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Is Religion Hazardous to Your Child's Moral Health?

A study finds children raised in religious households are less altruistic than those raised in non-religious families.
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(Photo: wlablack/Shutterstock)

(Photo: wlablack/Shutterstock)

Jimmy and Johnny are both 10 years old and live in the same neighborhood. Jimmy's family goes to church every Sunday and prays before each meal; Johnny's isn't religious at all. Which child is more likely to be generous and giving?

If you're like most Americans, you would reflexively pick Jimmy. But a newly published study featuring 1,170 children from six countries suggests you would be wrong.

"Children who are raised in religious households frequently appear to be more judgmental of others' actions, while being less altruistic toward another child from the same social environment," concludes a research team led by University of Chicago psychologist Jean Decety.

This finding will likely shock religious parents, who view their offspring as "more empathetic and more sensitive to the plight of others," the researchers write in the journal Current Biology. But an experiment in which kids were offered an opportunity to act selflessly found the opposite was true.

There might actually be more altruism in the almighty's absence.

The study featured five- to 12-year-olds recruited from schools in Chicago, Toronto, Cape Town (South Africa), Guangzhou (China), Istanbul, and Izmir (the latter two from Turkey). Forty-three percent were from Muslim households; nearly 24 percent were Christian, and 27.6 percent were not religious. (Much smaller percentages identified with other religions.)

Parents provided demographic information, including the mother's level of education (a metric for economic status) and how frequently the kids' attended services. Parents also answered questions designed to measure "the spirituality of the household," and estimate the child's level of empathy and sense of justice.

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 to their less-fortunate classmates.

Finally, each child was shown a series of short videos in which "one person is performing an action on another individual (pushing, bumping, etc.), either accidentally or purposefully." For each scenario, the children were asked to assess how mean the behavior was, and the amount of punishment the perpetrator deserved.

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."

What's more, kids from highly religious families (that is, those who attend services more often, and integrate religion into their everyday lives) were less likely to be altruistic than those with moderate levels of religiosity.

Decety and his colleagues found one important difference between kids from different religious backgrounds. Young Muslims were the most judgmental toward the people who displayed anti-social behavior in the short videos, and suggested harsher punishments than Christians or non-religious kids.

The researchers aren't sure why religious kids would be less altruistic, but they suspect "moral licensing"—the idea that doing something virtuous gives us license to subsequently engage in unethical behavior—may be one explanation. Children who have said their prayers, and thus done their good deed for the day, may feel free to act selfishly later.

Whatever their root cause, these results suggest we need to re-think our assumptions that the faithful are more generous than their secular neighbors. As Decety puts it, "the relation between religiosity and morality is actually a contentious one, and not always positive."

"Overall, our findings ... call into question whether religion is vital for moral development," the researchers conclude. While they are now conducting an expanded study, featuring children from 14 countries, these results suggest "the secularization of moral discourse" may turn out to be a good thing.

So let's put a moratorium on the mantra "There is no good without God." This study suggests that there might actually be more altruism in the almighty's absence.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.