A new study finds that contrary to conventional wisdom, children raised in nonreligious homes are more generous and altruistic than their peers who receive a religious upbringing.
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Called “The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World,” the study of 1,170 children found that the children from secular homes were more likely to share with their classmates and less likely to endorse harsh punishments for those who pushed or bumped into others, the Los Angeles Times reported. The respondents came from a variety of religious backgrounds.
The results “contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others,” said the study published Nov. 5 in the journal Current Biology.
The research team, led by University of Chicago neuroscientist Jean Decety, studied a diverse group of children aged 5-12 from seven cities: Chicago; Toronto; Amman, Jordan; Izmir and Istanbul in Turkey; Cape Town, South Africa, and Guangzho, China.
Forty-three percent of the subjects were Muslim, 24 percent Christian, 2.5 percent Jewish and 1.6 percent Buddhist. Twenty-eight percent of the children came from families that identified as “not religious.”
In one component of the study, researchers found that secular students were 23 to 28 percent more likely than religious ones to offer to share. Regardless of the particular faith with which a child identified, the more religious the family, the less generous the child.
In another part of the study, the researchers described scenarios involving bumping, pushing or other types of “interpersonal harm” and asked the kids to rate the meanness of the offenders. Muslim children judged the offenders most harshly, followed by the Christians and the secular. The sample of Jewish children was small, and the study did not compare Jewish children to those of other faiths.
The findings “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,” according to the article.