As I sipped my morning coffee, I came across an article, "Moral Lessons, Down Aisle 9," in today's Science section of the New York Times. It immediately caught my eye because the introduction made it clear that in a recent study of how people treat strangers, a group of Wal-Mart shoppers in Missouri were kinder, less selfish and more fair than groups in the Amazon, the Siberian tundra, a Himalayan monastery, and a nomadic tribe on the Serengeti. Although the scientists seemed to find it surprising, I wasn't surprised at all. So I read on, waiting to see if the scientists observed the obvious. They didn't. No surprise there either.
On and on the article went, talking about evolutionary psychology and leftover small clan behavior:
"But why even consider returning a stranger's wallet you find in a taxicab? Why leave a tip in a restaurant you'll never visit again?
"Some evolutionary psychologists have suggested that we have an innate sense of fairness left over from our days of living in small clans. According to this theory, our inherited instincts cause us to be nice to strangers even when we're hurting our interests, just as our ancient taste for fat and sugar causes us now to eat more calories than are good for us."
Sigh. Had none of scientists considered faith as a deciding factor, especially given the fact that Missouri is overwhelmingly Christian? Is it possible that Missourians are living the Gospel they profess to believe, the one that says specifically to be kind to strangers, even to our enemies? It didn't seem like a stretch to me, but, then again, I'm no scientist.
The best religious argument the scientists in the study could come up with is that the Islamic religion of the Kenyan herders they surveyed or the Orthodox Christian faith of the Siberian reindeer herders prompted them to share more of their "prize" in the study. Even then, the scientists didn't attribute this to the altruistic truths embedded in the major religions of the world but instead assumed that people acted this way because "religious systems galvanize pro-social behavior in broader communities, perhaps using both supernatural incentives (for example, hell) and recurrent rituals that intensify group solidarity."
Boy, that sure doesn't have the same poetic ring as "Whatsoever you do to the least of your brothers, you do it to me." So basically, people are nice because they're trying to avoid hell? Notice they didn't say that the incentive was the hope of getting into heaven. I think it's because most scientists simply can't go there. They can't imagine that people truly believe in their faiths, that the words of Jesus shape people's lives, and that we're not all trying to skirt eternal damnation but instead hoping against all hope to bask in eternal light.
Attention Wal-Mart shoppers. Clean up in Aisle 9.