Amanda Slater

A study by a global team of academics found that children from religious families tend to be less kind and more punitive than those from nonreligious households.

“Overall, our findings … contradict the commonsense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind towards others,” according to the authors of “The Negative Association Between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism Across the World,” published this week in Current Biology.

“More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that secularisation of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness — in fact, it will do just the opposite.”

The Guardian continues:

Almost 1,200 children, aged between five and 12, in the US, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa participated in the study. Almost 24% were Christian, 43% Muslim, and 27.6% non-religious. The numbers of Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and other children were too small to be statistically valid.

They were asked to choose stickers and then told there were not enough to go round for all children in their school, to see if they would share. They were also shown film of children pushing and bumping one another to gauge their responses.

The findings “robustly demonstrate that children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households”.

Older children, usually those with a longer exposure to religion, “exhibit[ed] the greatest negative relations”.

The study also found that “religiosity affects children’s punitive tendencies”. Children from religious households “frequently appear to be more judgmental of others’ actions”, it said. […]

At the same time, the report said that religious parents were more likely than others to consider their children to be “more empathetic and more sensitive to the plight of others”.

Religious communities constitute distinct cultural groups. With cultures typically functioning to preserve themselves against the influence of other cultures, it stands to reason that children strongly enculturated in a given religion might be repulsed by others who do not behave in accordance with their understanding of how people are supposed to behave. Those children might thus respond disapprovingly and sometimes aggressively toward those others.

The “meanness” discovered by the authors should thus be understood as entirely predictable behavior. Some interesting follow-up questions would be: Do cultures exist whose members do not exhibit this behavior? If so, how might we make ours more like them? Some social scientists may have the answers.

Keep reading The Guardian’s report here.

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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