Study: Religious kids don't share as much

"The secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness," said psychologist Jean Decety. "In fact, it does just the opposite."
By Brooks Hays   |   Nov. 5, 2015 at 2:55 PM

CHICAGO, Nov. 5 (UPI) -- Religion may save your soul, but it won't necessarily make you more altruistic.

In a recent study, children from more religious backgrounds and upbringings were less likely to exhibit altruistic behaviors.

The study analyzed the behaviors of children, between the ages of 5 and 12, from Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa, Turkey and the United States. More religious kids were less likely to share and more likely to exact harsh punishments for bad behavior than were their less religious peers.

"Our findings contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others," study author Jean Decety, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, said in a press release. "In our study, kids from atheist and non-religious families were, in fact, more generous."

The worldwide studies had groups of children participate in experiments designed to measure their willingness to share and their "moral sensitivity."

Sharing was measured using the so-called dictator game, whereby each child is given ten stickers and told he or she can share as many or as few of them with an unseen child. Moral sensitivity was measured by having children watch short animations featuring a character either accidentally or purposefully bumping into another character. After watching, children were asked to judge their guilt and dish out various levels of punishment.

Children from Christian and Muslim backgrounds tended to give away fewer stickers. They also were harsher judges, handing out stricter penalties. Children from atheist, agnostic or non-religious families tended to give away more stickers and were more forgiving.

Though children of all backgrounds tend to share more as they get older, the increase in altruism among religious kids was stunted.

"The negative relation between religiousness and spirituality and altruism changes across age, with those children with longer experience of religion in the household exhibiting the greatest negative relations," researcher wrote in their new paper, published this week in the journal Current Biology.

Researchers didn't attempt to explain why religion has this effect. Perhaps adults and their ideas get in the way of what comes naturally to young people. Recent research has shown that kids as young as three are surprisingly empathetic.

"These results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children's altruism," Decety said of his latest finding. "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."

The new results also serve as an interesting parallel to other studies that show participation in a religion and religious community have small but statistically significant positive mental health effects on adolescents.

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