By: W. Bradford Wilcox
It’s a message we hear more and more:
Religion is bad. And certainly recent headlines—from terrorist attacks perpetrated by radical Islamists in Paris and San Bernardino to the strange brew of warped Christian fundamentalism that appeared to motivate alleged shooter Robert Dear at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs—feeds the idea that religion is a force for ill in the world. But in “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason,” Sam Harris not only asserts that the “greatest problem confronting civilization” is religious extremism, he further waxes that it’s also “the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself.”
Taken together with the assessment of social scientists—the high priests of our contemporary culture—the message, increasingly, is clear. Just last month, a new University of Chicago study conducted by psychologist Jean Decety posited that religious children are less altruistic than children from more secular families. He went so far as to contend that his results reveal “how religion negatively influences children’s altruism. They challenge the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior, and call into question whether religion is vital for moral development—suggesting the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact, it does just the opposite.”
It’s a sweeping indictment of the role of religion in society based on a study of sticker-sharing and cartoon-watching among children aged 5-12 around the globe. Using anon-random and non-representative sample, Decety found, among other things, that children from religious homes were less likely to share stickers with an unseen child than children from secular homes. In response to Decety’s findings, a Daily Beast headline proclaimed “Religious Kids are Jerks” and the Guardian reported “Religious Children Are Meaner than Their Secular Counterparts.”
As I see it, the impulses behind this thinking are several and, to some degree, understandable. Religion is frequently seen by secular observers as an obstacle to social progress on issues like abortion and gay rights, or as an adjunct of conservative politics in general. Meanwhile, a growing number of young adults in America identify as religious “nones,” often with little appreciation or understanding of religion. But is religion really as negative a force in our daily lives as its detractors and skeptics suggest? No.
W. Bradford Wilcox is an associate professor of sociology and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, as well as an associate scholar with the Berkley Center's Religious Freedom Project.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The full article is available in The Washington Post. It originally appeared in this form on December 16, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.