It is a long-held belief that religious children display more empathy and concern for social injustices than other children, but a study recently published in Current Biology found the opposite to be true. The study, led by Neuroscientist and Professor Jean Decety of the University of Chicago, included information from over 1,100 children from six countries; The United States (Chicago), Canada (Toronto), Jordan (Amman), Turkey (Izmir and Istanbul), South Africa (Capetown) and China (Guangzhou) ranging in ages from five to 23 years old. The children were assessed on their likelihood to share (a test of altruism) and their inclination to judge and punish others for unfavorable behavior (sensitivity to injustice).

Before the study began, parents of the participants completed a questionnaire that allowed scientists to group the children into three categories: Muslim, Christian, and nonreligious. The questionnaire also identified the parent’s perception of their child’s capacity for empathy and injustice.

To test the children’s altruism, participants played “The Dictator Game:” one child was given 10 stickers and had the option to share the stickers with an unseen child coming from their similar ethnic group and school. The number of shared stickers then measured the altruism.

They also tested the children’s moral sensitivity by having them watch a short animated video in which one character bumps or pushes into another character. The participants were then asked about the meanness of the behavior and the type of punishment the characters deserved.

Altruism Is Negatively Influenced by the Religiosity of Children’ Households.  Children from non-religious households (n = 323) are more altruistic with an anonymous beneficiary than children from religious families (n = 280 Christians; n = 510 Muslims). Bars represent SEs.

The findings were astonishing. Despite religious children being identified more often as empathic and sensitive to the plight of others by their parents, they were found to be less altruistic than their nonreligious counterparts. Furthermore, as a nonreligious child got older, their sharing increased, whereas they found that the older a religious child was (and, therefore, the longer they were exposed to religion), the less likely they were to share. In regards to injustices, children from religious households called for more severe punishments and were less likely to identify a gradient scale to wrongdoing, with a one-size-fits-all approach used to assess the punishment despite variations in their perception of the offenses “meanness.”

Decety and team concluded,

Overall, our findings cast light on the cultural input of religion on prosocial behavior and contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others. More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do just the opposite.