A recent study led by University of Chicago professor Jean Decety, published November 5 in Current Biology, concluded that children from religious households are less altruistic than those from secular households.
The study states that little research has been done to prove that religion plays a positive role in childhood moral development, though most people assume it does. The study included 1,170 children between the ages of five and 12 from Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States. 23.9 percent of the households identified as Christian, 43 percent as Muslim, 27.6 percent as nonreligious, and 5.5 percent as other religions.
The psychologists created “the Dictator Game” to assess the children’s level of altruism. They were given 30 stickers and asked to decide how many to share with a hypothetical child. Muslim and Christian children were found to share fewer stickers than nonreligious children.
The researchers also carried out a moral sensitivity task, in which children watched videos of characters pushing and bumping into other characters. They were then asked to judge the meanness of the offenses and the degree of punishment the perpetrators deserved. Muslim and Christian children deemed the offenses meaner than secular children did. While there was no notable difference between Christian and secular children in terms of punishment deserved, Muslim children wanted more serious punishments for the perpetrators.
Furthermore, religious parents were more likely to consider their children highly altruistic, which conflicts with the study’s results.
The purpose of conducting the study internationally was to control differences in economic development, socioeconomic status, parental education, and culture. Kang Lee, a professor at the University of Toronto and a member of Decety’s team, conducted experiments and collected data on Canadian households.
“After we had all these controls in place, we could make more generalized conclusions about children’s behavior that are common across all cultures and all localities,” he said.
Lee has acknowledged the potential controversy the study could cause, especially given the significant media coverage it has received from publications such as The Economist and The Guardian. He believes the effects of the study are overall positive because they highlight the importance of exposing children to ideas of morality independent of religion.
“By doing scientific studies like this, we can inform parents on how they can promote their children’s prosocialness and generosity,” Lee said.