Religion does not make people more generous or moralistic.



Children with a Religious Upbringing Show Less Altruism

A controversial study with a surprising finding

When separated and analyzed by specific religion, the finding remained: children from both Christian and Muslim families on average shared less than nonreligious children. (Other religious designations were not represented in large enough numbers for separate statistical comparison.)
Credit: ©iStock

Organized religion is a cornerstone of spiritual community and culture around the world. Religion, especially religious education, also attracts secular support because many believe that religion fosters morality. A majority of the United States believes that faith in a deity is necessary to being a moral person.

In principle, religion’s emphasis on morality can smooth wrinkles out of the social fabric. Along those lines, believers are often instructed to act selflessly towards others. Islam places an emphasis on charity and alms-giving, Christianity on loving your neighbor as yourself. Taoist ethics, derived from the qualities of water, include the principle of selflessness

However, new research conducted in six countries around the world suggests that a religious upbringing may actually yield children who are less altruistic. Over 1000 children ages five to twelve took part in the study, from the United States, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa, and China. By finding that religious-raised children are less altruistic in the laboratory, the study alerts us to the possibility that religion might not have the wholesome effects we expect on the development of morality. The social practice of religion can complicate the precepts of a religious text. But in order to interpret these findings, we have to first look at how to test morality.

In an experiment snappily named the dictator game, a child designated “dictator” is tested for altruistic tendencies. This dictator child is conferred with great power to decide whether to share stickers with others. Researchers present the child with thirty stickers and instruct her to take ten favorite stickers. The researchers carefully mention that there isn’t time to play this game with everyone, setting up the main part of the experiment: to share or not to share. The child is given two envelopes and asked whether she will share stickers with other children at the school who cannot play the game. While the researcher faces the wall, the child can slip some stickers into the donation envelope and some into the other envelope to keep.

As the researchers expected, younger children were less likely to share stickers than older children. Also consistent with previous studies, children from a wealthier socioeconomic status shared more. More surprising was the tendency of children from religious households to share less than those from nonreligious backgrounds. When separated and analyzed by specific religion, the finding remained: children from both Christian and Muslim families on average shared less than nonreligious children. (Other religious designations were not represented in large enough numbers for separate statistical comparison.) Older kids from all backgrounds shared more than younger ones, but the tendency for religious children to share less than similar-aged children became more pronounced with age. The authors think this could be due to cumulative effects of time spent growing up in a religious household. While the large numbers of subjects strengthens the finding of a real difference between the groups of children, the actual disparity in typical sharing was about one sticker. We need to know if the gap in sticker sharing is meaningful in the real world.

There are difficulties in devising experiments to look for religion’s effect on selflessness. Some would argue that childhood is the best age to study effects of a religious upbringing, when education’s effects may be more immediate and powerful. Others would argue that only as adults do we begin to use a mature moral compass, and this stage is more important. In adults, religiousness has been linked with greater charitable giving and generosity, but a common problem of these studies is relying on surveys. While surveys are useful for collecting information en masse, people may report giving more to charity because they believe in contributing, even if they didn’t live up to their own expectations. We all know our memories are less than perfect, and it’s possible that people who are regularly encouraged to perform charitable acts may overestimate their contributions on a survey. Clearly, the best way to study the issue is using experiments in which people actually share items (like stickers) or by looking at records of giving.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy took the second approach by aggregating IRS charitable deductions to compare ZIP codes in terms of factors like religious identification, though the analysis was restricted to tax deductions and doesn’t tell us about individuals. By integrating statistics on religious affiliations of each area, the Chronicle’s study found thatreligious areas gave more to charity. What the data doesn’t tell is whether the extra contributions go to support local religious congregations and religious organizations. In the end, what do we call generosity to one’s own group?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines altruism as “disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others,” but categorizing a behavior as entirely selfless has troubled scholars for years. Books like The Selfish Gene,published in 1976, brought to the public the idea that what seems like altruism may actually be selfish on a genetic level if the act of kindness is directed to closely-related individuals. A closely related individual bears similar genetic material, so helping relatives could be construed as “selfish” behavior if you imagine a gene helping its likeness housed in another body. Alternatively, expecting help in the future could lead a self-interested individual to “perform” altruism. He might gain the esteem of the community by helping others publicly, while consciously or unconsciously waiting for the good deeds to pay off.

However, this strict terminology is not what we intend in everyday speech. Broadly, altruism is generosity. In the case of the current study, the researchers corralled altruism into donation of stickers to anonymous schoolmates. Perhaps a child refuses to donate stickers into an envelope so that he can take them home and share with his siblings or friends rather than a stranger. Does that qualify more as nepotism or generosity? If the children from religious backgrounds also happened to have more siblings, then the results might actually reveal a link between siblings and stickers. Correlation is a tricky indicator of causation, as we all know. Aside from this altruism test, are there other indicators of morality?

Religion often instructs believers in forgiveness and moral justice. To test children’s reactions to interpersonal conflict, the researchers showed cartoons of people pushing or bumping one another. Researchers determined that Muslim children rated the pushing or bumping as more “mean” than Christian children did, and in turn Christian children rated the videos as more mean than nonreligious children. When asked to assign punishments for the pushing or bumping, Muslim children tended to assign higher punishments than Christian and nonreligious children.

