THE BLOG
11/17/2015 03:26 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2016

Does Religion Make Us Worse People?

There's a well-known phenomenon in churches where young families, many of whom have not been involved in organized religion since before college, return to a community of faith once they have kids. If asked why, many of the parents say they come back because they want their children to learn the importance of the values promoted by that religion: compassion, patience, love, generosity, humility.

But what if that same religious community actually is making their kids meaner than they'd be without it?

As the father of two children who attend church, and as the husband of a pastor, I found a recent study published in the journal Current Biology both intriguing and disturbing. The study examined children ages 5 to 12 from Christian, Muslim and non-religious backgrounds, assessing their altruism and their degree of judgment of other child peers. The study was broad, spanning nearly 1,200 kids from the U.S., Canada, China, South Africa, Jordan and Turkey, engaging them in a game called the "Dictator Test." Each was given a certain number of stickers, and they were told there weren't enough to share with their entire group. Also, they were asked to assess the morality and behavior of their peers. Finally, the scientists assessed the perception of the parents of these children to see how they perceived their own kids compared to others.

Their conclusions were sobering:

Across all countries, parents in religious house- holds reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life than non-religious parents. However, religiousness was inversely predictive of children's altruism and positively correlated with their punitive tendencies. Together these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children's altruism, challenging the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior.

In fact, the study found that the longer the children were exposed to the religious environment, the less generous and more judgmental they became. The "secular kids," meanwhile, were more forgiving of, and more generous with, other kids.

My initial response was, Fine, but it's commonly known that, as adults, religious people are more generous than those not involved in church.

Not exactly, it turns out.

Taken simply at face value, yes: people in church give more of their income to charitable causes. But we have to dig a little deeper to get down to what that really means. In 2012, the Chronicle of Philanthropy released a study (since taken down from their site) that did, indeed, demonstrate that U.S. Christians in particular did give more to tax-exempt organizations than others. But although that finding was trumpeted by religion advocates, they were nearly universally silent about where that money actually went.

In 2o13, a follow-up study by the National Study of Religious Giving released a report called "Connected to Give: Faith Communities" that said 73% of the money American Christians were giving went to a religious organization. About seventy-five cents out of every dollar they donated to charity went to the Church. And this would be fine if, in fact, the churches were living out their claim to fulfill a principal purpose of serving the poor.

But they're not.

A 2014 study issued by the Evangelical Christian Credit Union broke down how our churches are spending their money. On average, they dedicate 58% to personnel expenses, 18% to facilities and maintenance, 6% to administration and 3% to cash reserves, paying off debt and to building funds. This leaves 14% for "Programs," which includes 5% for child and adult education, 2% for worship and 3% for evangelism/outreach (advertising, recruitment and P.R.). If you're tracking so far, this leaves 3%, 2% of which goes to overseas charities, and 1% of which is given to local and national causes outside the building.

And though it can be argued that the programs inside church buildings do benefit both those who attend the church and sometimes those in the surrounding community, the fact remains that only $3 out of every $100 we give to our churches leaves the building. In short: when we are given a large pool of resources, we share less of it with people we're not personally connected with than those outside of the Church.

OK, I thought to myself, so the altruism/generosity findings in the children study seems to bear out in the adults of those kids found to be less altruistic. But what about them being more judgmental of others? 

Sadly, it isn't good.

My wife, Amy, and I did a survey of about 750 young adults for a book we wrote together years ago about how both Christians and non-Christians perceived people within the Christian faith. Given a wide range of adjectives to choose from, both religious insiders and outsiders overwhelmingly picked two words first and foremost to describe Christians: "Judgmental" (78 percent) and "Hypocritical" (72 percent). But that's an anomaly, right? Certainly we were unscientific in our findings, attracting skeptical peers from our own circles that were influenced by what they thought we wanted to find.

In 2012, researchers at Baylor University did a study, assessing the narcissism of three groups of college students: devoutly religious young adults, nominally religious young adults and non-religious/skeptical young adults. Here's a summary of what they found, as stated by Baylor's Dr. Marjorie J. Cooper and Chris Pullig, the latter of whom was the author of the study report:

Both the nominal and devout groups show degrees of poor ethical judgment equal to that of the skeptics when accompanied by higher degrees of narcissism, a finding that suggests a dramatic transformation for both nominals and the devouts when ethical judgment is clouded by narcissistic tendencies. For both of these groups as narcissism increases so does the tendency to demonstrate worse ethical judgment. (Pullig)

Devout people who are narcissistic and exercise poor ethical judgment would be committing acts that are, according to their own internalized value system, blatantly hypocritical. (Cooper)

So their findings were that narcissistic religious students were no more ethical in their decision-making than those not involved in organized religion. And in as much as those religious institutions promote and preach selflessness, compassion and generosity, those religious people, rightly then, are perceived as hypocrites. So in this case, though religion doesn't make adults have poorer judgment, it also doesn't have a positive effect. And on top of that, the values promoted by their religion and claimed by its faithful don't match their behavior, which makes them hypocrites.

To top all of this off, the Current Biology study cited at the top of the article found that parents of the young children tested in the altruism-and-judgment study pervasively perceived their own children to be more generous and less judgmental than their secular counterparts, despite the evidence yielded by the study. So despite the evidence, we think religion is making our kids more giving and forgiving, when actually it seems to have exactly the opposite correlation. But because it's what we tell ourselves, we see what we want to see.

Further, we continue to model these negative, un-Gospel, un-Christ-like attitudes and behaviors as we get older, and even within the very institutions we entrust our children to teach the values we so desire for them to live out. All the while, the rest for the culture sees the hypocrisy and the cognitive dissonance in our attitudes toward others and where we place our money.

And as Jesus says in Matthew 6:21, "Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be."

The conclusion that seems to emerge from all of this validates in some ways what vocal atheist scholar Richard Dawkins claims, which is that organized religion's mission, first and foremost, is self-sustenance. And at the risk of distilling down a number of scientific studies into plain language summaries, when we identify with these institutions bent on survival, we pool our resources to that end, and then tell ourselves it makes us better people in doing so. Otherwise, committing so much of our time, energy and money to an institutional system whose primary desire is to keep going for the sake of itself is...kind of insane.

"Do you see all these great buildings?" replied Jesus. "Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down."

-Mark 13:2