How much does a parents’ religion or ideology influence their children’s moral outlook? Here is a except from The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins that describes a study done by sociologist George Taramin of Israeli school children ages 8 – 14 to gauge their moral reaction to the story of Joshua and the sacking of Jericho from the Bible.
“George Tamarin. Tamarin presented to more than a thousand Israeli schoolchildren, aged between eight and fourteen, the account of the battle of Jericho in the book of Joshua:
Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout; for the LORD has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction . . . But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.’ . . . Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword . . . And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.
Tamarin then asked the children a simple moral question: ‘Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?’ They had to choose between A (total approval), B (partial approval) and C (total disapproval). The results were polarized: 66 per cent gave total approval and 26 per cent total disapproval, with rather fewer (8 per cent) in the middle with partial approval. Here are three typical answers from the total approval (A) group:
In my opinion Joshua and the Sons of Israel acted well, and here are the reasons: God promised them this land, and gave them permission to conquer. If they would not have acted in this manner or killed anyone, then there would be the danger that the Sons of Israel would have assimilated among the Goyim.
In my opinion Joshua was right when he did it, one reason being that God commanded him to exterminate the people so that the tribes of Israel will not be able to assimilate amongst them and learn their bad ways.
Joshua did good because the people who inhabited the land were of a different religion, and when Joshua killed them he wiped their religion from the earth.
The justification for the genocidal massacre by Joshua is religious in every case. Even those in category C, who gave total disapproval, did so, in some cases, for backhanded religious reasons. One girl, for example, disapproved of Joshua’s conquering Jericho because, in order to do so, he had to enter it:
I think it is bad, since the Arabs are impure and if one enters an impure land one will also become impure and share their curse.
Two others who totally disapproved did so because Joshua destroyed everything, including animals and property, instead of keeping some as spoil for the Israelites:
I think Joshua did not act well, as they could have spared the animals for themselves.
I think Joshua did not act well, as he could have left the property of Jericho; if he had not destroyed the property it would have belonged to the Israelites.
Tamarin ran a fascinating control group in his experiment. A different group of 168 Israeli children were given the same text from the book of Joshua, but with Joshua’s own name replaced by ‘General Lin’ and ‘Israel’ replaced by ‘a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago’. Now the experiment gave opposite results. Only 7 per cent approved of General Lin’s behavior, and 75 per cent disapproved.
In other words, when their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children agreed with the moral judgements that most modern humans would share.” *
The same study was also mentioned more briefly in an article by Paul Vallely in the Saturday, 13 December 1997 edition of The Independent in the U.K. In it Vallely cites the same study with the same outcomes and also goes on to mention that George Tamarin was fired from his position at Tel Aviv University for publishing the results of this study. **
I think the results of this study show very clearly how innocent children can be influenced to make poor moral choices based on their upbringing. They will, of course, most likely carry these prejudices into adulthood.
The really interesting thing about the results of this study is that it shows that the children do have a good basic sense of what is right and moral, as long as it isn’t clouded by their religious prejudices.
I think what we should take away from this is that religious beliefs, political beliefs, ideological beliefs and cultural environment all can interfere with our ability to apply our innate sense of morality to situations that seem to fit into the milieu of our belief systems.
What we all need to try hard to do is to step back from the knee jerk reaction to situations based on our religious, political, ideological belief systems and cultural environment, and reframe the situation in a frame of reference outside of those systems. This is similar to the idea of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
If we are not able to do this then we will end up making wrong moral choices that go against our true sense of morality. And this can only serve to lessen us as individuals.
*The God Delusion, p 255 – 257, by Richard Dawkins
**Faith & Reason: How Joshua Claimed a 20th-century Victim, Paul Vallely, Saturday, 13 December 1997, The Independent