Religious Children Share Less and Judge More
Study reveals how secularization increases kindness
Illustration Credit: Little Ones by Jennifer Davis
A group of seven developmental psychologists from around the world recently revealed that religious children are less altruistic than nonreligious children in Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States.
Published in Current Biology, the study was led by Jean Decety, distinguished professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago and the director of the university’s Child Neurosuite. “Our findings contradict the commonsense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others,” Decety said. “In our study, kids of atheist and nonreligious families were, in fact, more generous.”
The team of psychologists used the “Dictator Game” as a tool to examine a diverse, cross-cultural sample of 1,174 children ages 5 through 12 that included 280 Christians, 510 Muslims, 323 nonreligious, 29 Jews, 18 Buddhists, 5 Hindus, 3 agnostics, and 6 others. The game basically tests a person’s level of self-interest by revealing how individuals might share resources with others.
In the game, each child was asked to choose 10 favorites from a set of 30 stickers, and told the 10 stickers were theirs to keep. The child was then told that the experimenter did not have the time to play this game with all of the children in the school, so not every child would receive stickers. Finally, each child was given two envelopes and told that they could give some of the stickers to another child who would not be able to play this game by putting them in one envelope. The other envelope was for the stickers they wanted to keep. The experimenters turned around so each child could choose in private whether or not to give away stickers. Generosity was calculated as the number of stickers shared out of 10.
The results revealed that Christian children and Muslim children were equally generous, but both shared fewer stickers than the nonreligious children.
In another part of study identified as a “moral sensitivity task,” children were showed a computer simulation of a faceless person pushing or bumping into another faceless person. They were then asked about the level of meanness they witnessed and how much punishment the pusher should face.
This part of the study revealed that Muslim children judged the pushing as more mean than Christian children and nonreligious children, and the Christians judged the pushing as more mean than the nonreligious. The religious children also expected harsher punishment compared to nonreligious children.
Other results of the study—consistent with similar studies—revealed that as children grow older, they become less likely to share. In addition, “religiousness is directly related to increased intolerance for and punitive attitudes toward interpersonal offenses, including the probability of supporting harsher penalties.”
These results “challenge the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior and call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, suggesting that secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact, it does just the opposite,” Decety explained.
A Judgmental God Is Really Hard on Your Health
A recent University of Missouri study suggests that the more you believe in a loving God and the more you believe you have the support of a congregation, the healthier you are likely to be. But that’s not news. A long line of research shows that a belief in a loving God has myriad benefits for health and happiness: A loving God encourages people to make love more often than those who believe in a judgmental God. And belief that God has sanctified your marriage makes for a happier marriage. But here’s what is news. According to Dr. Brick Johnstone, a neuropsychologist and professor of health psychology at UM, any sense of being punished or abandoned by God can have a devastating effect on our health, on how we experience pain, and on our ability to heal. “When individuals believe they’re ill because they’ve done something wrong and God is punishing them—their health is worse.” Other research shows that about 10 percent of the population carries negative spiritual beliefs, so this represents an enormous burden not just for these individuals, but also for our health care system. —Robin Stremlow