Are Religious Kids Really Meaner than Their Secular Counterparts? A Guest Post

There’s a news story making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter about a study that supposedly shows that religious kids are meaner than non-religious kids. Social psychologist Dr. Chuck Hackney takes a closer look at the study and offers some important caveats about the methodology in today’s guest post.



Here are a few of my initial thoughts on the study:

  1. It is odd that the researchers had to go to a biology journal to get it published, when there are several high-quality psychology of religion journals out there.  Not really an important point, just something to note.
  1. Before anyone gets too excited about the findings, look at the statistics.  This is why I tell my students that it’s important to read the methods and results in research write-ups. It may be the boring technical bits, but that’s where the quality of a study stands or falls.  The standardized coefficient reported by the researchers was -0.132, which represents only a small effect size.  Put another way, the coefficient represents the change in one variable (stickers given to another kid) associated with changes in the other variables (religious vs nonreligious household).  Children were given 30 stickers and given an opportunity to share.  The difference between the average sticker sharing among the religious kids and the average sticker sharing among the irreligious kids was ONLY 13% of one sticker.
  1. The way that the researchers measured religiosity annoys me.  They operationalized their variable by a simple religious/nonreligious dichotomy, which is the crudest and least sophisticated possible way to do it.  Given the easy availability of a wide range of complex multidimensional religiosity measures, speaking as someone who has done psychology of religion research, I am professionally annoyed at such a blunt analytic approach.  The website where I first saw this was a Doctor Who site (yes, I know the story is not about Doctor Who. There is some off-topic discussion going on at that website).  I explained the problem to them this way: Suppose someone wanted to study Doctor Who fandom, but they measured it by asking participants “Have you ever seen an episode of Doctor Who?”, and calling everyone who said “yes” a Doctor Who fan.  Would any actual Doctor Who fan have any respect at all for a study like that?
  1. Another thing to watch out for is big sweeping conclusions based on data that do not actually support such statements.  Looking at the crudity of their measure and the small effect size that they detected, a proper conclusion would be very modestly stated, with a lot of acknowledgements of the limitations of the study.  If you click on the link in the story and get the pdf of the study, looking at the conclusions they draw, there is none of that.  There is no modesty in their discussion, and they close with a claim that this study shows that secularization makes the world more moral.  Talk about overstating one’s case!

Leaving aside the methodological problems noted above, the connection between religiosity and morality is complex and needs a lot more development. To begin with, the results of psychology of religion studies vary widely depending on how researchers define religion. Studies in which the researchers measure religion by asking questions like “how often do you attend religious services?” produce very different results than studies in which religiosity is measured in terms of agreement with theological teachings, and those studies produce different results than studies in which the researchers are looking at religious maturity, or religious motivation, and so on.

It also matters how morality is being measured. Studies that measure morality by assessing endorsement of moral values tend to show that religiosity is strongly predictive of more moral beliefs. Some aspects of religiosity predict more mature and complex moral reasoning while other aspects do not. Generally speaking (there are exceptions), religiosity does not predict more moral behaviour when believers are “in the heat of the moment” (e.g., giving someone an opportunity to cheat on a test), but it does predict more moral behaviour when believers have time to plan for it (e.g., higher religiosity scores predict more volunteerism). Religiosity predicts higher levels of morally-relevant traits such as self-control, gratitude, and forgiveness.

And even then, that’s the simplified version. It all gets complicated very quickly.


Dr. Charles Hackney is Associate Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Psychology Department at Briercrest College and Seminary. He is co-host of the Book of Nature Podcast, and author of Martial Virtues: Lessons in Wisdom, Courage and Compassion from the World’s Greatest Warriors.  He is also married to me!

Psychology and Christianity Conference Announcement

Next week, no rx October 18-20, cure the Society for Christian Psychology is having their annual conference at Regent University in Norfolk, diagnosis Virginia. The theme is Towards a Christian Positive Psychology.

Presenters include psychologists David Myers, Eric Johnson, Julie Exline and Charles Hackney. Philosophers and theologians include Ellen Charry, James Spiegel and Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung.

The full schedule can be found here.

Chuck’s presentation is on October 20th and his paper is entitled, “Imperfectable: The Importance of Fallenness in a Christian Positive Psychology.”

Sounds like a great conference!

Athanasius and Terror Management Theory

Being married to a psychologist, sale I always get excited when I find areas where theology and psychology intersect. One of Chuck’s areas of expertise is Terror Management Theory, pharmacy established in 1989 in an article by Abram Rosenblatt, here Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, Tom Pyszczynski, and Deborah Lyon published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Terror Management Theory (TMT) is a theory of motivation with strong existential roots. TMT describes humans as unique in our ability to think about the future, which gives us the tremendous advantage of being able to plan and anticipate. But this advanced cognitive ability has a downside. Thinking about the future makes us aware of our mortality, which causes intense anxiety. We buffer ourselves against this anxiety (“managing” our “terror”) by holding to a shared cultural worldview that provides us with an explanation for why our brief lives have meaning, what life is all about, how we should live it; and ultimately provides a promise of some form of immortality. The promised immortality can be literal (heaven, resurrection) or symbolic (creating long-lasting works of art, having a positive impact on society, raising children who outlive you, etc). By pursuing a meaningful life, we are pursuing immortality, and our existential anxiety is overcome.

