Category Archives: Politics and Culture

Are Religious Children Less Generous Than Non-Religious Ones?


Last week The Guardian published the results of a study that claims to demonstrate just that:

Almost 1,200 children, aged between five and 12, in the US, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa participated in the study. Almost 24% were Christian, 43% Muslim, and 27.6% non-religious. The numbers of Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and other children were too small to be statistically valid.

They were asked to choose stickers and then told there were not enough to go round for all children in their school, to see if they would share. They were also shown film of children pushing and bumping one another to gauge their responses.

The findings “robustly demonstrate that children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households”.

Older children, usually those with a longer exposure to religion, “exhibit[ed] the greatest negative relations”.

Someone asked me a few days what I thought about the study. I said, “Non-religious people get to feel superior and vindicated in their choices, conservative evangelicals can complain about the liberal media, and progressive religious types can geek out by wondering about sample size and methodology. Something for everyone.”  I can’t speak to the quality of the research, though I’m told it’s a peer reviewed study, which counts for something. On the other hand, Robert tells me that half of all psychological studies are unreplicatable, so…

But assuming this study is accurate, what would account for a lack of generosity in religious children? Not sure. For the record, I don’t think you need to have a religious tradition or belief in God to be a moral person. And at the same time, there is a strain of judgmentalism in some expressions of Christianity, and apparently Islam too, since that was also mentioned in the study.

But I do have one small hypothesis.

For the past several months, our family has been between churches. Since I finished my tenure at Tiny Church, we haven’t found a church to call home. I may preach in 2-3 congregations a month, but many of these are in other cities, so the kids don’t come with me.

During these months without a church, I’ve been keenly aware that it’s my job and Robert’s job–and pretty much ours alone–to teach generosity and kindness as spiritual practices. I say “as spiritual practices” because to some extent they also learn these attributes at school, during team sports and in other activities. But there’s usually no deeper meaning underlying them–it’s just the way you treat people.

Anyway, if this is our job and ours alone, we will want to approach it with great intentionality and care. Whereas parents who are religious may be relying on their faith communities to do a lot of this work. I used to hear this often from parents when I was a pastor–they rarely felt equipped to pass on the tenets of their faith to their children, and really hoped the church would do it instead.

Yet we know from study after study that parents are their children’s most important teachers. Which means that if parents are relying on faith communities to do this work, then the work isn’t getting done nearly as effectively.

What do you make of the study?


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photo credit: lone kid (6 of 8) via photopin (license)

Building a Bike Shed Out of Starbucks Cups: Beyond the #WarOnChristmas


The other day I vented on Facebook,

November 8 and I’m already tired of the War on Christmas. No, not the people who are upset by Starbucks cups and Happy Holidays. The people who are upset with those people and compelled to post about it. I’m declaring war on the war on the War on Christmas.

My tongue was firmly in cheek (that last sentence! Come on!), but still, there have been a number of of blogs and FB posts, reposted and shared widely, decrying the outrage over Starbucks’s red cups and companies that say “Happy Holidays.” For the record, I agree with my colleagues that cries of persecution are juvenile and beside the point of Christianity. Most of them are clever, thoughtful and well written.

The problem is–and granted I am in a lefty Christian bubble too much–the reaction to the so-called War on Christmas seems way outsized to the controversy itself. Thus far the “War” seems to amount to a handful of articles, most of which mention the same 3-4 Christian leaders or groups, then sprinkle in quotes from various cranks with Twitter accounts.

I don’t doubt there are people who are offended by what they see as the secularization of the Christmas season. What I question is my tribe’s tendency to go straight to smackdown. Especially since this happens like clockwork every year. Must we do this?

I include myself in this question. Yeah, I didn’t jump on this particular bandwagon, but I’ve jumped on plenty in my day, and I have the limp and the hearing loss to prove it.

The critiques of the War on Christmas (what I called the war on the War on Christmas) legitimize a perspective that frankly doesn’t deserve legitimacy. (Telling your barista your name is Merry Christmas to force them to say those words? Really?!?) But more important, it amounts to building a bike shed. Which is what this post is really about.

Back in the 1950s, C. Northcote Parkinson identified the bike-shed problem, which has come to be known as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. In a nutshell:

A management committee decides to approve a nuclear power plant, which it does with little argument or deliberation.  Then comes the decision on the color of the bike shed at the plant, during which the management gets into a nit-picking debate and expends far more time and energy than on the nuclear power plant decision.

