Religious? You're Probably a Little Selfish, New Study Says

Now this is a stumper.

Did you know that the more religious an upbringing you have, the less altruistic you turn out to be?

That's so says a new study, reports.

Many families believe religion plays an essential role in childhood moral development. But children of religious parents may not be as altruistic as those parents think, according to a new international study from the University of Chicago.

A team of developmental psychologists led by Prof. Jean Decety examined the perceptions and behavior of children between ages 5 and 12, from Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa, Turkey and the United States.

The study assessed the children’s tendency to share—a measure of their altruism—and their inclination
to judge and punish others for bad behavior.

Children from religious families were less likely to share with others than were children from non-religious families. A religious upbringing also was associated with more punitive tendencies in response to anti-social behavior (why am I not surprised?).

For a short time in my 20's I lived in a Midwestern state and most of the people I met were affiliated with an Evangelical religious group.   Now I've always been a churchgoer but these people scared me.  No two adults of the opposite sex were allowed to be in a room with low light alone.  Certainly no sex before marriage.  And

How much of this was truly practiced, I don't really know.  Except that, when my college roommate -- a pretty but lusty blonde -- came to visit, the men were forbidden to ask her out because she was my friend, and I wasn't "saved."

“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,” says Decety, the Irving B. Harris Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry and the College and director of the University of Chicago Child NeuroSuite.

Consistent with previous studies, in general the children were more likely to share as they got older. But children from households identifying as Christian and Muslim were significantly less likely than children from non-religious households to share their stickers. The negative relation between religiosity and altruism grew stronger with age; children with a longer experience of religion in the household were the least likely to share.

Children from religious households favored stronger punishments for anti-social behavior and judged such behavior more harshly than non-religious children. These results support previous studies of adults, which have found religiousness is linked with punitive attitudes toward interpersonal offenses.

I know I was always on my toes when I was around the people from this religious sect, afraid to slip and swear, or be too inviting (read: tight jeans).  They were good people, no doubt about it, but they had some pretty strange ideas.  Anyone who ventured outside the fold?  Censure and ostracism.  And in this group, if this happened to you, you lost your "friends" -- often the only people you knew and hung out with. No thank you.    

 “Together, these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism. They challenge the view that religiosity facilitates pro-social 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,” Decety says.

So does this mean all religious people are ungenerous and judgmental?  Not at all.  The people in my church clothed and fed a young couple who house burned down, ralled around a family whose young child had cancer, and volunteer to work at an after-school homework club for disadvantaged children (me, too) in my hometown.  If that's not sharing, I don't know what is.


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