Negative Relationship: Religion & Childhood Altruism

Ah, the holiday season approaches.  Around every corner, I find flocked trees, UnChristmas Starbuck cinnamon lattes (big redcup fan, btw), and people in an uproar about their celebration of the Season.  The bitter Lutheran child in me wants to write about the absurdity of the War On Christmas and just wax cranky about the commercialization of the holidays (a tradition hearkening from before the American Civil War).

But, nope.  Not gonna Grinch it up today.  Instead, I want to talk about the dear, lovely children.  ¿Aren’t they adorable?

¿Can you tell I don’t have any kids?

Tight-Fisted Religious Kiddies

If you’re like 84% of the Planet, you either have or had a religious upbringing – with a 65% likelihood of it being either Christian or Muslim.  If that’s the case, a new study suggests you were pretty stingy as a kid.  Alright, not You, of course, but the other 5.8 billion totally were.  According to researchers, in a random sample of 1,170, 5-12 year-olds, those from religious households were less likely to act altruistically and more likely to be judgmentally brusque.  That’s right – the godless heathen-children hold the Season close in their hearts:

“Our findings contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others. In our study, kids from atheist and non-religious families were, in fact, more generous.” Lead author Jean Decety

It’s not just You, It’s Everyone

But, “Hold everything!” shouts every religious parent, “that’s those brats from that other Major World Religion, my kid is an absolute delight!”  Yes, I’m sure she is, so let’s talk about all the rest of them for a moment – they’re abysmal.  The University of Chicago researchers took regional, societal, and cultural consideration in stride and selected children from six countries–Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa, and the United States–from both within and without the largest global religions (510 Muslim, 280 Christian, and 323 nonreligious children).

In the study (published in Current Biology), Decety et al. gave the children each 10 stickers and then, through advanced techniques in science and sociology (fibbing through their adult teeth), convinced the children to split up their own rewards: one envelope destined for themselves; and one for other children whom they’d never seen.  Kids take note: adults are tricksy and want your stickers.

When all the stickers settled, the researchers found nonreligious children gave, on average, 4.1 stickers while Christian and Muslim children gave away 3.3 and 3.2 stickers, respectively. The effect wasn’t “out-group” motivated either as the children were told the stickers were destined for other children in their same school and ethnic group.  This correlation was found across all the economic, age, cultural, and geographic groups studied.

Little bundles of joy

The researchers found other interesting affectations of religious children, namely they’re far more judgmental and punitive.  The same groups were shown a video of one child hitting another and asked to rate how mean the encounter was and how much punishment should be meted out.  Those children raised in religious households were more likely to condemn the aggressor and demand harsher punishment be levied.  Lotsa stones being thrown from glass treehouses.

Admittedly, this is one study among many, and does nothing to quell the overall discussion or debate regarding the intersection between religion and altruism.  Decety’s focus is on childhood morality and freely admits human ethics evolve and metamorphose as we age into tricksy adults.  All that being said, maybe it’s time to put down our red Starbuckaccino and really contemplate what it means when the holidays roll around.

After all, it’s at this time of year when we’re meant to celebrate the birth of one of the most influential, beneficial, and beautiful men ever to walk the Earth: Isaac Asimov, (b. Jan 2, 1920).

The Jolliest Elf
The Jolliest Elf



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