Spare the God, raise the child? Non-religious raise nicer children: research
New research has found that the children of non-religious people are nicer than their religiously raised brethren.
According to the research, published in the journal Current Biology, the researchers noted that most research linking religion to prosociality focuses on university students, because they're convenient.
That limits the usefulness of the research.
This time the researchers decided to go for more of a social cross section - testing children from six countries.
They recruited 1,170 children aged between 5 and 12 years from Chicago (USA), Toronto (Canada), Amman (Jordan), Izmir and Istanbul (Turkey), Cape Town (South Africa), and Guangzhou (China).
In terms of religion this broke down into 23.9% of households identifying as Christian, 43% as Muslim, 27.6% as not religious, 2.5% as Jewish, 1.6% as Buddhist, 0.4% as Hindu, 0.2% as agnostic, and 0.5% as other.
Because they didn't have enough people from the other religious groups the researchers focused on Christians, Muslims and the non-religious, hypothesising that religion should promote altruism.
"A common sense notion and a theoretical assertion from religious metaphysics is that religiosity has a causal connection and a positive association with moral behaviours. This view is so deeply embedded that individuals who are not religious can be considered morally suspect," the researchers wrote.
This would be consistent with how religious people see themselves.
"Consistent with research linking religiousness and adult self-reports of moral behaviour, frequency of religious attendance, spirituality, and overall religiousness predicted parent-reported child sensitivity to the plight of others (empathy and sensitivity to justice). Religious individuals consistently score higher than non-religious ones on self-reported measures of socially desirable responding," the researchers said.
To test this they had the kids play the dictator game, a resource allocation task.
"Regardless of religious identification, frequency of religious practice, household spirituality, and overall religiousness were inversely predictive of children’s altruism," the researchers noted.
In other words, the more religious the household, the less kind the kid.
Not only that, but when it came to punishment children from Muslim households were much harsher than their Christian and non-religious counterparts.
What is going on? according to the researchers it may be moral licensing.
When you do something that is perceived as positive, you kind of feel it balances out the negative things you're doing.
This "can disinhibit selfish behaviour and reduce prosocial behaviour and may account in explaining how children raised in religious households, who are perceived to be more empathetic and sensitive to justice, are in fact less altruistic to their own class mates."
"Overall, our findings cast light on the cultural input of religion on prosocial behaviour and contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others.
"More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularisation of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do just the opposite," the researchers conclude.
The research was funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which is generally pro-religion.