Or put another way, the amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the complexity of the topic.

Anyone who’s ever served on a church council will recognize this, though it goes way beyond the church. This is the discussion about the color of the carpet in the parlor instead of why the church is dying, or the color of the corporate logo instead of the toxic office culture.

Red cups are easy. #Blacklivesmatter is complex. Westboro Church is easy. Syria is complex. We don’t always have to tackle complex issues on social media. But nor should we be seduced by stuff that really, really doesn’t matter. Again, I am writing to myself as much as anyone else. Please hold me to this.

Hopefully by now the red cup kerfuffle is waning. But other potential “battles” will come–it’s only November 10. I’d personally like to see us not jump into critiques of the War on Christmas. Not because there’s nothing to critique–there is. But because it’s too easy. I also suspect there are powers out there that benefit from our outrage and our division. If nothing else, this has been free publicity for Starbucks, whose coffee and red cups I enjoy–but it’s a multinational corporation that frankly doesn’t need our signal boost.


Image courtesy of my friend Meredith Kemp-Pappan. 

Three Reasons Why “Because It’s 2015″ Is So Brilliant


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has put together the most diverse cabinet in his country’s history. Not only does the cabinet have gender parity, but it features two aboriginal politicians, two persons with disabilities, and three Sikhs. It’s also the youngest cabinet than any past administration.

When asked why having a gender-balanced cabinet was important to him, Trudeau said, “Because it’s 2015.” My friend Michael called it “the mic drop moment of the political season.”

Predictably, there are people who are crying about quotas, and criticizing Trudeau for passing over qualified [white male?] candidates out of political correctness run amok. To that I say psssshhhh. For three reasons:

  1. The wisdom of crowds depends on a diverse crowd. If you’ve read James Surowiecki’s book with that title, you know that large groups of people are surprisingly good at arriving at the right answer on things. (That’s the poll-the-audience option on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.) BUT, that crowd needs to be as diverse as possible, in order to correct for biases and blind spots. All other things being equal, Trudeau’s cabinet will be wiser than one in which everyone comes from the same background, even if that background happens to be exemplary.
  2. It matters that people see leaders who look like them. My little niece saw a picture of Hillary Clinton recently and asked who it was. My brother said, “That’s Hillary Clinton, she’s running for President.” My niece stared rapt at the picture and said, “I want a woman president.” Ultimately Clinton will have to earn our votes, or not. But seeing people who look like you, especially when you’re young and dreaming of what’s possible for yourself, is huge. (And let’s face it, there are still plenty of old white men in Trudeau’s cabinet.)
  3. It acknowledges that in a complex world, there is rarely a single “right” or “best” option. When people argue against, say, affirmative action, they often complain that the [white, male, whatever] candidate gets passed over for an unqualified or less-qualified [minority, woman, whatever] candidate. This strikes me as a very old fashioned notion. In a world as complicated as ours, once you weed out people who are clearly not qualified, you may be left with multiple qualified candidates, albeit with different skills and backgrounds. This happens in college admissions–if a school admits 500 students, there’s probably going to be very little difference between candidate 500 and 501. That’s an uncomfortable truth if you’re #501, but it’s simply the reality. The idea that there is one and only one clear answer seems very romantic, like believing there’s one soul mate out there for everyone. Eh. Not really. Instead there are flawed people who measure up to one another like apples and oranges, so you have to be rational and discerning, but ultimately trust your judgment. Or put another way:

Why indeed?

We Don’t Need Guns on Campus

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 12.14.02 PM“I hate you. You disgust me. How could you do this to me?”

It was fall of my sophomore year in college. I had just dropped the breakup bomb, and the guy was not taking it well. But as furious as he was, I was relieved that at least the worst part was over and we could start to move on.

Except this guy’s version of moving on left something to be desired. At first, it was notes in my campus mail box and phone calls asking me to reconsider. When it was clear that I was really moving on, the tone shifted to jilted fury.

And then–harassment.

If I walked somewhere on campus with a male friend, my ex-boyfriend would let me know he’d seen me with another guy. I’d receive a message containing vile insinuations about what my friend and I must have been doing together.

When I came out of class, he’d often be waiting outside the door to walk back to the dorm with me. I begged him to leave me alone, but he persisted.

I looked into whether his behavior could be considered stalking. I consulted a resident associate as well as my uncle, a law enforcement officer in another city. Both were sympathetic, but felt there was little I could do. My ex seemed to know exactly how to make my life hell while staying on the legal side of the line. He never explicitly threatened me or laid a hand on me. But I have never been so afraid of a man’s anger.

