Altruism less common among children from religious families

Children born and raised within religious households are less likely to be altruistic, a new international study from the University of Chicago claims.

Published by Current Biology and written and researched by professor Jean Decety and his team of psychologists, the study deeply examined the behavior of 1,170 children in six different countries: Canada, Jordan, China, South Africa, Turkey and the United States. The study makes the claim that most of the research done on morality and its relationship with religiousness was conducted on “convenience populations,” or college students from rich, industrialized, democratic societies. This study hoped to gain a broader perspective, using children as their test subjects. Researchers believed that early experiences with religion could influence a child’s moral development.

Using the children’s natural inclinations to either accept and share with others or punish and condemn them, the researchers developed two tests to determine their altruistic sensibilities. For the purpose of this study, researchers defined altruism as a “cost for the donor and [a] benefit for the recipient.”

The first task, called the Dictator Game, tested the children’s ability to share. Each child was given 10 stickers and had a choice to share the stickers with another unseen child. The altruism of the child possessing the stickers was predicated on how many stickers he or she shared with the unseen child.

The second task was meant to measure each child’s moral sensitivity. The children were shown short animations of children being pushed or bumped either accidentally or on purpose. These mundane examples of schoolyard violence were picked specifically to increase accuracy. This was in direct action against other studies that used unrealistic moral situations that these children would most likely never experience. After watching each clip, each child was asked how mean the behavior of the cartoon children was and what kind of punishment the wrongdoer deserved.

In tandem, parents of these children completed questionnaires about their religious affiliations, along with their personal thoughts, beliefs and perceptions. Three major groups appeared, including Christians, Muslims and the non-religious, with other denominations being too few in sample size to research effectively. The parents were also asked about how righteous and empathic their children were.

It was recorded that parents of religious households frequently ranked their children as more empathic and attuned to the plight of others. However, the results of the study found the truth to be the complete opposite.

“Our findings contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others. In our study, kids from atheist and non-religious families were, in fact, more generous,” said Decety.

While consistent with previous studies, which revealed that children became more generous as they aged, the study revealed that children from Muslim and Christian households were less likely to share their stickers than children from non-religious households. Religious children also found interpersonal conflict and harm to be more “mean” than non-religious children did, leading to these children appearing less altruistic and more judgmental toward others. Children from religious homes were more likely to condemn anti-social behavior and enforce harsher punishments for such behaviors. This is supported by other studies that claim that religiousness is often tied to negative and severe attitudes toward interpersonal wrongdoings, with a direct correlation between the extremity of religious devotion and harshness of attitude. The study gives the example of fundamentalists in Christianity, who often advocate for more punitive measures and “harsher corrections” than their non-fundamentalist counterparts.

The study also asserts that religion forced a greater impact on children across time, saying that, “[T]he negative relation between religiousness and spirituality and altruism changes across age, with those children with longer experience of religion in the household [exhibited] the greatest negative relations.”

As a child ages, their interactions with their religious households cause them to be less altruistic and more judgmental than their non-religious peers.

The study goes on to call for a reevaluation of morality, questioning the place of religion within society as a whole.

“[The findings of the study] 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 claims.

The study calls into question the long-standing belief held by many people that a higher level of religious fortitude is directly correlated with a higher level of morality, thus allowing for a greater discourse into what the results mean for religious people versus non-religious people and why the researchers arrived at that conclusion.