The findings “call into question whether religion is vital for moral development."
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An article published in the scientific journal Current Biology claims a recent clinical study suggests children who grow up in religious families are less generous and more judgemental than those who grow up in nonreligious homes.
The Templeton Foundation funded the study, which was conceived by neuroscientist Jean Decety, who is a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago. Dr. Decety set out to investigate the common assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kinder toward others. What he discovered completely contradicted that common wisdom.
Dr. Decety's study involved 1170 children between the ages of 5 and 12 from diverse religious and secular backgrounds. They were chosen from seven cities around the world: Chicago, Toronto, Amman, Jordan, Izmir, Istanbul, Cape Town, South Africa; and Guangzhou.
The LA Times reports that, of the kids studied, 24% were from Christian households, 43% were Muslim, 2.5% were Jewish, 1.6% were Buddhist, 0.4% were Hindu, 0.2% were agnostic and 0.5% were classified as “other.” 28% came from families described as “not religious.”
Each child was shown a collection of 30 stickers and was told they could keep their 10 favorites. The researcher then let it slip that there wouldn't be time to let every student choose stickers, so some kids at the school would be going home empty handed.
The researchers found children from nonreligious families volunteered to share more of their stickers than those raised in religious homes. The data showed that the "generosity scores" for Christians and Muslims were essentially the same, but the scores for nonreligious children were 23% to 28% higher.
A second experiment designed by Dr. Decety had researchers show kids a series of videos involving bumping, pushing and rude behavior and asked the kids to rate the meanness of the offenders. The study found Muslim kids judged the offenders most harshly, followed by Christians, with kids from secular homes being the most lenient in their judgment. Not surprisingly, kids from Muslim families wanted harsher punishments than kids in the other two groups.
Dr. Decety says the results of the study “call into question whether religion is vital for moral development.”
Researchers say their study definitively contradicts the popular belief that religion is essential for morality, a concept, Dr. Decety points out is “so deeply embedded that individuals who are not religious can be considered morally suspect.”
The study concludes:
"Across all countries, parents in religious households reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life than non-religious parents. However, religiousness was inversely predictive of children’s altruism and positively correlated with their punitive tendencies. Together these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism, challenging the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior."
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