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!

Cultural-Linguistic Approach to Religion

George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine is probably the hardest book I’ve had to read. Yes, sales he is more difficult to read than Barth. But just because he’s a hard read doesn’t make him irrelevant. Indeed, NOD has had a huge influence on various strains of Christian thought. Protestant Liberalism and conservative evangelicalism have both been shaped in the last 25 years by the theory introduced in NOD.

Lindbeck suggests that there has been two main ways of understanding doctrine, the Cognitive-propositionalist approach (CPA) and the Experiential-expressivist approach (EEA).

Cognitive-propositional: This approach to doctrine is concerned with verifiable fact. It is about “proving” that such-and-such doctrine is metaphysically true. He says that this was the pre-liberal approach to religion.

: This approach to doctrine is concerned with symbols. It is about finding the common human experience and about reducing doctrine to it’s universal principle that can be found across religions. The experience of “absolute dependence” is key to this approach. This has been liberal protestantism since the days of Schleiermacher.

Lindbeck proposes a third way — The Cultural-Linguistic Approach (CLA). This CLA is at the heart of what he calls “post-liberal” theology. In short, Postliberal theology is a movement to help liberal protestantism be shaped by Scripture. As Timothy Phillips and Dennis Okholm summarize, the mission of Postliberalism is “…to reverse the trend in modern Christianity of accommodation to culture.”

The CLA is based upon principles of cultural anthropology (Clifford Geertz) as well as theory of language (Ludwig Wittgenstein). So, a CLA means that “to become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.” (NOD, 20). It means that just like becoming fluent in a language, a person who becomes a Christian learns the language and practice; that is, how to think, act and feel within the Christian tradition.

A CLA approach means that we don’t have to “prove” the veracity of doctrines, nor do we have to reinterpret doctrines so that they can be explained to those outside of the faith. Indeed, it is very possible that there will be doctrines that will not ‘translate’ to other religions. (Example: there is no Christian equivalent to Buddhist Nirvana).

So what does this mean for explaining or evangelizing the faith? It means that in a cultural-linguistic approach, postliberal theology will ‘instead of redescribing the faith in new [modern] concepts, [it will] seek to teach the language and practices of the religion to potential adherents.” (pg. 118) Catechism becomes vital to the life of the Church. For example, Lindbeck looks back to the earliest Christian converts. He notes:

“Pagan converts…did not, for the most part, first understand the faith and then decide to become Christians; rather, the process was reversed: they first decided and then they understood. More precisely, they were first attracted by the Christian community and form of life…Only after they had acquired proficiency in the alien Christian language and form of life were they deemed able intelligently and responsibly to profess the faith.” (pg. 118)

…to be continued…

Mis-Reading Star Trek? Exploring Danna’s Chapter in ‘Religion and Science Fiction’

First, diagnosis let me say that I am awesomely impressed with this book. James McGrath has done an awesome job pulling together different scholars to examine the interaction between science-fiction and religion. Stay tuned for several posts on this book as I work through the various essays.

Today, buy viagra we look at Elizabeth Danna’s essay, diagnosis ‘Looking Out for No. 1: Concepts of Good and Evil in Star Trek and The Prisoner.’ I suggest that Dr. Danna has mis-read, or over-read some aspects of Star Trek in two places in particular: her analysis of the episode “Mirror, Mirror”, and second, her analysis of Captain Kirk’s name.

But to do justice to this analysis, I must call on my resident TOS expert. My field of expertise lies with TNG and DS9, and so I turn to one more qualified to look at these issues.


In the classic TOS episode “Mirror Mirror,” Kirk et al. find themselves in a parallel universe, switched with their counterparts by a malfunctioning transporter. In this mirror ‘verse, the Federation of Planets never existed, and a tyrannical Empire rules in its place. The crewmembers from “our” universe cope with life in the cruel mirror universe (promotion by assassination, Spock with a beard, etc.) while their Imperial alternate selves fail to cope with the Federation’s way of running a starship (and a beardless Spock). Federation Kirk talks Imperial bearded Spock into leading a revolution, while Imperial Kirk rants and rages at Federation beardless Spock. Once everyone is eventually returned to their native universes, beardless Spock gets to take yet another verbal jab at human nature (“brutal, unprincipled, uncivilized, treacherous; in every way splendid examples of homo sapiens. The very flower of humanity.”), and everyone learns a valuable lesson (such as avoiding the dang transporter; that thing is more trouble than it’s worth).

It seems to me that Elizabeth Danna saw a valuable lesson that wasn’t there, and it had nothong to do with avoiding the transporter. In her chapter, Danna contrasts the presentations of evil (and how to deal with it) in the TV shows Star Trek (TOS) and The Prisoner. Most of her TOS analysis is unproblematic: The episode “The Enemy Within” (oh look, another transporter malfunction) tells us that humans’ “negative side” is the source of our drives, and that the solution is for reason to rule and properly order it. “The Alternative Factor” creates the powerful image of a man locked in eternal battle against his evil self. “The Savage Curtain” shows that the line between “good guys” and “bad guys” is not as clear-cut as an alien rock-monster might want it to be. “Day of the Dove” shows us that racism can be overcome by a sufficient quantity of hearty manly (and Klingon-ly) laughter.

