A new study published on November 5 in the journal Current Biology has shown that religious children are more likely to be selfish and judgmental.
Researchers led by professor Jean Decety, neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, analyzed 1,170 children, aged 5 to 12, from 6 countries across the world: USA, Canada, South Africa, Turkey, Jordan and China. Most of the participants were Muslim (43%), non-religious (27.6%) or Christian (23.9%).
The initial purpose was to investigate trends in sharing and empathy, based on cultural differences. Prior studies had focused on adult respondents, so this new survey involved children also, based on the hypothesis that morality is actually shaped during the early stages of life.
Experts assessed the participants’ level of altruism, a trait which prompts individuals to conduct actions that benefit others, even to their own detriment.
In the experiment, the “dictator game” was used: each subject was handed 30 stickers, and allowed to keep 10 favorite ones.
Then, every kid was asked to decide how many would be shared with another anonymous child, attending the same school and coming from the same ethnic group. At the end, scientists assigned a “generosity score” to every participant, based on how limited resources had been allocated.
It was determined that kids originating from religious households tend to be less giving and altruistic than those who come from more secular families. Those who were non-religious gave out the greatest number of stickers, while among religious followers there were variations based on age: as they grew older, children became less generous.
Researchers also discovered that Muslim kids tended to be less selfless than Christians, but the differences weren’t statistically significant.
It appears that heightened religiousness within a household negatively impacts altruism, and this influence is more visible as children are more exposed to it while growing up.
In another experiment, experts also wanted to probe the children’s attitudes when it came to judging interpersonal harm.
They showed participants cartoons with physical acts of minor bullying, like bumping or pushing, and afterwards the kids were asked how mean the behavior had been, and what level of punishment should be administered.
Overall, Muslim kids displayed a heightened sense of justice: they qualified the harm as more serious, and demanded more severe retribution. Also, Christians were more sensitive to such acts than secular participants, assessing the damage as more significant, but the punishment demanded by these two groups didn’t differ greatly.
Just like it had happened when analyzing adults, children coming from strongly religious backgrounds were more prone to displaying a fundamentalist approach, by adopting a binary worldview. They judged actions as either right or wrong, with no middle ground or gradient in between.
“Some past research had demonstrated that religious people aren’t more likely to do good than their nonreligious counterparts. Our study goes beyond that by showing that religious people are less generous, and not only adults but children too”, explained professor Decety.
The findings of the study were compared against the views of the kids’ parents: highly religious individuals were more predisposed to view their offspring as moral and kind, and weren’t aware of the fallacy of their reasoning.
Experts even identified a possible explanation for this unsettling trend which links religiousness with intolerance and selfishness. It might be a case of “moral licensing”, a process through which having done virtuous deeds (like attending church or praying) is used to justify unkind behavior (such as racism).
People feel that they won’t be held accountable for their dismissive attitude towards others, if they are devout observers of rites and rituals. Those guided by extrinsic religion fail to realize the fact that their behavior isn’t actually in line with the Church’s teachings, which are all about tolerance and acceptance.
The results of this study are particularly relevant in the United States, where being an atheist or an agnostic is considered reprehensible, whereas strong religious beliefs are associated with being more charitable, morally upright and civically engaged.
The bias is so strong that non-religious persons are seldom elected for high-ranking positions in politics, like that of President of the United States.
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