While I also have some problems with drawing a sweeping conclusion based on this particular study, I actually find this "bad news" quite useful.
The cynical take is that these studies are done by people who don't like religion and who want to believe religion isn't necessary to teach people right from wrong. And to be clear, this study defined “religion” really broadly – lots of Christian and Muslim kids were studied as part of the “religious” group (as if they’re the same thing), yet the reporting focused heavily on the shortcomings of Christianity in teaching morals.
When studies reflect badly on Christianity, we’re quick to smear the messenger. They hate us! They’re liberals! They’re anti-family! But what if the study results had shown something different, that religious kids were generally more moral than those raised without religion? You can be sure churches would herald those results loudly: See? Religion is necessary. Science proves it!
I suggest we take the higher road, and refrain from anxious hand-wringing when the news is bad, or victory laps when the news is good.
First of all, this isn't new news. Studies like this have been done before. In the 1920s and 30s, Hugh Hartshorne and Mark May made waves with their research showing that kids who regularly went to Sunday school did no better on questionnaires about honesty than kids who didn't go to church. The results, published under the title Studies in Deceit, were an attempt to reform religious education - not to abolish it. Religious education curriculum had long struggled to find its footing. To some people, there wasn't enough Bible. To others, there wasn't enough relevance. Liturgical churches thought it should follow the church year. The Temperance movement wanted a special focus on the evils of alcohol. The Religious Education Association, of which Hartshorne was a part, had been campaigning for a few decades for a more practical purpose for Sunday school. If that one hour a week wasn't preparing young people to be productive members of society, equipped to tackle the problems of the future, what was it good for?
Members of the REA argued, why quibble over doctrine, when what mattered most was conduct - especially in light of Harthshorne and May's findings?
80 years later, if the latest study is to be believed, not much has changed. Sunday school is still not effective at changing kids' behavior. In fact, the study suggests, religion may actually make kids less generous. So what do we do?
I suggest we concede.
Concede the point, that is. Religious education is not without value. But we have consistently rolled over and let those outside the church tell us what its value is. What's that all about? In this case, the study tested whether being raised with religion makes kids more altruistic and generous. The researchers expected that it ought to, because religious convictions shape our moral behavior. And in doing so, they put religion into a box, a specimen to be studied. (As sociologist Christian Smith of UNC pointed out, you might get a better measure of the truth of that premise if you studied adolescent or adult believers, who are more grounded in their faith convictions, than children.) But just because something contributes to something else doesn't mean its purpose is limited to that. The real purpose may be much broader.
In the case of bringing kids to church, there are lots of reasons to do that, I suppose, but that doesn't mean its overall value can be measured by whatever preconceived expectations someone has.
If someone tells me I'm a terrible dancer or a lousy artist, I don't argue with them. I don't accuse them of trying to smear me. I simply don't worry about it, because I've never held myself out to be those things. As Christians, can we allow that someone who chooses to raise their kids apart from church influence might raise a kind, respectful, successful kid? I think we can.
To stubbornly insist that kids can't be good apart from formal religious training defies what we can observe with our own eyes. And you know who knows that? Your kid. If you raise them to believe that we go to church because it makes us good, and that the purpose of Jesus' coming was so that we'd be nice to each other, you're making a claim that Christ himself didn't make. All that has to happen then is your kids go off to college, meet a kind Buddhist or a moral atheist, and every claim they've heard about the uniqueness of Christianity or the necessity of religion goes out the window.
What if instead of freaking out, we calmly reframed the debate? What if we stood by the contention that religious education has one, ultimate, singular purpose: to nurture a kid's personal relationship with the transcendent God of the universe, who makes a claim on their lives and has revealed himself to them. Not character education or ethics training. Not cultural transmission. What if we clung to this claim not as an easy cop-out, but because we really believed it?
We could then allow that other systems of ethical training might be effective in teaching right from wrong, even producing altruism. But they will all fail at bringing kids to God. That is Christianity's central claim: that a personal relationship with God is possible through Jesus Christ. Not that we can make ourselves good, or train our kids to be good. If we were clearer on that, maybe nonsense studies like the most recent one would never be conducted.