A recent article in Psychology Today has been making the rounds on my social media. The article discusses a peer-reviewed paper from 2015 that showed that Christian children are less generous than non-religious children. The original paper was touted as proof that Christianity leads to less virtuous behavior than other religions and as a result, it received more media attention than the typical scientific paper. However, this contradicted previous research so when another scientist analyzed the data, it was discovered that the results were due to an error in how the data were coded. The original paper has since been retracted, and it only took three years since the mistake was discovered!
My point in writing this is not to attack science, the media, or anyone else. They all did what they’re supposed to do in this situation. Instead, I want to discuss how the science of virtue applies to apologetics.
I work in an experimental psychology lab called The Science of Virtues Lab. We seek to understand what virtue is, how we can develop it, and how it affects well-being. The scientific study of virtue is not a huge area of psychology, but it’s growing quickly because it has shown promise for improving well-being. This creates a conundrum if we think Christians will average higher levels of virtue than non-Christians. As we learn more about the science of virtue, the more likely it is that non-Christians will use that science to their advantage
Broadly speaking, the scientific evidence shows that virtue is correlated to well-being and religious belief is correlated to virtue (and well-being). However, as this knowledge seeps into culture, more people will practice virtue for the sake of well-being without corresponding religious belief. Some of the gratitude interventions, such as journaling, are very easy to do and require no religious belief to enhance well-being.
The first lesson from the science of virtues for apologetics is that Christians shouldn’t be surprised or defensive if and when a psychological study shows atheists equal or outperform Christians on a measure of virtue or other desirable trait. I would even go a step further and say we should encourage this and pray for it. Part of the reason we do what we do in our lab is so all people can experience greater well-being and improved mental health, regardless of what they believe. I think all Christians should desire this for others and even pray for it. If Christianity is true, and I strongly believe it is, there should be some level of fulfillment that is only achievable by faith, so we can still desire the well-being of non-Christians.
The apologetic value of virtue isn’t necessarily in comparing non-Christians to Christians, because it can and will change, and there are many other factors to consider, such as where a person starts from when they become a Christian. Instead, the apologetic value in the source of knowledge about virtue. Generally speaking, following a biblical morality will lead to greater psychological well-being, regardless of what your actual beliefs are (although there are some caveats to this and occasional downsides). The Bible correctly identifies virtuous behavior that modern science is just beginning to recognize as beneficial for human flourishing. Even more astonishing is that biblical ethics were fanatically counter-cultural in Greco Roman society, especially on the topics of sex and humility, which are both supported as beneficial by science.
The other important apologetic point for virtue has to do with the way we as Christians live our lives. A virtuous life is a desirable one. If we want to convince people that Christianity is worth their time and effort, we need to practice what we preach. It’s much more important for us to slow down our lives and work on getting the logs out of our own eyes that it is to study the best arguments for Christianity. This was clearly apparent this week when an act of forgiveness, another Christian virtue, sparked a positive conversation about God among Today Show anchors.
Christianity doesn’t guarantee to make us better people. As a group, Christians may or may not be more moral than any other group, but individually, it should have a noticeable effect on our lives. “Conduct yourselves with such honor among your unbelieving neighbors, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” 1 Peter 2:12