Can Religion Make You Less Generous?
When you think about religion, what are some of the first things you think about?
Good deeds, helping others, patience, forgiveness, charitable work, and kindness. At least those would be my general impressions. I’m sure I’m not alone.
Whatever you might think of religion, you could probably agree those are common ideals. For instance, sharing and honesty would be some basic principles taught by religions.
But a recent study says that children brought up in religious households may not be as generous as other children. As you can imagine, I was intrigued by a study that contradicts commonly held beliefs.
So what would cause children with a religious upbringing to not be as generous?
Against A Common Belief
The new international study has been published in the journal Current Biology and was done by a team of developmental psychologists.
The team was lead by Professor Jean Decety. He comments on the findings:
“Our findings contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others. In our study, kids from atheist and non-religious families were, in fact, more generous.”
This is pretty surprising. Considering that many of us hold the belief that religion plays an important role in teaching our children what is morally right and wrong.
More importantly, the study looked at over 1,100 children in 6 different countries. Meaning that the implications could carry across different cultures.
Looking At The Results
Here’s a rundown of the findings. They assessed children’s tendency to share. They also looked at children’s tendencies to judge and punish certain behaviors.
What did they find?
That children from religious families were less likely to share than children from non-religious families. In general, the children were more likely to share as they got older. However, children with longer exposure to religion at home were still found to be least likely to share.
There was more, though. These same children would also give harsher punishments for bad behavior. They also viewed this behavior more negatively than children from non-religious households.
What about the parents of the children think?
The parent’s believed that their children would have a higher degree of empathy and more understanding of the plight of others. The study, though, showed evidence that directly contradicts their beliefs.
The findings from Jean and her team of researchers are consistent with other research in the area. Other studies have found that adults who consider themselves religious also have stronger attitudes towards punishing bad behavior.
Jean sums up the research by saying:
“Together, these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism.”
It also turns a common belief – that religion teaches altruistic behavior – on its head. Jean elaborates on this:
“They challenge the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior, and call into question whether religion is vital for moral development — suggesting the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact, it does just the opposite.”
A Grain of Salt
As with any study, results should be taken with caution.
The methods used determine altruistic behavior and punishment were done using a game with stickers and a video, respectively. There are many ways one can show or exhibit generosity.
Also the only religions examined were largely Christian and Muslim. Different types of religion or variations of these types might produce different results.
There are many variables to consider in human nature. Interpreting behavior is tough, and there may be other things going on under the surface.
But it doesn’t hurt to reexamine how we teach children about sharing, forgiveness, and tolerance. It could be that somewhere along the line these messages might be getting lost.