It’s interesting to see where TMT appears in theology, especially when it’s old theology that dates well before the psychologists put a name to it. (Ecclesiastes comes to mind, in which the author rejects symbolic forms of immortality in favour of the literal immortality associated with one’s relation to God). In On the Incarnation, Athanasius has an extended discussion of the effects of the Resurrection on the lives of Christian believers. Based largely on an examination of 1Corinthians 15, Athanasius argues that before Christ came, died and was resurrected, even the holiest of men feared death. But because of Christ’s resurrection, death has been defeated, and Christians are promised resurrection like Christ. As such Christians no longer fear death, but instead embrace it.

Athanasius points to the martyrs as examples of this. They are the ones who “prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ.” He argues that before these martyrs knew Christ they did fear death, and having encountered the risen Saviour, do so no longer. In fact, now men, women and even children mock death. Athanasius even uses the martyrs’ willingness to die as evidence for the reality of the Resurrection of Christ. Everyone is afraid of death, but not these Christians. The change is because of the power of the Resurrection.

He writes,

If you see with your own eyes men and women and children, even, thus welcoming death for the sake of Christ’s religion, how can you be so utterly silly and incredulous and maimed in your mind as not to realise that Christ, to Whom these all bear witness, Himself gives victory to each, making death completely powerless for those who hold His faith and bear the sign of the cross? No one in his senses doubts that a snake is dead when he sees it trampled underfoot, especially when he knows how savage it used to be; nor, if he sees boys making fun of a lion, does he doubt that the brute is either dead or completely bereft of strength. These things can be seen with our own eyes, and it is the same with the conquest of death. Doubt no longer, then, when you see death mocked and scorned by those who believe in Christ, that by Christ death was destroyed, and the corruption that goes with it resolved and brought to end. (pg. 59-60)

Of course, we might wonder if the accounts and testimonies of the martyrs of the early Church are exaggerated so that confidence is highlighted and any fears, doubts or even public recantations are minimized, but the modern psychology of TMT does suggest that religion is indeed a powerful buffer that minimizes death anxiety.

That being said, TMT is powerless to support Athanasius’ argument that the ability to face death proves the truth of Jesus’ Resurrection. One of the best books on TMT is In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, in which the September 11th attacks are analyzed using TMT research and principles. The ability of the terrorists to willingly sacrifice themselves in suicide attacks points to the power of religious worldviews to overcome death anxiety. Similar willingness to die can be seen in the practice of self-immolation, which is becoming increasingly-common in Asia. In 2001-2002, for example, over 3,000 Indians burned themselves to death, many in protest of government policies perceived to be anti-Hindu. Self-immolation is also a common form of protest among Tibettan Buddhists. Willingness to die does not prove that Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism is true, only that, as TMT predicts, these religious worldviews have the power to overcome the fear of death. The ability to buffer against death is not unique to the Christian worldview; rather, if TMT is correct, it is a function of all worldviews.

Do you fear death? Has the proclamation of the Resurrection changed how you see death? Have you found that your Christian worldview buffers against death anxiety?

Does God Have Any Traditionally-Feminine Traits?

This post is by Dr. Charles Hackney. Enjoy!


In response to John Piper’s recent comments about God as a supremely masculine figure, cialis Rachel Held Evans asked for “the guys” to provide some possible responses focusing on women in the Church or feminine images of God in the Bible.

I have commented before on my semi-sorta-quasi-egalmentarian stance on gender differences, informed by my training as a social/personality psychologist. My approach here will continue in that vein, focusing on personality and social psychological research into masculinity and femininity.* (One major approach that I will avoid here is Jungian depth psychology. Although Jung had plenty to say about the psychology of maleness and femaleness, I am not well versed enough in Jungian thought to speak with any kind of competence in that area.)

1. God Speaks From His Heart
Many studies have examined gender differences in communication, both verbal and nonverbal. Women tend to outperform men on tests of verbal creativity and fluency. Women tend toward greater emotional expressivity (with the exception of expressing anger, at which men tend to excell), more accurate perception of others’ emotions, and better performance at nonverbally expressing emotion. Compared to men, women’s overall approaches to communication tends to be about the establishment and strengthening of relational bonds. Men’s approaches to communication tend to be more instrumental: communication is about conveying information from my brain to your brain, preferably with an eye toward completing tasks.

