For a year now, an off-and-on debate has raged over at my other blog, Daddy Dialectic, about raising kids without religion.
We're a pretty atheistic and philosophically materialist lot over there at Daddy Dialectic, and so most contributors have tended to agree that yes, you can raise moral children without belief in God or gods. However, we have often disagreed about the need for secular social structures that can connect people to something larger than themselves and reinforce moral behavior.
A new study published in the journal Psychological Science finds that thoughts about God do indeed encourage people to share what they have. But researchers also discovered that secular concepts of civic responsibility and social justice do just about as much to promote altruism.
In two related experiments, University of British Columbia Associate Professor Ara Norenzayan and Ph.D. graduate student Azim Shariff divided 125 participants into three groups.
In the first group, researchers asked participants to unscramble sentences that contained words like spirit, God, and sacred. The second group played the same word game, but with non-religious content. The third played the game with words like court, civic, jury, and police—thereby priming them with thoughts of secular moral authority.
Then each participant was given 10 one-dollar coins and asked to make a decision about how much keep for herself and how much to share with another person–this is a standard laboratory test for altruism called the Dictator's Game.
The results: The religious group offered to share an average of $4.56 with another person, the secular group shared $4.44—and people who were not primed with any moral thoughts at all shared only $2.56.
Researcher Azim Shariff told me that their experiment shows how important it is for people to be reminded of their social responsibilities, but stresses that faith in God is optional. "We added the secular institutions as an afterthought in the second study, mostly because we wanted to demonstrate that religion wasn't the only thing that could do this," Shariff said. "In our history, we've developed a lot of cultural institutions designed to reign in our selfish behavior. One of the earliest and most effective ones, we believe, was religion. But that's certainly at this point not the only thing that does it."
Not only did secular thoughts do almost as good a job at priming altruistic behavior as spiritual thoughts, but people who described themselves as religious did not behave more altruistically than godless counterparts–a finding that a lot of other studies have echoed. (In one study that had different groups of Princeton seminary students walk by a man slumped and groaning on the sidewalk, researchers discovered that their willingness to help depended on one variable: how late they were for their next appointment.)
"Our study adds to a growing body of evidence to suggest that there has been all these cultural institutions that have evolved either purposely or through some blind process of cultural selection that serve to reign in our selfishness so that we can live in larger social groups harmoniously," said Shariff. "We evolved to live in much smaller groups, with more limited range of prosocial behavior, but we've developed rituals, beliefs, practices that allow us to overcome our more base natures and cooperate more, which has allowed us to build civilization."
So can we raise moral children outside of structures of supernatural belief? I believe the answer is yes, and there is evidence to support my belief. But I don't think individual parents can do it alone–and there's evidence to support that contention as well. To curb selfish behavior and cultivate meaning in our lives, we need to be constantly reminded of our interdependence with other people and the natural world. Institutional structures akin to churches aren't the only way to do that, but they're probably the best way we know of. So do atheists need a church? Maybe they do.
Greater Good wants to know:
Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?
About The Author
Jeremy Adam Smith edits the GGSC’s online magazine, Greater Good. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Are We Born Racist?, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, Jeremy was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!