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Secular children show more altruism than religious ones, study finds

Overall, the secular children in the study were also less judgmental and punitive about perceived infractions in social behavior.

Children raised in secular households tend to be more generous and less punitive toward others than children raised in religious ones, according to new research published this month in the journal Current Biology.

“Our findings contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others,” said Jean Decety, the study’s lead author and a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, in a released statement. “In our study, kids from atheist and non-religious families were, in fact, more generous.”

The study involved almost 1,200 children between the ages 5 and 12 living in seven cities around the world: Chicago; Toronto; Amman, Jordan; Izmir and Istanbul, Turkey; Cape Town, South Africa; and Guangzhou, China.

The parents of these children filled out questionnaires about their religious beliefs and practices — and about how empathetic their children were toward others. Most of the parents described themselves as Muslim (43 percent), Christian (24 percent) or non-religious (28 percent). Other religions (or non-religions) represented included Jewish (1.6 percent), Buddhist (0.4 percent), agnostic (0.2 percent) and “other” (0.5 percent). 

Two experiments

In a variation of the “Dictator Game,” which is often used in behavioral economics research, the children were shown 30 stickers and instructed to select their 10 favorites. They were then told that there was not enough time for all the children in their school to receive stickers, but they could give some of their 10 stickers to their classmates by putting them in a special envelope. They were also given an envelope for any stickers they wished to keep for themselves. The researchers leading the experiment then turned away from the children, telling them to let them know when they were finished filling their envelopes.

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The researchers assessed the children’s altruism by the average number of stickers shared.

In a second experiment, the children were shown short animation videos in which a character pushes or bumps against another, either accidentally or purposefully. After watching the video, the children were asked to rate (on a seven-point, child-friendly scale) the “meanness” of the behavior and the amount of punishment that should be administered.

Altruism findings

In their analysis of the data from the two experiments, Decety and his colleagues focused on differences between children living in Muslim, Christian and non-religious households. Children from the other religions were not numerous enough in this study to reach a statistically significant result.

The researchers found that the altruistic impulses of Muslim and Christian children in the first experiment were not much different. Both groups gave away, on average, slightly more than three out of their 10 stickers.

But that was significantly less than the children from the non-religious households. They gave away, on average, more than four stickers.

Furthermore, as the age of the children in the religious households rose, their comparative lack of generosity became even more pronounced.

Decety and his colleagues note that the children were asked to share their stickers with classmates from their own school and who, therefore, had a similar ethnic background.

“Therefore,” write the researchers, “the result cannot be simply explained by in-group versus out-group biases that are known to change children’s cooperative behaviors from an early age, nor by the known fact that religious people tend to be more altruistic toward individuals from their in-group.”

As background information in the study points out, some past research has suggested that religious adults give more to charity than their secular peers. Those studies, however, have tended to be based on self-reports of hypothetical giving.

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“In fact,” write Decety and his colleagues, “a careful meta-examination of the studies measuring actual behavior shows that there is little evidence for such a positive relation.” 

Findings from second experiment

The second experiment revealed differences along religious/non-religious lines that were similar to those in the first experiment. Children in Muslim and Christian households tended to judge the pushing and shoving they saw in the videos as being “meaner” than did their peers from non-religious households. Both the Muslim and Christian groups of children also wanted, on average, harsher punishments for the characters in the videos doing the pushing and shoving.

Those results support other research that has found that religious adults tend to have more punitive attitudes toward people who have committed crimes, no matter what the level of the crime.

“For instance, within Christianity, fundamentalists tend to be more punitive and advocate harsher corrections than non-fundamentalists,” Decety and his colleagues write. “Moreover, Christians are also argued to view the moral wrongness of an action as a dichotomy and are less likely to discriminate between gradients of wrongness, yielding equal ratings for a variety of transgressions.”

A contradiction of parental views

Interestingly, the questionnaires filled out by the parents of the children in this study revealed that the religious parents were more likely than the secular ones to identify their child as being above average in terms of empathy and sensitivity to the plight of others

But that view appears to be contradicted by this study’s findings. It was the secular children who were, overall, more altruistic toward others and less judgmental and punitive about perceived infractions in social behavior.

The findings, therefore, “call into question whether religion is vital for moral development,” Decety and his colleagues write.

In fact, say the researchers, their findings support “the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness — in fact, it will do just the opposite.”

The study can be accessed and read in full at the Current Biology website.