Researchers from universities around the world studied 1,170 children between the ages of five and 12 in the United States, Canada, Turkey, Jordan, South Africa and China. The children studied were mostly from Christian (24%) and Islamic (43%) households, though the group also included a small number of Jews, Buddhists and Hindus. Children self-identified as non-religious made up 28% of the group.
Researchers measured generosity through a game where children decided how many stickers they were willing to give to classmates. A group of children were given 30 stickers and and told to keep the 10 that they liked the most. They were then told that not all the children would be given stickers due to time, so some of the children decided to share their stickers.
Non-religious children were up to 28% more likely to share their stickers than the Christian and Muslim kids, whose generosity scores were about the same. Researchers also noted that the more religious the household, the less altruistic the child.
In another part of the study, the children were shown scenarios involving pushing, bumping and other types of “interpersonal harm.” The children were then asked to rate the meanness of the offenders.
Researchers found that Muslim children judged the offenders most critically and issued the harshest punishments, followed by Christians and secular children.
The study pointed out in the abstract that parents in religious households reportedly believe their children express more of certain positive values than nonreligious parents, though the results of the study challenge that thought.
“Across all countries, parents in religious households reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life than nonreligious parents. However, religiousness was inversely predictive of children’s altruism and positively correlated with their punitive tendencies. Together these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism, challenging the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior.”