A recent study of more than a thousand children in six countries shows a
strong negative correlation between religious practice and altruism. The study found that family religious identification decreased children’s altruistic behaviors and reduced their empathy and their sensitivity to perceived injustices. Children from religious households also tended to be more judgmental, and harsher in their punitive tendencies.
Many Christians are shocked by these results. But are they so surprising? When we teach our children that their own family is “saved” while other people are not, that their particular denomination is the one God loves, and that people who engage in behaviors the Old Testament condemns are going to be damned by God, then they are learning from the cradle to disdain most of the human race. Christianity as it is practiced today teaches the opposite of altruism. It teaches self-satisfied superiority. And if there is any flavor of moral poison the world needs to be rid of now, it’s that one!
Of course, it isn’t only Christian children who are being harmed by their religion. Seeing how Islam can turn even young Westerners into killers presents a cautionary tale for us all. Not only is it no longer possible to argue that religion is a force for good, but the argument certainly can be made that religion as it is practiced today is something that we might be better off without. How much of the callousness of modern society comes not in spite of religious practice, but in part because of it? I never have given that question much thought, but now I wonder. I really wonder.
Christian practice in western countries is falling off dramatically. Young adults are leaving the faith in droves. Modern Christianity comes in an estimated forty thousand different flavors, all competing for a declining worshipper pool, so one result of the decline of American Christianity is a tendency toward war among the various sects. The linked article is from a religious-right author. I’ve chosen it because he both states the problem and gives us half of the solution: he quotes from the Gospel words of Jesus, but he cannot step outside the first-century Jewish sect that Christianity still remains and propose to his readers that the solution might be that they begin at last to concentrate their religious practice in the teachings of Jesus alone.
Many Christians talk about the Bible and the Gospels as almost interchangeable. They are not. The Gospels are four books out of the sixty-six books in the Christian Bible (or the seventy-three books, if you are a Catholic). Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the only books of the Bible where the words of Jesus are reported, and they are so different in tone and meaning from the whole rest of the Christian Bible that Thomas Jefferson said they were as distinguishable in the Bible as “diamonds in a dunghill.” And an eighteenth-century gentleman farmer knew about dunghills! If modern Christians would begin right now to follow the Gospel teachings of Jesus, then a future survey like the one above should show Christian children to be less judgmental and a lot more loving and altruistic. Having professed the religion for two thousand years, isn’t it time for us to start to practice it?
My new book, Liberating Jesus, begins to appear in stores this weekend. Astonishingly, rush orders have been placed by distributors in places as disparate as China and the United Arab Emirates. None of this has anything to do with me! It has everything to do with a desperate spiritual hunger that is overspreading the world. And Jesus can feed that hunger. The teachings of Jesus have the power to set every problem of the world to right, if only we will give Him the chance to try!
Reportedly Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” As the survey above demonstrates, sadly, Gandhi was making a telling point. But we have the power to transform ourselves spiritually if we will take the teachings of Jesus seriously. After all that He has done for us, is that so much for Him to ask in return?