Children who are raised with religion may be less altruistic than their non-religious peers, according to a study.
In the study, which was conducted by the University of Chicago and published on Nov. 5, researchers observed 1,170 kids between the ages of 5 and 12 in a laboratory environment and asked the children to play the "Dictator Game." Each child was given 30 stickers and told to keep at least 10, Scientific American reports. Then the researchers told each kid there wasn't enough time for all of his or her classmates to join in the game, but the kids could share their stickers with the others by putting them in a marked envelope. The researchers then faced the wall while each child decided whether or not to put some of the stickers into the envelope.
Separately, their parents were asked to fill out questionnaires about their religious beliefs. The children and parents were categorized as Christian, Muslim or belonging to non-religious households. To see if behavior crossed cultural lines, researchers from the University of Chicago included children from six countries, including the U.S., Canada, South Africa, China, Jordan and Turkey.
The study found that children from religious households were less likely to share their stickers than children from non-religious backgrounds. A second phase of the study measured the children's responses to animated videos showing characters pushing and bumping into each other, both accidentally and on purpose, the University of Chicago reported in a Nov. 5 press release. The kids were then asked if the offending character should be punished.
“Our findings contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others," lead researcher Jean Decety, who studies developmental neuroscience, said in the press release. "In our study, kids from atheist and non-religious families were, in fact, more generous."
In addition to sharing less than their non-religious counterparts, children of religious parents were more likely to advocate harsher punishments for people they believe have done something wrong, the study's authors said.
“Together, these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism," Decety said. "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.”
The findings are at odds with other studies into empathy and generosity, Scientific American noted. A paper published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy matched 2012 tax data on charitable donations to the religious beliefs of donors. It found donors from heavily religious areas of the U.S. gave a larger percentage of their income to charity, even compared to people who earn more money.
"Faith-related giving has to be acknowledged as a principal driver among the motivations for people who give back," Brent Christopher, president of the Communities Foundation of Texas, told the Chronicle. "They do give back to their churches and synagogues and mosques in a major way."