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Can Religion make children more Selfish? Study Says Yes

Update Date: Nov 06, 2015 11:43 AM EST

Children growing up in religious households tend to be more selfish and less generous than children who do not, new research suggest.

For this study, lead researcher Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, recruited 1170 children between the ages of five and 12 who were from six countries that included the United States, Canada, China, Jordan Turkey and South Africa. In terms of religious backgrounds, 24 percent of them were from Christian households, 43 percent from Muslim ones and 28 percent were from a secular background.

The researchers wanted to see how cultural background - not religion - was tied to altruism, which was measured by using "the dictator game." In this game, each child was given 30 stickers and was instructed to choose how many stickers he/she wanted to share with someone who was from the same school and had a similar ethnic background.

The researchers found that it was not culture, but rather, religion that seemed to influence a child's level of altruism. Overall, secular children shared more stickers than Christian and Muslin kids. Children, in general, were less altruistic with age.

"I was more interested in whether I would find differences in empathy or sharing depending on the culture," Decety said after finding out that religion appeared to influence children's generosity.

The researchers also measured the children's stance on justice. They were all shown videos with mild violence (pushing or bumping) and were asked to judge how mean the person doing the violent act was. The children were also asked to rate the level of punishment that they believed the person deserved.

The researchers found that religious children were less tolerant to mean acts. Muslim children, specifically, seemed to prefer harsher punishments.

The researchers noted that just because someone is religious, it does not mean that he or she is more moral and generous than someone who is religious.

"Morality and religion are two separate things: religion has been made by humans and morality is part of our biology," Decety explained.

The researchers continued in their paper:

"A common sense notion and a theoretical assertion from religious metaphysics is that religiosity has a causal connection and a positive association with moral behaviors. This view is so deeply embedded that individuals who are not religious can be considered morally suspect... These notions have been forwarded by recent publications as well, mostly using self-reports of hypothetical giving and charity, documenting that religious people are more likely to report higher rates of intended giving, but in fact, a careful meta-examination of the studies measuring actual behavior shows that there is little evidence for such a positive relation. Here, we show that religiosity, as indexed by three different measures, is not associated with increased altruism in young children."

The study was published in Current Biology.

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