Recent study suggests that children of religious families are less altruistic, more punitive

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The controversial claim from a new study is that children from religious backgrounds are less willing to share with others and are more judgmental when confronted with people demonstrating anti-social behavior.

The study was conducted among children from seven different countries and many backgrounds, although statistically only Christian, Muslim, and non-religious were considered large enough samples to derive results from; interestingly, the study methods don’t seem to have been adapted to different cultural contexts or conditions, with the same test being applied across age and culture.

One aspect of the study seems contradictory; a finding that all children were more generous as they grew, but that children who were exposed to religion for longer were less generous.

From the University of Chicago news blog:

Consistent with previous studies, in general the children were more likely to share as they got older. But children from households identifying as Christian and Muslim were significantly less likely than children from non-religious households to share their stickers. The negative relation between religiosity and altruism grew stronger with age; children with a longer experience of religion in the household were the least likely to share.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study found that parents were unlikely to see their child as lacking in generosity, even when a child was very unwilling to share. You can read more about the findings in a recent Guardian article as well.

We reported earlier this year on another study that suggested that children who sang in choir made better moral choices than children who didn’t, although one could fairly ask similar questions about the underlying assumptions made for that study as well.

Do you think you’d know if your child was selfish? What do you think could account for the disparity between the studies findings and the common sense notion that children taught the values of self-sacrifice and generosity should be more altruistic than others? Do you think this is something that has changed with time, or would the same study have the same conclusion even a century ago?

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10 Responses to "Recent study suggests that children of religious families are less altruistic, more punitive"
  1. Hogwash. Too many variables--cultural, familial, type of religion (fundamentalist, middle-of-road, liberal) to make a generalization like this.

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  2. I agree with Jay, we really don't have the breakdown on the backgrounds of these kids. I'd believe results like this might very well reflect the children of conservative Evangelicals. For another view, check this out:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/11437624/Perfect-harmony-how-singing-in-a-choir-can-make-us-more-moral.html

    Kurt Hill
    Brooklyn, NY

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    • Kurt: I wrote about that earlier this year! I agree; it definitely raises questions.

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      • Translation for Jos. "Why is it that the people who keep pissing on my foot happen to be conservative Evangelicals?"

        Kurt Hill
        Brooklyn, NY

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  3. Like Jay and Kurt above, I believe there are too many ways to slice the underlying data to draw any conclusions or make any predictions about the effect of religion on these behaviors.

    But a more significant factor in these results my be the parents, not the religion: "[T]he study found that the parents were unlikely to see their child as lacking in generosity...". I think that at earlier ages ---before adolescent cognitive abilities permit mature moral reasoning---the greater moral influences on children are parents, siblings and peers. I would guess that religious morality has practically zero effect on pre-teens except as it-is-lived in their environment.

    Likewise, we could conjecture that the parents of these children chose religious communities (not doctrine) that reflected their own values. At least for the parents in this study, parents who couldn't see a lack of generosity in their children suggests that a lack of generosity was the norm at home.

    As I mature, and see how religion is used as a political crucible today, I've come to believe that people's choice of religious affiliation says more about them. We want to think, (and I believe it is this study's underlying assumption) that religion transforms us; I believe, too often, it's just the other way round.

    If my premise is true, then no "blame" can be laid at the door of any religion; only the practices of its adherents.

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  4. I loved the way they defined "altruistic" where they set up the rules of a "game" involving stickers and gauged altruism by how many stickers kids gave away (in a game). Kids are living and breathing proof of the doctrine of Original Sin. If you want to see original sin demonstrated, but two 5 yr old kids in a room with one toy.

    Altruism is developed over time by showing examples of it. If you want to see who is the most generous with their own time, talent, and treasure, then look at the middle class conservatives.
    http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/2014/10/17/Who-s-More-Generous-Liberals-or-Conservatives

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  5. I referenced this in yesterday's sermon. First, this finding is similar to past findings that Christians are more racist than non-Christians. Yet, when a few more questions were added to sort out those who knew and believed some basics of Christian faith, those folk were much less racist than the secular group, and especially than the nominal Christians. Second, generosity and mercy need to be taught. Those who were rescuers during the Holocaust included many Catholics and Protestants. They also included many secular people, including communists. What they had in common were parents who were models of generosity and mercy, often to their own inconvenience. As others have noted, the definitions of "religious" and "not religious" are much too vague to be meaningful.

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  6. Jay is correct in that generalizations about "religion" are too broad. Cavanaugh has treated the problems with this category, whether used in history or statistics wonderfully in his book "The Myth of Religious Violence."

    Philip nailed down the Original Sin problem. Our nature is bent, and doing well requires not only grace but habits and gifts from God to undo that problem over a lifetime.

    Third, Altruism is a relatively new ethic that is philosophically ridiculous for reasons too long to go in here. In short, the command to "love thy neighbour as thyself" binds the love of oneself to how one loves their neighbour, or you can only love your neighbour as much as you can love yourself. Altruism does away with self-love altogether, labeling it inherently evil. That self-love then is attributed to Egoism which is put into combat with Altruism. The Christian ethic says to these two, "yes." Hobbes moving forward have created a false dichotomy. So in short, why would any Christian want their child to be an altruist?

    Instead, let us concern ourselves with virtue, for this is the ethic of The Church, as found in the proper preface to our Saints days, the most ethical people we know of:

    "For the wonderful grace and virtue declared in all thy saints,
    who have been chosen vessels of thy grace, and the lights
    of the world in their generations."

    These statistics are unreflective of their own categories. Meaningless categories cannot produce meaningful data analysis, and thus cannot produce meaningful conclusions.

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