Instilling a strong sense of religious faith in your children probably won’t turn them into saints. If anything, it might make them less altruistic than kids who grow up in a nonreligious home.

That’s the perhaps counterintuitive conclusion reached by a new study published Thursday in Current Biology. Testing over 1,000 kids from a diverse variety of countries and religious backgrounds on a sharing task, the study authors found a noticeable generosity gap between those religious and nonreligious, a gap that only increased the more religious their households were. They also found that religious kids were more likely to be judgemental and to advocate harsher punishments for being wronged by others.

"Some past research had demonstrated that religious people aren't more likely to do good than their nonreligious counterparts," said lead author Jean Decety of the University of Chicago in a statement. "Our study goes beyond that by showing that religious people are less generous, and not only adults but children too."

Kinder Without God

The authors recruited 1,170 children (ages 5 to 12) from six countries, including the United States, Canada, and Turkey, to take part in a “resource allocation task” known as the dictator game. Not so much a game as a simple question, the dictator game asks one person to decide how much of a given resource they’d share with someone else. In the current study, the children were asked to decide how many of their stickers they’d offer to an anonymous child in the same school and ethnic group, in order to ensure that they’d be as generous as possible (most everyone tends to share more with people in their “in-group”).

It’s believed that as children become older, they steadily grow less selfish about sharing, and that’s exactly what the researchers found. But they also found that the degree of religiosity as well as the length of time in a religious household predicted less altruism. After controlling for other variables, the authors found that nonreligious households (323) predicted more generosity than Christian households (280), and Christian households predicted more than Muslim households (510) — children belonging to other religions were also tested, but their sample size was too small to obtain any conclusions from.

Figure 1 Nonreligious kids were significantly more generous than either Muslim or Christian kids during a simple sharing task, the authors found. Decety et al, Current Biology

Additionally, these children were asked to judge the meanness of an “everyday mundane” act of interpersonal harm and to determine how severe the perpetrator's punishment should be. Once again, the pattern held firm, with nonreligious children significantly more likely to turn the other cheek than Christians and Muslims. “Thus, children who are raised in religious households frequently appear to be more judgmental of others’ actions, while being less altruistic toward another child from the same social environment, at least when generosity is spontaneously directed to an ambiguous beneficiary,” the authors wrote.  

That latter conclusion isn’t out of left field either, with the authors citing prior research suggesting that Christians in particular might “view the moral wrongness of an action as a dichotomy and are less likely to discriminate between gradients of wrongness.”

As a sharp contrast to these results, religious parents were more likely to tout their kids as being very empathetic and sensitive to the plight of others than their nonreligious counterparts. That finding might signal the early emergence of a sociological phenomenon known as moral licensing, wherein people who see themselves as especially moral in one area of life (religion) give themselves implicit permission to be less noble elsewhere. It should be noted that no one group was entirely devoid of empathy; the average score on the generosity scale (1 to 5) was 3.25 for religious children compared to 4.11 for the nonreligious.

“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,” the authors concluded. “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.”

Decety and his colleagues hope to continue testing their hypothesis, with efforts to test children ages 4 to 8 in 14 different countries underway.

Source: Decety J, Cowell J, Lee K, et al. The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World. Current Biology. 2015.