November 9, 2015
New Jean Decety Study Claims 'Non-Religious' Children More Altruistic, Less Punitive

A new study published by Current Biology and co-authored by Jean Decety and a number of neuroscientists from the University of Chicago, the University of Toronto, Hashemite University, the University of Cape Town, and Sun-Yat Sen University has concluded that children from families that identify as being "non-religious" are more altruistic than children from religious families.

Specifically, the study examined altruism, as well as evaluations of scenarios involving harm to a third-party, in children between the ages of 5 and 12.

Study says kids from non-religious families more generous than both Christians and Muslims.
A Muslim woman and girl at the Lakemba Mosque, in Sydney, in October 2015. [Photo by Daniel Munoz/Getty Images]The study appears to contradict a previous study, published in 2000 by the Hoover Institution, which included 30,000 American citizens and concluded that religious people tended to be more altruistic.

The newer study followed 1,170 children. Forty-three percent were Muslim, 24 percent were Christian, and 28 percent came from families that said they were non-religious. Children from Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States were reportedly included.

"Overall, our findings cast light on the cultural input of religion on prosocial behavior and contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others. More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do just the opposite."
The study describes the belief held by a segment of the population that the idea that religious people are more altruistic than non-altruistic people is seen as "common-sense."

Are religious children less altruistic?
A Westminster Cathedral choir girl in April 2015. [Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images]The 2000 study by the Hoover Institution concluded that 91 percent of "religious" people were likely to donate money to charitable causes, while just 66 percent of secular people did. The study also noted that 67 percent of religious people volunteered their time, compared with just 44 percent of non-religious people.

The Hoover study also noted that altruism was fairly consistent among different religions, with 91 percent of Catholics giving to charity, compared with 91 percent of Jews, and 89 percent of people from all other religions.

The Hoover study also noted that people from both liberal and conservative political backgrounds, who were also religious, were more likely to be actively charitable. For example, liberals who identified as being religious made charitable donations at a rate 19 percent higher than non-religious liberals, while religious conservatives made charitable donations at a rate 28 percent higher.

A new study says secular kids are more altruistic.
Orthodox Jewish boys celebrate Purim, in March 2015, in London. [Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]The 2000 study, while focusing on religious people as whole, rather than only children, seemed to paint a starkly contrasting view to the most recent.

For example, the recent study found a direct correlation between a child's tendency to be judgmental and less altruistic to other children and coming from a religious family, even with children who come from a similar "social environment."

"Moral licensing," where a child justifies an otherwise antisocial behavior in the name of some religious code is said to be more common among religious children, making them less altruistic toward peers. Children from religious families were also reported to have widely divergent views on "deserved punishment for interpersonal harm" than children from secular families.

The recent study concludes that there is an inversely predicative nature between whether or not a child comes from a religious family and how altruistic they are. There is also a direct correlation between whether or not a child is a member of a religious family and their "punitive tendencies." Overall, the study claims that, globally and across cultural barriers, religious children are less altruistic and that the findings "challenge" the commonly held view that religion, somehow, "facilitates prosocial behavior."

The authors of the new study into altruism and religion included Jean Decety and Jason Cowell, Randa Mahasneh, Kang Lee, Bilge Selcuk, Susan Malcolm-Smith, and Xinyue Zhou.

[Feature Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images]