Are Christian, Muslim Kids Really Less Altruistic? This Study Thinks So

A study of 1,170 Christian, Muslim and non-religious children between the ages of five and 12 in the US, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa left readers with concerning findings. Researchers set out to determine the effects of religion on children and found it was negative.

In The Negative Association Between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism Across the World, published this week in Current Biology, authors found the data forced them to “call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that secularisation of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness – in fact, it will do just the opposite.”

The authors stated, “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.”

24% of the children in the study were Christian, 43% Muslim, and 27.6% were non-religious. The was a small number of Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and agnostic children, but the number was too small to be valid data.

The researchers used a dictator game to determine sharing and behavior. Children were given 30 stickers and told to choose how many to share with another student. The younger children shared more than the older children and non-religious children shared more than religious children. Authors concluded greater exposure to religion reduces one’s altruism.

Children were also participants in a moral sensitivity task. They watched videos of interpersonal harm like someone pushing another and were asked to rate the meanness and level of punishment deserved.

Forbes wrote, “Compared to the other two groups, Muslims thought harmful actions were meaner and believed in harsher punishment. Christians judged the harm to be meaner than secular kids, though there was no difference in their punitive ratings. This is consistent with fundamentalism, when actions are seen as either right or wrong, with no gradient in morality between two extremes. Overall, religious children are less tolerant of harmful actions and favored harsh penalties.”

“It would be interesting to see further research in this area, but we hope this goes some way to undoing the idea that religious ethics are innately superior to the secular outlook. We suspect that people of all faiths and none share similar ethical principles in their day to day lives, albeit may express them differently depending on their worldview,” said the authors.

Are children of faith or religious backgrounds any more or less altruistic than kids who are not raised in households of faith or religion? Does this study have some holes in the research and findings?

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Esther Laurie
Esther Laurie is a staff writer at ChurchLeaders.com. Her background is in communication and church ministry. She believes in the power of the written word and the beauty of transformation and empowering others. When she’s not working, she loves running, exploring new places and time with friends and family. It’s her goal to work the word ‘whimsy’ into most conversations.