religious terms, because church is a "sacred space" in which
religious dogma/values dominate all else.

I realize some churches are less
oppressive than others, but I found even at the Unitarian church here -- which is very much a church in architecture, form, services, even if it was nontheistic -- I felt oppressed.

I'd just repeat what I've said before. There are plenty of people in other developed countries who are not religious, even atheistic, and they don't feel the need for some kind of "church." Are you arguing that American culture/history has developed in such a way that even those of us who are secular have to think in religious categories, that is, we have to make connections, etc etc the way religious people do?

You write: To curb selfish behavior and cultivate meaning in our lives, we need to be constantly reminded of our interdependence with other people and the natural world.

But I don't see any natural logical next step of to do that you need a
church. It seems that in neighborhoods in urban areas there's plenty of that kind of interdependence in people's day to day lives. I'd also add that I
did go to church as a kid and for a while as an adult with kids, and I never got a sense of interdependence from that experience, it didn't lead me to
curb selfish behavior and cultivate meaning. In fact I found it pretty
meaningless, and to the extent I am not selfish and find meaning in life, it certainly did not and does not come through church.

On the other hand, because my parents were tied into the church and I went to the catholic school associated with the church, there was a community of people affiliated with the church. But that kind of community is far from
being the only way people connect. My current community does not involve church at all; when the kids were little our community was very focused on the kids' school community. Now it's expanded beyond that, including people
we knew from that time but also people living in our neighborhood.

So I guess I'm sensing that you are really focusing on something else
besides interdependence...

Jan said...

"So can we raise moral children outside of structures of supernatural belief?"
Yes, of course. Anything is possible. But why raise them without teaching them about that power? A belief that God is with us in everything we do strengthens us.

chicago pop said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chicago pop said...

The thing that throws me about this study -- aside from deriving a scientific definition of religion from card tricks (though a modern Voltaire would argue that religion itself is a card trick) is the way it builds in a few hefty assumptions about religion that are firmly rooted in the Euro-American historical experience: that religion means monotheism (God, God-Thoughts), and that there is a clearly defined region of life that has nothing to do with religion (the secular); that ethical principles themselves do not have a value that might be classified as religious.

The first assumption takes Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions as the norm, and leaves out things like Hinduism or animistic religions. The second assumption takes the Franco-American norm of separation of Church and state to be a sort of scientific principle, when it is in fact a political one. The third assumption fails to explain how a more or less materialist, ethical world-view such as Confucianism or Daoism act like religion in a lot of ways.

But I agree with the gist of the study: ethics and supernaturalism don't necessarily have to go together. But I wouldn't argue from this for an "anti" religious/atheistic position. (Atheism itself is a dogmatic, negative version of what it rejects, and is just as bound up in the particular religious history of Europe as the equation religion = monotheism). Religion is what is made of it, and is so variable (like marriage and gender norms) in time and place that it's hard to say once and for all that you "need" it or "don't need" it. It simply exists, and in some places has certain effects, in some places, others. And it would be a mistake to think that it will ever disappear.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

So much to respond to, so little time:

Chip: Perhaps I shouldn't have said "church"--I just meant that I think all of us need to be part of institutions that transcend generations and tie us to the past and the future. I agree, of course, institutional structures can feel and be oppressive--and so can any community, incidentally--but I think that we also gain a great deal from them. We're going to have to agree to disagree on this.

Jan: If you don't believe, you don't believe. I've talked to my 3-year-old son about church and God and so forth, and he's actually expressed an interest in learning more (he specifically said, and I'm not making this up, "I want to find God.") I'm certainly not going to stand in his way of exploring that on his own initiative, but I'm not pretending to believe something that I don't.

Chicago Pop: I think it's a mistake to reduce the study's method to a "card trick," although I was amused by the comparison. The card trick produced, by lab standards, a huge, measurable difference in behavior--that alone indicates that it's more than a mere trick. Rather, it's a catalyst that relies on much deeper cultural currents to produce its effects.

For the rest, I think the researchers would cheerfully admit to the limitations and assumptions behind their study--all studies have limitations and assumptions --and I have a feeling that as their research continues, they'll be methodically exploring many of these issues. It's important to recognize that while the word game did contain the word "God," it also contained many more words, such as sacred, that were broadly spiritual and comprehensible to people of many traditions. Obviously, some of the priming words were stronger to some people than to others; Shariff told me that they need to isolate and test those affects within specific traditions.

Chip said...

Jan, you write A belief that God is with us in everything we do strengthens us.

Maybe, maybe not. But you can't pretend to believe. Elsewhere I've blogged about our decision to not lie to our children, to not pretend we believe. We went through the motions for a while but decided it was really untenable.

So we don't believe, and our kids don't either, totally independent of any conscious attempt on our part -- they did go to church and sunday school with us when they were little.

As for "strengthening us", perhaps you don't mean it this way, but that kind of "preaching" strikes me as condescending to those of us who are not believers.

Chicago pop, the word "religion" and everything associated with it in our minds is in fact a western construct. The beliefs in other cultures does not really fit what western word "religion" means. As for atheism, it certainly is not a significant part of my identity. If you read my review of the book "Parenting Beyond Belief," you'll see I was critical of what seemed to me to be a forced "free thinker" or atheist identity. For me this whole religion thing is unimportant and irrelevent, I don't really care what others believe, and I have no illusions about it ever dissapearing. Some people seem to really need it, though I cannot understand that myself I can accept it. I just want people to know that they can raise their kids without religion and they'll turn out fine (sad that I even have to say that...)

Jeremy, I'm not sure we really disagree; my concern is that we not frame the entire discussion on a terrain predetermined by "religion."

chicago pop said...

I think chip is basically right that you can raise a fine, moral person without "religion" understood in the classical Judeo-Christian sense. The Romans did it -- relying on a secular code of natural law that had no supernatural sanction -- and we've inherited the big parts of our notion of "the law" from them.

But, it's entirely possible that such a moral child, later in life, may turn to "religion," just as it's possible that a child raised in one religion may turn to another, or to something else entirely, no matter the parents' opinions. A parent may struggle against the prejudice favoring religious upbringing, and see the child find religion on her own later in life. Or the reverse.

That's the wonder of it all.