Is Religion Making Our Kids Less Altruistic?

A mother and her daughter pray. Credit: bigbirdz/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A mother and her daughter pray. Credit: bigbirdz/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Across cultures, children brought up in religious households tend to be less altruistic, a new study has found. The conclusion challenges conventional wisdom that religious people are empathetic, forgiving and more inclined to pro-social behaviour, attitudes that outline tolerance.

The scientists who conducted the study enrolled the parents of 1,170 children aged 5-12 years in six countries: Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA and South Africa. The scientists recorded the religiousness of each household (which varied as Christian, Muslim or not religious), and then had the children perform two tasks: one that involved opportunities to share stickers with an unseen child and the other, watching an animation in which a character accidentally or purposefully injures another. Finally, the parents reported their child’s response to each task by answering a questionnaire.

In keeping with previous studies, altruistic tendencies, or sharing something at a cost to oneself, were found to increase with one’s age and socioeconomic status. But in a novel turn, the tendencies decreased with the level of religious identification – children living in non-religious households were found to be ‘significantly’ more altruistic than those in Christian and Muslim households. At the same time, as a child grew older, she became less altruistic if she participated in religious practices more or lived in a more spiritual household.

The researchers also found that children in religious households were more ‘sensitive to justice’, more harshly judged whatever perceived harm, and were thus more vengeful. The findings “call into question whether religion is vital for moral development – suggesting the secularisation of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness,” Jean Decety, lead author and professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago, noted in a statement. “In fact, it does just the opposite.”

The study is definitely not the last word – especially for two reasons. First: a child’s behaviour was reported by its parents, who can’t be trusted to be unbiased, and different parents are biased differently. Second: the findings will have to be reproduced by another study so we know it used meaningful statistical tools to interpret the results. But until these sources of errors are adjusted for, the study’s conclusions will continue to suggest that religious morals could be stunting prosocial tendencies. This is curious because non-religious people are often accused of acting only in self-interest, which in turn is interpreted to be beholden to no morals. At the same time, a common argument defending religion is that it helps people empathise with each other and cooperate better, the latter a typical feature of large-scale activities yet seen only among humans in the animal kingdom.

Decety & co. are careful to note that while fundamentalists are likelier to be harsher-minded than liberals of the same religion, religious adults also tend to have black-and-white impressions of right and wrong. “While this association is documented in adults of the major world religions, here the relation between greater religiousness and preference for more severe punishment is observed in development, when morality is in a sensitive and fragile period, subject to social learning and cultural practices,” they write.

Traditionally, religious attitudes are acknowledged to be hampering public welfare initiatives like sex-education and contraception while holding (sometimes anecdotal) sway on a personal level for individual benefits. However, research conducted since the last decade has increasingly disputed this idea – that stronger religiosity is a precursor to social niceness – as well as the linkage between religious beliefs and altruism. Surveys have shown that non-religious people are likelier to donate organs, are more compassionate and more likely to volunteer for work.

But such studies have also been frequently hobbled by mistakes in interpreting the data. In one case, scientists were able to show that spirituality and religiosity were different, and that studies had to design separate controls for it. In a related example, a 2012 article in Psychological Bulletin remarked: “It is common practice to compare high levels of religiosity with ‘low religiosity’, which conflates indifferent or uncommitted believers with the completely nonreligious.” The author went on to pull up other biases, interference from psychological effects, and stereotypes for scientists advancing ambiguous connections between religiosity and prosocial attitudes.

Decety’s study was published in the journal Current Biology on November 5, 2015.

  • Ben Plonie

    The PDF is available online at

    To say that the study compares apples to oranges doesn’t even describe it. I would even say it was designed to obscure and dilute information rather than reveal it. Corrections were not made (probably impossible) for culture. What is the meaning of comparing a Muslim from Amman where a girl can be killed by her father or brother for dating a boy unsupervised and a Chinese Communist Atheist? What is the validity of playing a ‘dictator game’ in a country ruled by a dictator or a king and the people think it is normal? Anyway, this is a sociological story in a biological journal. Humans are not cells and tissues.

    Furthermore, there are no results reported for anyone but atheists, Christians and Muslims, with nothing reported for Jews, Hindus, Buddhists Agnostics or ‘other’. Even with a disclaimer, those results should have been reported but I suspect they would detract from the generalization the authors would like to report. If anything, the study proves that the largest sample, Muslims living in repressive third-world societies, cultures and neighborhoods are less altruistic; not actually surprising.

    “… children from other religious households did not reach a large enough sample size to be included in additional analyses”. Ha! There were enough Jews at least to analyze.

    The kids were from Chicago, Toronto, Amman, Izmir and Istanbul, Cape Town, and Guangzhou.
    23.9% Christian (n =280), 43% as Muslim (n = 510), 27.6% as not religious (n = 323), 2.5% as Jewish (n = 29), 1.6% as Buddhist (n = 18), 0.4% as Hindu (n = 5), 0.2% as agnostic (n = 3), 0.5% as other (n =6).

    Repeat the test without mashing up apples and oranges.

  • forsanity

    I usually do not pay heed to studies that purport to reveal new theories or confirm existing ones until they have had time to be repeated, challenged or stood the test of time. This one is no different. However, as an atheist it warmed the cockles of my heart to confirm my bias that morality is not the “god-given” (oops!) preserve of the religious. I wish more people realize that morality may have originated from religious teachings of the past, but religion has outlived its sell-by-date and causes more harm than good in the modern world. It is time to junk religion as the sole purveyor of moral rectitude.