So how does God communicate? While we do see God conveying information, in parts of scripture God is pouring out his heart. He grieves over the sins of the people, going so far as to ‘regret’ his previous actions of love and hospitality to them. We see God establishing relational bonds over and over again in God’s initiation of covenants with Israel – “I will be your God and you will be my people”. All of this is done because, as Trinity, God is relational.

2. God’s Moral Reasoning
The most well-known researcher in the area of moral psychology is Lawrence Kohlberg. He examined the thought processes behind people’s moral decisions, developing a theory in which people are seen to grow from more primitive forms of morality to higher and more sophisticated forms. The highest form of morality in Kohlberg’s theory is reasoning in terms of abstract principles of justice. His research revealed a curious gender difference; women typically scored lower in moral reasoning than men did. Kohlberg interpreted this as society retarding women’s moral development. This interpretation (and his basic theory) was challenged by the research of Carol Gilligan, who found that women were not less sophisticated or advanced in their moral thinking, but tended to approach moral decisions from a perspective that has been called “the ethic of care,” with a greater emphasis on compassion and relationships.

So how does God reason about morality? It is commonplace in theology to describe God’s character as both just and loving. Yes, the Bible is filled with exhortations to justice, praise for just actions, condemnation of unjust actions, and praise of God’s justice. But God also employs love, compassion, care, and other such “feminine” forms of morality as important moral principles. He exhorts us to love our neighbours, care for the widows and orphans, and show compassion, for He has shown us compassion.

3. When God “Roleplays”
Much of the literature on psychological gender differences has been summarized in terms of “agency” and “communion.” Agentic characteristics involve forceful action, assertiveness, competition, dominance and mastery. Communal characteristics involve friendliness, unselfishness, emotional expressiveness, and unity with others.

One interesting take on these themes in the personality literature comes from the mind of Dan McAdams. McAdams’ approach to personality is narrative in structure. Your life story (as you see it) is what shapes your self-concept, influences how you respond in different situations, and guides how you go about selecting and pursuing your life goals. So, is your life story an epic tale of struggle to overcome the odds? Is it a sad story of loss and pain? Is it a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? In addition, what is your role in the drama? Loveable loser? No-account boozer? Honkeytonk hero? In his study of the stories that people live by, and the character types in which they cast themselves, McAdams found the themes of agency and communion in people’s life-story-characters. Some roles were high on agency and low on communion (e.g., The Warrior), some were high on communion and low on agency (e.g., The Caregiver), some had high levels of both (e.g.. The Teacher), and some had low levels of both (e.g., The Survivor). Men were more likely to see themselves in agentic terms, while women were more likely to see themselves in communal terms. The four most common highly-communal roles McAdams found were The Lover, The Caregiver, The Friend, and The Ritualist.

Let’s see if God fits these “feminine” communal character types.
The Lover is a character who seeks intimacy with others, who delights in relationships. Romantic themes are prominent in this person’s life. Examples of God as The Lover include the extended portrayal of God in Hosea 1-3 as a betrayed husband seeking to redeem his wife and renew their intimacy.

The Caregiver sacrifices herself for the sake of others. This person is often found acting in a parental role. Examples of God as The Caregiver include Psalm 61:3, Psalm 103:13, and Matthew 23:37.

The Friend, rather than showing the passion of The Lover, is loyal, cooperative, and steadfast. This is the kind of person who is always there for you, whether you need a sympathetic ear or a strong pair of arms to help you move. Examples of God as The Friend include Nahum 1:7 and John 15:15.

The Ritualist believes strongly in tradition, family, home, and community. Examples of God as The Ritualist include Exodus 20:12 and Proverbs 1:8-9.

Here are just three approaches to psychological gender differences, and three ways in which God displays traditionally-feminine characteristics. This does not mean that we should uplift feminine characteristics over the masculine, or vice versa. Rather, Amanda’s quote of Miroslav Volf serves as a good conclusion:
“We uses masculine or feminine metaphors for God not because God is male or/and female, but because God is ‘personal’…Whether we use masculine or feminine metaphors for God, God models our common humanity, not our gender specificity…Men and women share maleness and femaleness not with God but with animals. They image God in their common humanity…” Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 170-173

*Contact me if you want references to specific studies.

A Study in Combat Sport Psychology

If you are a student of the martial arts: karate, clinic jujitsu, malady bartitsu, boxing, etc., Dr. Charles Hackney is doing a study and would like your help. If you have a few minutes, please fill out the survey. If you know of anyone who is studying martial arts, please pass this information on.

A Study in Combat Sport Psychology Survey.

Any inquiries about the study should be directed to:

Charles H. Hackney, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Psychology Briercrest College and Seminary
510 College Drive Caronport, SK S0H 0S0
(306) 756-3263

Happiness is a Choice — Or Is It?

