New Study: Exposure to Religion Makes Kids Less Generous

The act of throwing your arm around a good friendSay you’re 8 years old and sitting in a roomful of kids. Each of the kids has lined up according to her family’s level of religiosity (more religious on the left; least religious on the right), and each has been given a whole bunch of cool stickers.

Would you like some of those cool stickers? Heck yeah you would! But, first, you’ve got to find someone to share with you. So … who do you ask?

Scientists now say you’d be wise to veer right.

A study led by University of Chicago Prof. Jean Decety and published Thursday in the journal Current Biology has found that secular children are statistically more generous and less judgmental than their Christian and Muslim peers. What’s more, the research showed, Christian parents are more likely to wear blinders when it comes to assessing their own children’s level of altruism.

The paper, titled The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World, says:

Overall, our findings cast light on the cultural input of religion on prosocial behavior and contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others. More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do just the opposite.

The study looked at more than 1,100 children, ages 5-12, from the United States, Toronto, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa and China. It measured the differences between Muslims (who made up 43% of the group), Christians (who made up 23.9% of the group), and nonreligious (who made up 27.6% of the group).

Current Biology 1In Test Number One: Children were asked to choose their 10 favorite stickers from a set of 30 and then told “these stickers are yours to keep.” Children were instructed that the experimenter did not have the time to play this game with all of the children in the school, so not everyone would be able to receive stickers. Then, the children were asked how many stickers they would be willing to share.

As predicted, the younger kids tended to share fewer stickers than the older kids. But, across the board, there was an inverse relationship between frequency of religious practice, household spirituality, and overall religiousness to each child’s generosity.

Although Christians shared slightly more than Muslim children did, the study showed, the difference there was not statistically significant.  “However,” the study said, both groups “were significantly less altruistic than non-religious children.”

In Test Number Two: Children were asked to view a video depicting “interpersonal harm,” such as pushing or bumping. Across the board there, too, the children in Muslim and Christian households judged the harm as more “mean” than did the children in nonreligious households. And therefore — and this is the important part — the kids favored significantly harsher punishments for those doing the harm.

Current Biology 3In Test Number Three: The parents of the study subjects were asked about their kids’ level of empathy and sensitivity to the plight of others. Christian parents were significantly higher than Muslims or nonreligious parents to report their children as being little angels. Okay, they didn’t actually use the term “little angels.” That’s my term. But it’s so perfectly cliche, isn’t it?

Now, one caveat to the study, noted by researchers:

Most of these studies relied on moral dilemmas that have poor ecological validity, as the situations they depict are unlikely to happen, and thus tell us little about moral decision making in everyday life.

Another caveat — mine this time — is that we should not take from this study that religious children are selfish or judgmental, or that nonreligious children are all empathy and compassion. The differences, even at their most dramatic, are mere percentage points.

Still, the study is important in that it runs directly against what so many people still believe to be true: Kids gotta get God in order to be good.

Our findings robustly demonstrate that children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) … frequently appear to be more judgmental of others’ actions, while being less altruistic toward [other children] from the same social environment, at least when generosity is spontaneously directed to an ambiguous beneficiary.

Now, about those stickers…

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