My disagreement involves her treatment of “Mirror Mirror.” Danna argues that “Mirror Mirror” is a lesson in the necessity of an outside force that will defeat human evil. In this case, Imperial bearded Spock must overthrow Imperial Kirk and take command of the Enterprise; in essence, deal with Federation Kirk’s evil twin for him. I see this as reading too much into the episode. “Mirror Mirror” does provide us with a couple of opportunities to reflect on human evil (if Federation beardless Spock is right, then we are savages at heart, and it is only the laws of civilization that keep us from that fate), but the most salient message appears to be one of identity: Spock is a man of integrity in both universes, but Imperial Kirk is quite comfortable as a merciless thug. What does that say about the factors that make us who we are? And there is some commentary on society and the inherent instability of tyrannies. But using Federation Kirk and Imperial Kirk as representatives of the good and evil within the human heart goes too far beyond what is written.

Speaking of reading too much into things, there is the matter of Kirk’s name. Danna claims that “James Tiberius Kirk” represents ambition and deviousness (“James” as an Anglicized “Jacob,” he of the stew-for-birthright scam) balanced with moral discipline (“Kirk” being the Scottish word for “church”) with a touch of Roman profligacy tossed in the midst. The fact that Captain Kirk was named “James” after Gene Roddenberry’s uncle (and also for an old boyfriend of his mother’s), and that “Tiberius” was chosen because GR’s grandfather was fascinated with Roman history (and that Kirk’s middle initial was “R” instead of “T” in the second pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) seem to lessen any possible deep symbolism implanted by GR in the name. The formal “meaning” of characters’ names does not always provide us with a peek into their souls. After all, “Gomer” means “famous battle,” but that doesn’t provide any insight into Gomer Pyle.

Too Much Religion in Science Fiction?

Tiffany Vogt over at Airlock Alpha has an article up suggesting that current science-fiction is short on the science and too long on religion. Citing Lost, remedy Battlestar Galactica and Caprica, look she suggests that religion can be an element, but not the overarching theme:

Angels, purgatory, limbo and monotheistic/polytheistic religious wars -– each has its place in science-fiction, but they are merely an element. They should not be the core of a science-fiction story. Relying too heavily on these elements in the place of true science-fiction only serves to alienate the very audience that such shows seek to engage…It is time to get science-fiction back on track. Where is the science? In today’s sci-fi, we want to be challenged by the possibilities of what lies ahead if such things as time travel, alternate universes, alien life and the rise of artificial intelligence come to fruition. Give us more of that.
That is, after all, what science-fiction is truly about. We want to see Cylons and smoke monsters. Do not kill the science in “science-fiction.”

Now I will admit that my sci-fi tends towards the Star Trek Universe, Babylon 5 (and its spin-offs) and Firefly, so I can’t comment directly on Lost or BSG. But I do think that Tiffany is missing the fact that alot of sci-fi has at its core religious themes.

Good sci-fi looks at questions about humanity: What is good and evil? What is the soul? How do we learn to get along with each other? What is the afterlife? What is sin? What is death? What is the good life?

True, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek was pretty atheistic, but have you noticed that the less Roddenberry had direct control over the franchise, the more elements of religion were explored? It started with Star Trek: TNG (think about Worf and the Klingon religion, particularly the episode where Kahless, the Messiah of Kronos, returns), and hit full-tilt with DS9 and Captain Sisko being practically a god to the Bajoran people (he was emissary to the prophets aka the “worm-hole aliens”).

Babylon 5, written by J. Michael Straczynski, has religious themes and elements all throughout the show. From different species, cultures and religions having to learn to get along through channels of diplomacy (the whole reason for the creation of the Babylon 5 station), to explorations into the nature of the soul (Delenn being attacked by the soul-hunter), to the ultimate battle of order versus chaos (Vorlons versus the Shadows, a direct reference to the Babylonian creation myth and the entire reason that JMS used the name “Babylon” for the series), Heck, Captain John Sheridan is accused of having a Messiah-complex, and Commander Sinclair becomes Valen, the spiritual leader of the Minbari.

Firefly, though cut short by the evil suits at Fox, had some beginning strands of religious themes. Captain Reynolds was a religious man, but after the battle of Serenity Valley, became hard towards any notion of God. A Shepherd (like a monk) joins the crew and questions his faith and why he exists. River and Simon are strung up to be burned at the stake by a conservative religious planet because River has the gift of second-sight and must therefore be a witch. (No word on whether or not she had turned anyone into a newt.)

All of these shows, while having lots of futuristic technology, aliens, transporters and space ships, had at their core an analysis of humanity. And religion plays a big role in how humanity thinks, behaves and feels.

Add to that the many classic novels that have had religion at their core, like Niven and Purnelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye and especially Frank Herbert’s Dune, and the notion that good sci-fi should be nonreligious becomes increasingly unsupportable.

In response to questions about the themes of religion in B5, Straczynski said this:

If you look at the long history of human society, religion — whether you describe that as organized, disorganized, or the various degrees of accepted superstition — has always been present. And it will be present 200 years from now… To totally ignore that part of the human equation would be as false and wrong-headed as ignoring the fact that people get mad, or passionate, or strive for better lives.

So I’m all for fire-fights and Borg invasions; I’m all for clone wars and snazzy technology that we in the 21st century can only dream of. But to deny the “heart” of science-fiction is to make these shows nothing more than a chance for CGI departments to experiment with visually stimulating special effects. Sci-fi that doesn’t look at questions of humanity, including religious themes is nothing more than “sound and fury signifying nothing.”