Morality is often associated with religion, but new research reveals that children from religious households are actually less generous than kids from a secular background.
This conclusion comes from a study of over 1000 children from around the world, published in the journal Current Biology. The project was led by Professor Jean Decety, a neuroscientist from the University of Chicago, who didn’t originally aim to compare moral behavior. “I was more interested in whether I would find differences in empathy or sharing depending on the culture,” he says.
While previous research has examined generosity in adults, Decety’s work shows that upbringing shapes morality early in life. This includes altruism – actions that benefit a recipient at a cost to the donor. Children learn religious values and beliefs from their family and community, through rituals like going to church. If religion promotes morality, kids from religious households should have stronger altruistic tendencies.
Generosity and punishment
Decety’s team of psychologists assessed altruism using ‘the dictator game’: each child was given 30 stickers and told to choose how many to share with an anonymous child from the same school and similar ethnic group. This task reflects choices in ecology – allocating limited resources – and the results were used to calculate a ‘generosity score’. The researchers looked at 1170 children aged 5-12 years old, from six countries (USA, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa). Most kids came from households that identified as Christian (24%), Muslim (43%) or not religious (28%). (Small numbers from Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and agnostic homes weren’t compared.)
The results revealed that secular children shared more stickers. Muslim children appear to be less generous than Christian kids, but this is not statistically significant (labelled ‘ns’ in the bar chart below). All three groups became less altruistic with age, though religious kids had lower generosity, suggesting that longer exposure to religion leads to less altruism.
The psychologists also assessed views on justice through a moral sensitivity task: after children were shown videos of mild interpersonal harm – such as pushing or bumping – they were asked for a judgment of meanness and a rating for the level of punishment the perpetrator deserved.
Compared to the other two groups, Muslims thought harmful actions were meaner and believed in harsher punishment. Christians judged the harm to be meaner than secular kids, though there was no difference in their punitive ratings. This is consistent with fundamentalism, when actions are seen as either right or wrong, with no gradient in morality between two extremes. Overall, religious children are less tolerant of harmful actions and favored harsh penalties.
Parents were also asked to score their children according to a sense of empathy and sensitivity to injustice. This subjective self-reporting showed that religious adults think their children have strong moral tendencies, contradicting objective assessments of altruism (generosity and moral sensitivity).
Why are religious people less moral? One factor is a psychological phenomenon known as ‘moral licensing’: a person will justify doing something bad or immoral – like being racist – because they’ve already done something ‘good’, such as praying. “It’s an unconscious bias,” Decety explains. “They don’t even see that’s not compatible with what they’ve been learning in church.”
Attitudes and assumptions
History backs-up the scientific evidence that secular people are more moral, as reviewed by Israeli psychologist Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi. Most white supporters of the US Civil Rights Movement were non-religious, for example, while the apartheid regime in South Africa was led by devout Christians and opposed by atheists.
But the view that non-religious individuals are morally dubious is deeply embedded in American society. Atheists and agnostics are considered less trustworthy, even immoral, which explains why people who don’t believe in God are unlikely to be elected to high political office, such as President of the United States.
“If you look at the campaign in the US, everyone who wants to go on TV and talk about being a candidate – from Hilary Clinton to Donald Trump – has to say that they love the Bible,” says Decety. “They have to say that to make sure that people will vote for them, which is not the case in Europe.”
It’s sometimes claimed that secular families are dysfunctional and rudderless because they lack the security of religion. But sociologist Vern Bengston, who has run California’s Longitudinal Study of Generations since 1971, says this isn’t true: “Many nonreligious parents were more coherent and passionate about their ethical principles than some of the ‘religious’ parents … The vast majority appeared to live goal-filled lives characterised by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose.”
So we learn good moral behavior from family life and education, not religious teachings. This raises another question: Why does morality exist in the first place?