Apparently, having a faith can make your more selfish. That's the claim behind a couple of reports which came out today. The news was of a scientific study which claimed to show that children brought up in a more heavily religious observant family were less likely to behave in an altruistic way. In other words, though we might think that being a Christian makes us nicer, more kind and more willing to help other people – this study claims that isn't the case.
The Economist said, "This is only one result, of course. It would need to be replicated before strong conclusions could be drawn. But it is suggestive. And what it suggests is not only that what is preached by religion is not always what is practised, which would not be a surprise, but that in some unknown way the preaching makes things worse."
I haven't looked at the full study, so I don't intend to argue with the results. In fact, I'm not even going to argue with the conclusions. In terms of the main argument, I'd just say that many of the most selfless, kind and generous people I know I have met through church. But of course, I also know people with those qualities who aren't believers.
Instead of arguing the case, maybe it's time that we redoubled our efforts in the area to teach about the importance of serving others, to raise our children to be more altruistic and to more closely follow Jesus as a result.
CS Lewis took this very seriously. In his book The Four Loves he identifies the four different kinds of love the Gospel calls us to.
He identifies storge – which is the sort of love demonstrated in families, the love a parent shows for a child, for example. The second kind of love is philia – which is the kind of love between close friends – almost as close as a sisterly or brotherly love. Then there's eros – which is romantic love, the sense of being 'in love' with another person.
But the fourth and most profound kind of love that Paul is agape. Here's how CS Lewis described it: "There are 4 kinds of 'love', all good in their proper place, but Agape is the best because it is the kind God has for us and is good in all circumstances. (There are people I mustn't feel Eros towards, and people I can't feel Storge or Philia for; but I can practice Agape to God, Angels, and people, to the good and the bad, the old and the young, the far and the near).
"You see Agape is all giving, not getting. Look at a picture of Agape in action in Luke Chapter 10 [the story of the good Samaritan]. And then, better still, look at Matthew 25 - For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." From this you see that Christ counts all that you do for this baby exactly as if you had done it for Him when He was a baby in the manger at Bethlehem: you are in a sense sharing in the things His mother did for Him. Giving money is one way of showing agape: to give time and toil is far better and (for most of us) harder. And notice, though it is all giving—you needn't expect any reward."
So this is agape. And Lewis argues that this is the highest, the best, kind of love. It's the one that the world doesn't have. When Paul was writing to the Corinthians, Greek culture said that friendship was the highest for of love. It certain cultures, family is the highest form of love. In our culture eros or romantic love is the highest form of love. But Lewis says no. The distinctive Christian love is Agape. It's the love God gives us that we then need to extend to each other.
And it's this which will mark us out as Christians. Jesus says in John 13, 'A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.'
So, we can quibble with the studies and surveys which say that as Christians we're less altruistic than others. But really, that misses the point. We should be striving to be far more altruistic than others. That's part of our role as a Church. And when people encounter that love and service, they don't need a study to tell them about it.