Does growing up religious cut the urge to share?

"In our study, kids from atheist and non-religious families were, in fact, more generous," says Jean Decety. (Credit: Pexels)

Please note that the paper has been retracted. Details are available on the journal website.

Children of religious parents may not be as altruistic as their parents think, according to new research from six countries around the world.

A team of developmental psychologists examined the perceptions and behavior of children in six countries. The study assessed the children’s tendency to share—a measure of their altruism—and their inclination to judge and punish others for bad behavior.

As reported in Current Biology, children from religious families were less likely to share with others than were children from non-religious families. A religious upbringing also was associated with more punitive tendencies in response to anti-social behavior.

Many families believe religion plays an essential role in childhood moral development. The study’s results were at odds with the perceptions of religious parents, who were more likely than non-religious parents to report that their children had a high degree of empathy and sensitivity to the plight of others.

“Our findings contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others,”says study leader Jean Decety, professor in psychology and psychiatry and director of the University of Chicago Child NeuroSuite.

“In our study, kids from atheist and non-religious families were, in fact, more generous.”

The study included 1,170 children between ages 5 and 12, from Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States.

Testing altruism

For the altruism task, children participated in a version of the “Dictator Game,” in which they were given 10 stickers and provided an opportunity to share them with another unseen child. The team measured altruism by the average number of stickers shared.

For the moral sensitivity task, children watched short animations in which one character pushes or bumps another, either accidentally or purposefully. After seeing each situation, children were asked about how mean the behavior was and the amount of punishment the character deserved.

[Do childhood beliefs linger in us as adults?]

Parents completed questionnaires about their religious beliefs and practices and perceptions of their children’s empathy and sensitivity to justice. From the questionnaires, three large groupings were established: Christian, Muslim, and not religious. (Children from other religious households did not reach a large enough sample size to be included in additional analyses.)

Is religion necessary for morality?

Consistent with previous studies, in general the children were more likely to share as they got older. But children from households identifying as Christian and Muslim were significantly less likely than children from non-religious households to share their stickers.

The negative relation between religiosity and altruism grew stronger with age; children with a longer experience of religion in the household were the least likely to share.

[Baby morals may reflect parents’ sense of justice]

Children from religious households favored stronger punishments for anti-social behavior and judged such behavior more harshly than non-religious children. These results support previous studies of adults, which have found religiousness is linked with punitive attitudes toward interpersonal offenses.

“Together, these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism. They challenge the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior, and call into question whether religion is vital for moral development—suggesting the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact, it does just the opposite,” Decety says.

The John Templeton Foundation supported the work.

Source: University of Chicago