A new study led by researchers at the University of Chicago will likely make atheists happy and religious parents perplexed: contrary to what most religious parents believe, children raised in religious households tend to be less altruistic than their nonreligious counterparts.
The study, published yesterday in the journal Current Biology, found that a child's religious environment fundamentally shaped how they expressed their altruism. The study confirmed previous research that children tended to be more altruistic the older they were. But researchers found that children raised in religious households were significantly less likely to share than children raised in nonreligious households. Additionally, the children mostly likely to share and demonstrate altruism came from atheist or nonreligious families.
These findings directly contradicted the beliefs of religious parents, who consistently told researchers that their children exhibited more empathy and moral sensitivity than children from nonreligious households.
"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," the researchers wrote in the study.
The authors of the study, led by Jean Decety at the University of Chicago, worked with 1,170 children between five and 12 years old in six countries: Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, the US, and South Africa. The majority of the children came from families that identified as either Muslim, Christian, or nonreligious, though there were a small number of children from Hindu, Buddhist, and agnostic homes.
Researchers measured altruism by asking children to play the 'dictator game,' in which the children were told to choose their ten favorite stickers from a pool of 30, then asked to share the stickers with an anonymous child in the same school who would not have a chance to play the game. Children from a non-religious background shared an average of 4.1 stickers, while children from a religious background shared 3.3. There were no significant differences between Muslim and Christian children, who gave away an average of 3.2 stickers and 3.3 stickers, respectively.
Another major finding involved children's moral sensitivity. Children were asked to watch short films where they saw examples of interpersonal harm, such as people being pushed or bumped by others, and were then asked to evaluate the behavior and what punishment people deserved.
Researchers found that children from religious households tended to believe that interpersonal harm was more "mean" and deserving of punishment than children from nonreligious households — but this belief did not necessarily make them more altruistic towards others.
The researchers say that these results may be due to "moral licensing," a phenomenon where people who believe that they are doing something good, and thus have a positive self-image, give themselves more leeway for immoral behavior.
Overall, the study challenges the popular view that religion produces more altruistic behavior, the researchers say.
"More generally," they write, "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."
Jean Decety, who led research for this study, said in a news release accompanying the publication that he plans to continue his research in 14 countries, including Canada, China, Cuba, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Turkey, Jordan, Taiwan, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Norway, and Mexico.
In a separate US-based study in 2012, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, observed that people who identified as religious are less likely to be motivated by compassion than people who were not religious.