Senate Bill 11 is now law in Texas, the state where I grew up and attended college. The law requires the state’s public universities to allow handguns in dorms, classrooms and campus buildings. Private universities are allowed to opt out of the requirement.

The Chancellor of the University of Texas, William McRaven, opposed this law when it was being debated. In a letter to the Texas legislature, he cited concerns from campus mental health professionals, law enforcement officers, and professors, then stated flatly, “I feel the presence of concealed weapons will make a campus a less safe environment.” The law grants universities some rights to define specific areas where weapons may be prohibited, but I wish the legislature had taken Chancellor McRaven’s concerns more seriously.

READ THE REST at Huffington Post. And leave a comment. Agreeing or disagreeing!


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Question: Why must we still talk about race? Answer: Twelve.


Note: This post was picked up by the Huffington Post and you can also read it there.

I’m reading Ta Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me right now. It’s a dissonant experience because the language in the book is exquisite, and the truth of it is tough and hard.

I’m also reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to northern cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Washington DC in the early 20th century.

I highly recommend both books, especially if you are white. Read them with an open heart. Read them not to refute, but to understand. Read them in the spirit of Brian McLaren’s joke, “Why did Jesus cross the road?” “To get to the other.”

I hear a good bit of defensiveness from many white people when the subject of race comes up. They don’t understand why we are “still” talking about it. If pressed, they will often insist that they are not racist. They treat people equally. Everyone was nice to everyone in their high school. There was no racial tension.

All of those things may be true. But they’re not the point.

Twelve is the point.

I heard Isabel Wilkerson speak last week while I was at the Chautauqua Institution, just a few days before the anniversary of Ferguson. She began her talk by evoking #BlackLivesMatter. And I could hear some hackles rising. Do you know what hackles sound like? They begin as the sound of shifting in seats. Add some clearing of throats as people get ready to rehearse their “post racial” bona fides to anyone who will listen. It was a polite crowd, and I must say, a well-intentioned one, so the hackles simmered down. They sat and listened. And I hope they heard Isabel Wilkerson offer an offhand remark that, for me, shifts everything:

The institution of slavery persisted for twelve generations of African Americans in this country.

I knew it, but I didn’t know it.

Twelve generations.

Those of us who study the Bible know the power of the number twelve. There were twelve tribes of Israel. These tribes were God’s beloved ones. Later Jesus would call twelve disciples to walk with him in faithfulness. A woman reached out to Jesus for healing because she’d been hemorrhaging, her blood spilled upon the earth, for twelve years. And a little girl of twelve was brought to life again when Jesus’ words of liberation and empowerment filled her ears: little girl, GET UP.

For those of us who don’t read the Bible, no matter. Twelve generations is a long time.

Twelve generations of could-have-been.

Twelve generations of doctors and midwives and lawyers and writers, scrubbing floors in the master’s house.

Twelve generations of musicians and architects and sculptors and scholars, picking cotton from dawn until dusk.

And—it must be said, and was said by Isabel Wilkerson—twelve generations of white people who wouldn’t let the doctors heal, wouldn’t let the architects build, wouldn’t let the sculptors create. When you’re keeping a race of people down in the ditch, she said, that means you’re down in the ditch with them. Our history diminished all of us.

That’s why this conversation matters. That’s why we have to talk about it. If you’re not a racist, congratulations. I’m not going to argue with you, because it’s not the point.

Twelve is the point. Twelve is the point.

How long do you think it should take to dismantle twelve generations of racial oppression, not to mention Reconstruction, Jim Crow and its aftermath? Should we be “over it” by now? Ask my friend, who couldn’t get a job interview until she removed her “black-sounding” name from her resume, whether it’s over. Ask the black men in our communities, who are seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire, whether it’s over.

My mother has an expression, “When it’s on you, it’s on you.” I didn’t ask for it to be on me—the privilege that comes from being white—but it’s on me. And I’m fooling only myself if I try and insist otherwise, just because we passed the Civil Rights Act and elected a black President.

It’s not about guilt. Guilt is a distraction, a side show, a dead end. My people did not own slaves. But the state of my birth fought under the Confederate flag. And contrary to popular belief, my white children will be more likely to receive a college scholarship than their friends who are people of color.

When it’s on you, it’s on you. And now it’s on all of us to talk about it—and also to listen.


During World War I there was a great migration north… painting by Jacob Lawrence.