Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Folks on the old internets have been chatting recently about a study, about to be published in Social Science Research, that finds that children with religious parents are better behaved and better adjusted than those of non-religious parents. To summarize:

Kids with religious parents are better behaved and adjusted than other children, according to a new study that is the first to look at the effects of religion on young child development.

The conflict that arises when parents regularly argue over their faith at home, however, has the opposite effect.

John Bartkowski, a Mississippi State University sociologist and his colleagues asked the parents and teachers of more than 16,000 kids, most of them first-graders, to rate how much self control they believed the kids had, how often they exhibited poor or unhappy behavior and how well they respected and worked with their peers.

The researchers compared these scores to how frequently the children’s parents said they attended worship services, talked about religion with their child and argued abut religion in the home.

The kids whose parents regularly attended religious services—especially when both parents did so frequently—and talked with their kids about religion were rated by both parents and teachers as having better self-control, social skills and approaches to learning than kids with non-religious parents.

So, as assessed subjectively by parents and teachers, the children of religious parents cause fewer problems in school, though I'm not sure I'd call them better adjusted. This study, showing a positive benefit to religion, has been all the rage on a number of websites that readers of this blog probably don't follow- sites like Fox News and WorldNet Daily. Folks of a strongly theistic persuasion have been using this study as supporting evidence for the intrinsic benefits of religion. The study authors, on the other hand, are not fully sure that it is really religion that's having this effect. This uncertainty derives largely from the old adage that correlation does not equal causation:

It’s also possible that the correlation between religion and child development is the other way around, he said. In other words, instead of religion having a positive effect on youth, maybe the parents of only the best behaved children feel comfortable in a religious congregation.

“There are certain expectations about children’s behavior within a religious context, particularly within religious worship services,” he said. These expectations might frustrate parents, he said, and make congregational worship “a less viable option if they feel their kids are really poorly behaved.”

So, in other words, these two factors are associated with each other but we don't know if there is a causal relationship between them or, if there is, which causes which. Speaking for myself I don't have a difficult time believing this study. I suspect that being embedded in a religious community does make for a supportive environment for parents. I suspect that it can provide a ready supply of babysitters and activities for children as well. I also suspect that it strengthens parental authority and reaffirms the value of obedience. Obedience to god, after all, is often pitched as the highest virtue and obedience to one's parents is, for children, a way of obeying god. Hell, there's that entire "Honor thy father" thing in the Judeo-Christian commandments, so I'm fairly sure that religion can, and does, shore up community norms.

From a purely anecdotal level as well I can see merit in this study. I wasn't much of a hellraiser as a kid- I didn't steal or run amok- but I asked a lot of questions. It was pretty difficult to get me to stop, too, which drove my Sunday School teachers absolutely crazy. I remember once asking my mother and various religious authorities about Greek myths. Specifically, given that the ancient Greeks believed that Zeus, Athena, and so on were gods, and we regarded these as false stories, how did we know that our god was the right one? My logic was that obviously if we didn't believe in Zeus there must be a good and compelling reason for it. The responses I received were almost always confused and nonsensical, rapidly convincing me that we didn't have a good reason to believe in Jesus instead of Zeus other than "just because." I won't even relate what happened when I suggested that, a few centuries into the future, we would be looked upon as believing "Jesus myths." I was, as you might guess, not the most popular child in Sunday School and I suspect that my teachers would have rated me as less than perfectly obedient or well-adjusted. Thus, I think it quite reasonable that a strong religious community encourages obedience and that this obedience may carry over into other non-religious arenas.

The question remains, however, as to whether or not this is a good thing. To provide a possible argument to the contrary, let's consider this research:

Does believing that "God is on our side" make it easier for us to inflict pain and suffering on those perceived to be our enemies? If we think God sanctions violence, are we more likely to engage in violent acts?

The answer to both those questions, according to new research, is a resounding "yes," even among those who do not consider themselves believers.

Social psychologist Brad Bushman of the University of Michigan led an international research effort to find answers to these questions, and said he is very "disturbed" by the results, though he found what he had expected. Bushman has spent 20 years studying aggression and violence, especially the impact on human behavior of violence in the media, but most previous research has focused on television and movie violence, not such things as scriptures and texts held sacred by many.


We hypothesized that exposure to a biblical description of violence would increase aggression more than a secular description of the same violence. We also predicted that aggression would be greater when the violence was sanctioned by God than when it was not sanctioned by God."


Before the blasting phase [measurement of aggression], the students read a description of the beating and raping and murder of a woman in ancient Israel. Half of the students read a version of the story that included an assertion that God commanded the friends of the woman to take revenge. The other half read a version that did not mention God sanctioning violence. Half of the students were told the account came from the Bible, and half were told it came from an ancient scroll.

"What we found is that people who believed the passage was from the Bible were more aggressive [than those who did not know it came from the Bible], and when God said it is OK to retaliate they were even more aggressive," Bushman said. "We found that both at Brigham Young, which is a religious school, and at Amsterdam, where only half believe in God.

"Even among nonbelievers, if God says it's OK to retaliate, they are more aggressive. And that's the worry here. When God sanctions aggression, when God says it's OK to retaliate, people use that as justification for their own violent and aggressive behavior."

I'm not laying all violence and murder at the feet of religion, don't get me wrong. It's just maybe, every now and then, it isn't such a good thing to train people to be highly obedient to authority.

And maybe, just maybe, a little disobedience is a virtue.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have yet to look at the study. I do find it rather interesting. While I agree with Drek's suggestion that religion may create more obedient children, I would like to suggest one other possibility that I hope will be controlled for in the study. That is, religiosity is positively correlated with income (Mueller and Johnson 1970 ASR pages 785-800) and that students from better economic backgrounds are judged to be better behaved than their less well-off peers (no citation for this, not that i coudn't find one. It took me long enough to find a crappy 1970's citation for the relationship between income and religious participation.). So the relationship as stated in all the news reports (they never say "controlling for parental income") could be completely spurious. I'll be checking it out as soon as I get a few minutes of free time.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007 2:11:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

As always, FHR, you have a good point. I didn't suggest that myself mostly because I'd like to think that if the study is being published in SSR it included controls for something that important.

That said, stranger mistakes have been made in published articles. I'll be interested to see what you find out.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007 4:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's completely possible that the effect of income on religiosity is non-linear, too. Such that being a practitioner of one religion has really different effects compared to others. All of which opens the door for more (potentially unspecified) interaction effects.

Given sample sizes and that non-Christians might be less likely respond, I wonder how robust these findings are.

Drek has more faith in the peer-review process than I do here; I wouldn't be at all surprised if they didn't or couldn't control for at least some of these effects.

Apologies for any typos, my brain is shutting down after a long day of time-series modeling.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007 8:47:00 PM  

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