Religious Kids Are More Selfish Than Non-Religious Kids, Says Research

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family sitting at church

Before you get upset, please know that one study doesn't make conclusive evidence.

In this case, the 2018 study suggests that rather than building up generosity and kindness, children who grow up in religious households are a little less kind and less generous than secular children.

Dr. Jean Decety, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, led a team of academics from seven universities around the world to find out if religious belief has a negative influence on children's altruism.

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1,170 families were recruited for the study, focusing on one child (aged between 5 and 12) and their families.

 510 of the participant families were Muslim, 280 were Christian, 29 were Jewish, 18 were Buddhist, 5 were Hindu; 323 were non-religious, three agnostic, and two described themselves as other. (The Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu families were excluded from the study, as they were too small in number to be statistically valid.)

After calculating how religious each family was, Dr. Decety determined that half of the kids in religious households came from highly observant homes, while the spiritual lives of the other half were less strict. He then arranged to have the children play a version of the Dictator Game, which is a way to measure altruism.

Although it's referred to as a game, the Dictator Game isn't really one, as only one of the participants is actually playing. Each child was given a collection of 30 cool stickers and was told that he or she could keep 10 of them.

Once the child had chosen their 10 stickers, the researcher told them that there wasn't enough time to play the game with all the children at school, but if they wanted, they were allowed to give away some of their ten stickers to a random schoolmate, who wouldn't otherwise be able to participate in the game.

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The child was then given a few minutes to decide if they wanted to give up some of the stickers, and if so, how many. The researchers then used the number of stickers surrendered as a way of measuring selflessness.

Children of non-believers were much more generous than those of believers, and they gave away an average of 4.1 stickers. Children from religious backgrounds gave away 3.3 stickers.

Breaking it down even more, the research showed that Muslim children gave away 3.2 stickers on average, and Christian children gave away 3.3. Analysis showed that the children's generosity inversely correlated with how religious their family was. Further investigation also found that kids from religious households tended to be more judgmental.

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"Overall, our finding ... contradict the commonsense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind towards others, said the authors of the study, called The Negative Association Between Religiousness and Children's Altruism Across the World published in the journal Current Biology.

"More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness; in fact, it will do just the opposite."

You don't need to be a believer in order to be a kind and generous person.

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Christine Schoenwald is a writer, performer, and frequent contributor to YourTango. She's had articles featured in The Los Angeles Times, Salon, Bustle, Medium, Huffington Post, Business Insider, and Woman's Day, among many others.