Are Atheist Kids More Altruistic?

Are Atheist Kids More Altruistic? November 9, 2015


When I see a story that promises evidence for something I’d very much like to be true, I try to apply an extra measure of skepticism. That’s why I’m hesitant to believe a new study in the journal Current Biology which claims that children raised in atheist households are more altruistic and less judgmental than children of religious families:

The children played a game intended to measure their altruistic tendencies (or lack thereof). First, they were presented with a bagful of stickers and asked to pick out 10 they particularly liked. An experimenter explained they could keep all 10, but added that he or she did not have time to meet every student in the class, meaning that some would not get any stickers at all.

The children were then told they could anonymously donate some of their stickers to their less-fortunate classmates. The experimenter looked away while the child either kept all of them, or designated some to be distributed…

…The researchers found kids raised in religious households were “significantly less sharing” than those from non-religious households. “Christian children did not differ in their altruism from Muslims,” they write. “However, both were significantly less altruistic than non-religious children.”

As the researchers say, “parents in religious households reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life than non-religious parents. However, religiousness was inversely predictive of children’s altruism and positively correlated with their punitive tendencies.”

It’s not that I’m surprised to find moral differences between believers and atheists. It’s well-established that the non-religious are less likely to support torture, capital punishment and violence of all kinds. What does surprise me is that the effect shows up at such a young age and that it’s so consistent across countries. (The children in the study were between 5 and 12 years old and were recruited from the U.S., Canada, South Africa, China and Turkey.)

One possible explanation is “moral licensing”: if you believe that virtue consists of performing prescribed rituals, like prayer, that gives you more license to engage in unethical behavior – as if moral goodness were a balance that you could build up and then spend. I’d offer a complementary theory: that religion correlates with belief in a just world, and therefore religious children are more likely to believe, consciously or implicitly, that poor people are being punished by God for some wrongdoing.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that a difference like this shows up so young. Most moral judgments aren’t made through rational calculation, but through unconscious bias and other fast heuristics. And children are very good at absorbing these ways of thinking at a young age. It’s what their brains evolved to do. The real question is whether it’s possible to overwrite these childhood prejudices at a later age.

On another note, Pew has released the second part of a major American religious landscape survey that I wrote about in May of this year. I’ll have more to say about this later, but for now I want to point out a noteworthy trend.

Apologists for religion often point out that, despite the increasing size and political pull of the demographic known as the unaffiliated or the “nones”, not all of them are atheists. Many are theists who just don’t formally belong to any church. But while this is true, Pew has detected movement. The nones as a whole are being more and more secular.

For example, the share of religious “nones” who say religion is “very important” in their lives has declined by 3 percentage points in recent years, and the share saying religion is “somewhat” important in their lives has declined by 4 points. Meanwhile, the share of religiously unaffiliated adults who say religion is either “not too important” or “not at all important” to them has grown by 8 percentage points since 2007. Roughly two-thirds of the “nones” now say religion is of little importance in their lives, up from 57% in 2007.

Similarly, the Religious Landscape Study finds that 62% of religious “nones” now say they “seldom” or “never” pray, a 6-point increase since 2007. And while there has been little change in the rate at which “nones” report attending religious services (few did this more than a few times a year to begin with), the proportion of “nones” who say they do not believe in God has grown rapidly in recent years. Fully one-third of religiously unaffiliated adults now say they do not believe in God, up 11 points since 2007.

The nones now comprise 23% of all Americans, almost one-quarter of the population, and they’ve become a plurality of Democratic voters. (There’s also a smaller faction of Republican nones.) And, as with past surveys, the young are driving the trend: the younger generation of Millennials, born in 1990 and later, are even more secular than older Millennials like me.

There’s no guarantee that this secularizing trend will continue forever. It could well have petered out by now. However, it seems the opposite has happened, and the sea-change in American religious viewpoints is continuing. It could be that it’s become self-perpetuating, and that every generation will be even more secular than the last – but, again, we should be careful and ask for evidence before accepting such a friendly proposition. The safest lesson we can take from this is that the outreach and the tactics the atheist movement have used until now have worked, and are working. We should press on and stay the course, remembering that no ultimate outcome is ever foreordained.

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