The concept of generosity often plays an important role in the teachings of many religions around the world, but according to new research, children from religious families may not always share the same altruistic beliefs as their parents.

In a paper featured in the journal Current Biology, psychologists at the University of Chicago studied how the behavior and perceptions of children vary in six different countries, particularly when it comes to their tendencies to share with and judge others.

The team discovered that children who received a religious upbringing were less likely to share what they have with others who came from nonreligious families.

Kids with religious backgrounds also tended to be more judgmental of others, especially in response to behavior considered to be antisocial.

The study's findings disagreed with the traditional beliefs of religious parents, who were found to be more likely to report that their children were more empathetic and sensitive to the suffering of others compared to nonreligious parents.

"Our findings contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others," Jean Decety, a professor at the University of Chicago and the lead author of the study, said.

"In our study, kids from atheist and nonreligious families were, in fact, more generous."

Altruism and Sensitivity

To find out the tendencies of children to be generous and empathetic of others, Decety and her team asked 1,170 individuals to carry out tasks designed to measure their altruism and sensitivity.

All the participants were between five years old and 12 years old, and came from six different countries - China, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa, the United States and Canada.

For their task on altruism, the participants were asked to play a modified version of the "Dictator Game." Each child was provided with 10 stickers and was given a chance to share them with another child that was unseen to them.

The researchers measured the children's level of altruism based on the average number of stickers that they shared.

For their task on sensitivity, the children were asked to watch animated clips, which featured a character pushing or bumping another character, either purposefully or accidentally.

After watching each scenario, the kids were then asked about how mean the other character's behavior was and how much punishment that character should be given.

Meanwhile, the parents of the children were asked to complete questionnaires regarding their religious practices and beliefs. They were also measured based on perceptions of their children's ability to empathize and sensitivity to justice.

Decety and her team used the results of the questionnaires to establish three large groups for the parents: Christian, Muslim and nonreligious.

The researchers discovered that as the children aged, they became more sharing with others, which is consistent with earlier studies.

Children from Christian and Muslim households, however, were found to be the least likely to share their stickers with others compared to kids from nonreligious households.

This negative correlation between altruism and religiosity became even more pronounced as the children aged. Those who had a longer experience of being a part of a religious family were the least likely to be generous to others.

Participants who had religious backgrounds preferred harsher punishments for antisocial conduct. They also tended to judge such conduct more strongly compared to nonreligious children.

These findings were consistent with earlier studies of adults, which found that religiousness is more associated with retaliatory attitudes toward relational offenses.

According to the researchers, the results of the study show a similarity across different countries in how religious beliefs tend to negatively influence the development of a child's altruism.

These findings serve to challenge people's perceptions that religiosity promotes prosocial behavior, particularly in children, and calls into question the role of religion in forming morals.

Decety and her team point out that the secularization of moral discourse may even help facilitate an increase in human kindness instead of reducing it.

Photo: Koshy Koshy | Flickr 

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