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Can God change how kids understand right and wrong?

Conor Dillon | Gabriel Borrud
February 6, 2024

Children have what appears to be an innate, unwavering sense of morality. A recent study looked into whether God can change that.

Deuschland | Katholische Kindertagesstätte St. Joseph in Kassel
Image: Uwe Zucchi/dpa/picture alliance

Let's say you've got a four-year-old standing in front of you. And you ask that kid if it's okay to stomp hard on another kid's foot. The answer will probably be "no."

Then you say: "What if God said that the opposite is right? God says you should do it."

Researchers Madeline Reinecke (Oxford University) and Larisa Solomon (Columbia University) were looking to investigate whether widely shared moral rules can be changed by religion in their study involving some 130 children in the US.

Conor Dillon and Gabriel Borrud, of the DW-podcast Science unscripted, spoke with Madeline Reinecke about the results of the study.

DW: What was the primary conclusion of your research?

Madeline Reinecke: We tested two groups of children, 4- to 6-year-olds and 7- to 9-year-olds, and the primary conclusion was that, in both age groups, they tended to think that morality couldn't be changed by God. In other words, widely shared aspects of morality, the kinds of things that we all tend to agree about, must be the way that they are. They can't be changed even by an omnipotent entity.

How did you find that out?

We asked about three different phenomena. First, about widely shared aspects of morality, things like stomping on another kid's foot hard. Most people would agree that this is immoral. We also asked about controversial aspects of morality, like stealing food to feed another hungry child, or telling a white lie to make someone else feel better. And then we also asked about nonmoral states, physical facts about the world like germs being smaller than houses or fire being hotter than snow. After we got certainty from the kids on their judgment, we then asked: "What if God made it otherwise?" What if God made it morally right, for example, to stomp on another kid's foot really hard?

How did they respond?

What we see is that kids tend to deny that God can change the rules. They say God can't make it morally right to stomp on another kid's foot hard.

Did you get any information on how the children were brought up with regard to religion?

That's something I would really love to look at with more granularity in the future. What we do have is a little bit of insight into parents' religiosity. And when we put that information into our statistical models, it showed that the resulted weren't driven by religious children or non-religious children. For the kids that we tested, the religiosity of their upbringing didn't make much of an impact.

Do we need religion anymore as a moral compass if children clearly don't need that idea to decide between right and wrong?

Well, maybe this even goes back to the origins of morality. There are studies going back all the way to three-month-olds, i.e., pre-verbal infants. What researchers have found is that with these infants - who can't reliably grasp for things - just by looking at the way that their eyes move, you can tell that they can distinguish between helpful prosocial actors and antisocial actors. It seems like there's some kind of moral predisposition that, if not innate, is extremely early emerging and not due to socialization and learning from parents.

Can kids understand what God even is?

To be fair, there were some parents who were present during the interviews, and some of them would intervene and say, my kid doesn't know what God is. But even setting that aside, there's a fantastic literature that suggests that kids develop these concepts very early on, that they come in predisposed with an ability to think about supernatural agents to which they can ascribe greater supernatural capacities.

If my understanding is that morality comes from God, does your study destroy that?

I don't think so. I would say our work is entirely descriptive. It's about what people think about morality. We can't say whether morality comes from God - or whether it doesn't.

The relationship between religion and morality is an interesting one. There's a very fascinating literature about whether religious folks are more ethical than non-religious folks. And the way that I understand that literature is that the answer is no. There isn't a difference between religious and non-religious folks in terms of prosocial behavior.

But in terms of where morality itself comes from, what the line is drawn between what's right and wrong, I think we must be careful about making the jump between what we see descriptively and what's actually the case.

This interview is an excerpt from our podcast Science unscripted. You can watch this episode of Science Unscripted on our YouTube-Channel. Or you can listen and subscribe to the podcast here.

This interview was conducted by Conor Dillon and Gabriel Borrud. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.