@RickWarren tweeted this on Thursday:
Happiness is a choice. You are as happy as you choose to be.

I read that, sovaldi and my inner Eeyore cringed.

A Psychological Perspective:

Is it true? Considering there is an entire field of psychology, medicine called positive psychology, that looks at happiness, I thought I would ask my resident expert for his opinion. Here’s what Chuck has to say…

As is so often the case, this is… partly… true. Your level of happiness is influenced by a wide range of factors, some of which are under your control, while others are not. Researchers such as Martin Seligman, David Myers, and Ed Diener have studied happiness extensively, and here is a summary of their findings:

Happiness variables that ARE subject to your choice:
1. Marriage. On average, married people are happier than unmarried people. The “choose”-iness of this is limited, however. I could choose to be married all I want, but unless someone else chooses to marry me, I’m out of luck.
2. Friends. Happy people spend a lot of time socializing with their friends. (This might be a large group or a small group, depending on whether you are an extravert or an introvert.)
3. Religion. There is strong and consistent evidence that the more religious you are, the happier you will tend to be. In the words of Cab Calloway, “You get wise. You get to church.”
4. Thought patterns. Seligman’s research on cognition and depression shows that, when bad things happen, unhappy people tend to explain them as resulting from “internal” (my fault), “stable” (can’t change it), and “global” (this impacts my entire self-concept) causes. A classic example would be getting a bad grade on an exam in school, and concluding that “I’m just stupid.” Albert Ellis’ approach to cognitive therapy focuses on people messing themselves up by holding irrational beliefs (“I MUST win my mother’s approval” “Everybody HAS to like me” “I’m NEVER wrong”). It takes effort, but it is possible to gain control over these thoughts and steer them in healthier directions (“It would be nice if everyone liked me, but not really necessary”).

Happiness variables that are NOT subject to your choice:
1. Genetics. If we were to ask you to rate your level of happiness on a scale from one to ten, roughly fifty percent of the variability on your answer would be due to your DNA.
2. Money. This is somewhat subject to your choice, but only somewhat. If your income is above a minimum threshold, then the relationships drops off, but below that threshold, money and happiness are strongly related, and telling someone “Well just choose to have a better-paying job” is hardly useful. So, money might not be able to make you happy, but being broke can certainly make you unhappy.

While we have a certain amount of freedom to choose our level of happiness, that freedom is constrained by numerous factors. Overemphasizing the role of choice in happiness leads to what psychologist Barbara Held calls the “tyranny of the positive attitude,” the notion that those who are insufficiently happy should be blamed for their condition. An example of this is Dennis Prager’s facepalm-worthy claim that happiness is a moral obligation (being unhappy, according to Prager, puts you in the same moral category as terrorists and war criminals).

A Theological Perspective:

Is it true? My initial thoughts on happiness…

Scripture talks about joy, peace, love and other fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). But what is the relationship between joy and peace, and happiness?

Jurgen Moltmann, in writing about being born again, looks at two outcomes: joy and peace.

Joy is that what happens “when the Spirit of the resurrection is experienced, a person breathes freely again, and gets up out of the defeats and anxieties of his or her life…We beign to love life with the love of God which we experience in the Spirit. It far outdoes the disappointments and hurts which reduce our love for life and weigh us down.” (pg. 31)

Peace is, according to Moltmann, a “coming to rest…It also means arriving at consonance and concord with God and ourselves. People of peace radiate a quiet assurance.” (pg. 31)

And yet, Moltmann is quick to point out that this does not mean that Christians are always happy or cheerful. Indeed, he points out that Jesus was not always happy. We are “saved none of the torments of soul…The Spirit leads [us] into the wilderness just as it led Jesus too. By this I don’t mean the external lonelinesses. I mean the soul’s dark and desert hours.” (pg. 32). Moltmann points to what John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul, “when God-forsakenness drives a soul into cold despair, and we can only go on clinging to faith in God in companionship with the assailed Christ between Gethsemane and Golgotha.” (pg. 32)

Looking at this, joy and peace, and the emotions that come from experiencing the Spirit, seem to point to the cause being something outside ourselves. It is because of the Spirit, and because of the Resurrection of Jesus that I experience joy. It is because of God’s presence that I experience peace.

Happiness is the by-product of experiencing the work of the Spirit in our lives. Happiness flows out of the joy, peace, love, etc., and is not the cause of these fruits. The Spirit is the cause of the fruits, and happiness, being the by-product, is not rooted in our ‘choosing’ to be happy.

While positive experiences of the Spirit are good, and are to be sought after, our faith is not founded on them. If I am unhappy, it should not mean my faith dissolves and disappears. As Moltmann says, “The firm lodestone of faith is not provided by the inner experiences of the Spirit…but by community with Christ, in the living and dying and rising again with him.” (pg 32).