New Study Suggests Religion Makes Children Less Altruistic

Articles

Parents who raise their children to be religious may hope that their offspring will grow up to be more empathic and concerned with moral issues. But does religion actually facilitate sensitivity to others and prosocial behavior?

A new study led by Jean Decety of the University of Chicago, based on research supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, has put this assumption to the test. Recently published in Current Biology, the study, “The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World,” indicates that religion negatively influences children’s altruism. “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,” Decety explains.

The work examined a large sample of children across six countries, including Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, the United States, and South Africa, to examine the influence of religion on the expression of altruism. “Religiousness was inversely predictive of children’s altruism and positively correlated with their punitive tendencies,” the authors conclude. “Our findings robustly demonstrate that children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households.” Additionally, while altruism becomes less common with age regardless of religiosity, children who are exposed to religion longer experience lower generosity later in life.

“The findings from this study contribute to our evolving, cross-cultural understanding on the relationship of religious and non-religious belief and practice on generosity, altruism, and moral development in youth,” says Christopher Stawski, vice president, strategic program initiatives at the Foundation. “Jean Decety and his colleagues have been pioneers in helping to understand the development of empathy and their work through this study and others continues to push our knowledge on the complex interaction of social and cognitive influences on prosocial behavior.”