Religious doctrines typically urge the faithful to treat others with compassion and to put the greater good before selfish interests. But when it comes to generosity, nonreligious kids seem to be more giving, according to a new study of 1170 children from around the world. Children from religious homes—particularly Muslims—also showed a greater inclination to judge someone’s misdeeds as wrong and punish the perpetrators. The study, the first large-scale analysis of its kind, suggests that religion and moral behavior don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand for children.
“Our findings support the notion that the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact it does just the opposite,” says Jean Decety, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, in Illinois, and the study’s lead author.
Past research has already called into doubt the common stereotype that religious people are more moral than their nonreligious brethren. In surveys, religious people report higher levels of charitable activity. But it’s not clear whether this is accurate or an exaggeration. It’s also unclear whether the altruistic spirit is mostly confined to other members of their religion. In actual tests of generosity, there are also mixed results. One study found both religious and nonreligious people shared more money with a stranger after reading sentences containing religious words such as “spirit” and “God.” But people were also more generous after reading words associated with secular authorities such as “police.” Another study found that more religious people were just as likely as less religious people to bypass a stranger in distress.
The new research, done with children in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa, and the United States), included 510 Muslim, 280 Christian, and 323 nonreligious children. The study, the first to take such a large-scale look at how religion and moral behavior intersect in children from across the globe, focused on one facet of moral behavior: altruism, or the willingness to give someone else a benefit that also comes with a personal cost.
The test revolved around that ubiquitous childhood currency, stickers. Children ages 5 to 12 met individually with adults who let them choose 10 of their favorite stickers. The children were then told that the adults didn’t have time to distribute the rest of their stickers to other kids in a fictive class. But each child was told they could put some of their 10 stickers in an envelope to be shared with other kids, who were described as being from the same school and ethnic group. The scientists used the number of stickers left in the envelope as a measure of altruism.
The children from nonreligious households left 4.1 stickers on average, a statistically significant difference from Christian children (3.3) and Muslim ones (3.2). Also, the more religious the household, based on a survey of parents, the less altruistic the child. The child’s age, socioeconomic status, and country of origin also played a role, but not enough to override the effect of religious differences, according to the study. In older children, the split was most stark, with religious youth increasingly unlikely to share.
Kids in the study also watched short videos in which one child did something bad to another, such as shoving. The children then ranked how mean they thought the incident was, and how severely they wanted the instigator punished. Nonreligious children tended to rank the incidents as less mean. Muslim children on average gave the highest rankings and sought harsher punishments than either their Christian or secular counterparts. Decety says he is unsure why this is the case.
Decety, whose work focuses on the emergence of morality in children, says the pattern of religious children being less generous may be tied to a phenomenon called “moral licensing.” That’s when a person feels permitted—even unconsciously—to do something wrong, because they see themselves as a morally correct person.
With so many children from different cultures, the new study offers vital insights, said Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, a psychologist at the University of Haifa in Israel and an expert in the psychology of religion. He suspects the results are connected to the importance many religions place on an external authority and threats of divine punishment. Whereas children in religious households learn to act out of obedience to a watchful higher power, children raised in secular homes could be taught to follow moral rules just because it’s “the right thing to do,” he says. Then, “when no one is watching, the kids from nonreligious families behave better.”
The study is already prompting head scratching over how it squares with similar studies of adults. Azim Shariff, a psychologist at the University of Oregon in Eugene, says it contrasts with his analysis that, taken as a whole, previous research found no overall effect of religion on adults faced with these kind of moral tests.
“It doesn’t fit in easily with what’s been out there so far. So I’ve got to do some thinking—other people have got to do some thinking—with how it does fit,” says Shariff, who praised the scale and depth of the study. He suggested the new findings could reflect a developmental stage for children, producing different results than for adults. He also noted that such controlled tests might not fully capture how people behave in daily life.
Decety has expanded his research to examine the effects of religion on children’s behavior in 14 countries, and is also exploring whether religion influences how children decide to distribute goods among different people in a group. “My guess is that I will find the same result as I did in this study,” he says.