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Study Links Religion to Less Generous Kids

Thou shalt not share?

| 3 min read

Thou shalt not share?

You’d think that an upbringing in a religious household would promote the virtues of altruism and sharing, but a new study claims just the opposite. An international study examined the behavior of nearly 1,200 children — of Christian, Islamic, or non-religious upbringings — finding that those from religious households were less likely to share and were more punitive of their peers than those from non-religious households.

"Our findings contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others,” Professor Joan Decety, the study’s lead and a professor in psychology and psychiatry, said in a press release. “In our study, kids from atheist and non-religious families were, in fact, more generous.”

SEE ALSO: Spiritual Awareness Depends on Daily Activities

However, these claims are bold to say the least, so it’s important to note Decety’s words: “in our study.” Before jumping to the conclusion that all religious upbringings breed nasty, selfish kids, it’s important to examine the study with a critical eye because it had some serious limitations.

To measure the kids’ “altruism,” the researchers showed the children 30 stickers and asked them to choose their favorite 10 from the bunch. Then, the researchers told the children that there weren’t enough stickers for the other kids in order to see if the subjects would share. While, in a perfect world, every kid would dish their stickers out without a care in the world, not every kid has a well-developed set of morals yet. Plus, it’s a bit harsh to label a kid’s entire personality as “less altruistic” over a sticker game — kids will be kids.

To come to the finding that religious kids were “more punitive” than non-religious kids, the researchers had the children watch animations of characters that bumped each other, either on purpose or by accident. Then, the kids were asked how mean the behavior was and how much punishment was deserved — again, this is a limited way to gauge a child’s genuine inclination to harshly punish others. It would be much easier to punish an imaginary, animated character than someone in the real world who would actually suffer from the sanction.

Nonetheless, the researchers found that, like in previous studies, children were more likely to share as they got older.  But those from Christian and Muslim households were significantly less likely to share their stickers, and the study found that this negative relationship between religion and altruism grew stronger with age. Children who had lived longest in a religious household were the least likely to share.

The findings certainly provide a compelling argument to think outside the box when it comes to religion and altruism — most of the time people who don’t identify with a religion are seen as more immoral. “This view is unfortunately so deeply embedded that individuals who are not religious can be considered morally suspect,” said Decety. “In the United States, for instance, non-religious individuals have little chance to be elected to a high political office, and those who identify as agnostic and atheist are considered to be less trustworthy and more likely to be amoral or even immoral.”

But that’s exactly where the problem with generalizing an entire group of people comes in. The study only accounted for about 1,200 kids from 6 different countries (Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa, Turkey and the United States), but the world is made up of 196 countries with about 2.2 billion children in total.

Plus, can we really gauge a child’s genuine “altruism” through a sticker game and some animations? The last thing the world needs is more reason for tension between different religious groups. So while the study’s findings reveal an interesting link, they must be taken with a grain of salt.

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