How Religion can produce devil-children

My first thought when I saw the results of a study saying the kids in religious households are less altruistic and more punitive than kids from non-religious households was “this doesn’t match previous social science research in this field, something looks fishy.” My second thought was “this actually kind of makes sense.”

My first thought was more or less confirmed by several challenges to the research which appeared the following day. One such article is this one, shared earlier, by sociologist George Yancey.

My second thought is confirmed by the gospels.

I wrote a post earlier this week defending the church and the people of God. I stand by that post and I’m glad I wrote it but I confess that within it there was at least a bit hyperbole. As much as I love the church, I see its flaws too. I’ve seen people changed by the good news of Jesus and the Word of God to become more loving and faithful individuals. But I’ve also known of “Christians” who are jerks and who are even bigger jerks because they are “Christians.”

Last Sunday my fellow Pastor at church preached on Matthew 5:10-12 wherein Jesus tells the crowds that they are blessed whenever they face persecution because of Him. In the sermon he pointed out that religious people are the most likely to engage in persecution because they believe they are doing the will of God in pursuing the one who dissents. Where did Jesus’ opposition come from? The religious elites. Who opposed the church most vigorously in Acts? The religious leaders. Paul, the most zealous opponent of Christianity, was driven by misplaced piety.

Religion is no guarantee of morality and can even be a detriment to morality. Let’s consider again the results of the study.

The first result was that children from religious households were shown to be less altruistic because they were less likely to share. (The “dictator game”, though, might not be a good indicator of altruism. It may just be an indicator of compliance with the instructor instead). A certain religious mindset, let’s call it “moralism,” could lead to less altruistic behavior. Essentially the reasoning would go like this: “Good comes to those who have earned it through their good work. I received this good, therefore I must have deserved it or earned it. Therefore, it is mine by right. Therefore, I will not share.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve met some religious people who think like this.

The second result was that children from religious households were shown to be more punitive. When shown pictures of kids pushing/shoving in a line they were more likely to view that behavior as “mean” and to want harsher penalties. Again, I think the study is flawed here because the authors make a value judgment that “punitive” is “less moral” and “mercy” is “more moral.” Certainly, disproportionate punishment is “less moral” but simply seeking justice (proportionate punishment) is not a problem, from my perspective, anyway. Regardless, though, my interest is with the way that religion can lead to disproportionately punitive behavior. A moralistic religious mindset elevates judgment over grace and does so as sanctioned by a divine law. Diversion from moral behavior is therefore a transgression again God and therefore warrants greater punishment. If that moral instinct is not combined with an understanding of divine mercy, the result could be a call for disproportionate judgment.

Tim Keller has written extensively about this in his various books. For a great treatment see The Reason for God. Here he argues that moralism (he uses the term religion and moralism interchangeably) sees moral Christianity primarily in terms of moral development. Divorced from a sense of grace this inevitably leads to pride and despair. It leads to pride amongst those believe that they measure up to what God desires. It leads to despair amongst those who know they never will and who fail to recognize the grace available in Jesus, or to appropriate that grace for themselves. In some cases it leads to a sad mix of despair and pride wherein a despairing individual overcompensates by specifically seeking others to tear down. Either way, a moralistic view of religion can easily lead to less moral behavior.

The most well-known moralists are the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Jesus called these moralists children of the devil (see John 8:44). They had an outward veneer of religious life, but inwardly they were murderers and liars. They were filled with pride because they did not understand the mercy Jesus was extending to the prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners.

But, Keller argues, the answer isn’t to become less religious, but to better understand the gospel. The gospel gives us a moral impulse. It does indeed see sin as serious. But it also offers us grace and mercy. People who understand (not just intellectually, but in their heart) are gracious because they’ve been offered grace. They are merciful, because they have been shown mercy. They “speak and act as those who will be judged by the law that gives freedom” because they know that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” Mercy triumphed over judgment on the cross.

On the cross God gave us the perfect picture of altruism – perfect and costly sacrifice for the good of those who had made him their enemy. On the cross God showed us generosity. Christ became poor so that we could become rich in every spiritual gift.

An almost-gospel isn’t enough to transform our hearts. In fact, it’s the almost-gospels which can produce zealous children of the devil. But the whole gospel is sufficient to reconcile us to God and to produce a people who love mercy, love justice, and love their fellow man with a convictional kindness.