Interpretation of these experiments is also difficult. The findings could conceivably signal a stronger sense of justice in Muslim-raised children, and greater sensitivity to the victim for Muslim- and Christian-raised kids. Or, as the paper suggests, the children from nonreligious homes might be less harsh in punishing others. The moral course of action is not clear.

Overall, the study has provoked strong reactions from readers. Some have smugly inflated the findings (religious children as “jerks” ). Others havelisted the shortcomings of the research at length. One conservative news source worried that Christian and Muslim children were analyzed in a single group.

The leader of the study, Professor Jean Decety, has stood by his results. Decety mused in an interview that every presidential candidate in the US “has to say that they love the Bible…to make sure that people will vote for them.” Decety argues that his findings “call into question whether religion is vital for moral development – suggesting the secularisation of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness.” Though a proprietary moral high ground for religion is problematic, Decety’s paper leaves questions open. We cannot confirm that religious upbringings cause differences in sharing and punishment, or that these differences are large enough to be meaningful in adults, but the questions raised are well worth answering.


14 thoughts on “Religion does not make people more generous or moralistic.

  1. “Decety [the leader of the study] argues that his findings “call into question whether religion is vital for moral development – suggesting the secularisation of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness.””

    Social studies are always difficult to be conducted, and are usually open for criticism by any party who has different opinions than the conclusions of such studies. Be as it may, the argument by the religiose that you need religion to lead a moral life, which includes a show of altruism towards your neighbour, has been refuted many times by secular groups. This is just one more scientific study that indicates the self-constructed, opinionated and delusional world the religiose live in.


    • I agree with your statement above, Savage. I am actually of the opinion that a strong case can be made that religion dumbs down our moral code. Why would otherwise good people, get into a plane to crash into a building with the sole purpose of killing? Why would the “moralistic omies” of the apartheid government allowed Vlakplaas, the torture and murder of Biko and many others? These were honestly good people, but with the aid of religious dogma, they justified evil actions.

      The premise and one of the corner stones of the christian dogma is “that we are all sinful” but….wait for it…”through little jesus wecare saved”. What is the implication of this seemingly harmless statement on our moral code? It implies:

      1) All sins big and small are deemed the same i.e. murder is regarded the same as say, stealing a toffee. How does this contribute to the establishment of a sound moral framework? Why do our courts not use this as basis for sentencing???
      2) Since we are all sinfull, the argument is often used that one is above judgement or reproach because “we are all sinful”. How does this contribute to a moral code.?
      3) “Jesus washes away all my sins” – in my opinion this single statement may be one of the largest contributor to eroding a moral code. You can murder and pillage and then just give your heart to jesus and “all is forgiven”. I have heard child molestors in prison proclaiming this as reason why they should be released.

      In stark contrast to the above, the atheist has to face his guilt head-on. No cop-out for us. If i cheat on my wife I have one of two options- not tell her and live with the guilt and self-loathing; or tell her and face the consequences. (The typical godiot goes to church on Sundays, admits his sins to jesus, bathes in the fact that everyone is sinful, and go home with a clear conscience.)


    • YAY !!! GUESS WHATTT?????

      Another nail in the coffin for godiots !!! Pardon the capitals and the exclamations.

      Savage and Malherbe, you will both appreciate this.

      11 February 2016 and scientists just announced that they have actually discovered gravitational waves !!!!!

      This was predicted by Einstein a hundred years ago through his general relativity. Watch the video.


      • Baie goed gestel, Malherbe. Die godiote het dit beslis makliker as ons atties.

        Goeie video, Verifanie. Ek is bly hulle het Kip Thorne ook laat praat; hy was een van die grootste dondersteuners en deel van die span wat die Amerikaanse Kongres oorreed het om hierdie monster-masjiene te bou. Dit is interessant om te lees dat die astronome van daardie tyd (vroeg 1990s dink ek) die meeste kapsie gemaak het teen die spandering van al daai geld. Hulle mening was dat dit nie deel van astronomie was nie. Hulle is verkeerd bewys. Ek wonder of die duiwel Einstein ‘n blik sal gee op wat nou waargeneem is? As hy nou nie ‘n attie was nie, sou hy by Liewe Jesus gewees het wat sekerlik hom daarvan sou ingelig het.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It is entirely natural to look after your own tribe and and avoid freeloaders. I was speaking to a Zulu lady the other day about bursaries for Zulu girls. She said it was unfair to the Xhosas living in KZN. In my opinion if these non- tax paying Xhosas want freebie bursaries they should go back to the Transkei and sort themselves out there.

    If you become too PC and want to help out everyone outside your own community you get resentment and in the end nobody gets anything or, at the most, very little, so the effect on the status quo is absolutely zero. Which leads to more resentment and intercommunal hatred.


  3. This old Republican geezer talks a lot of sense about why the stock markets are in such a mess. There is no more stimulus money available – unless the US gets involved in a currency war with China i.e. prints money like crazy. I have already taken all our money out of all stock markets and put it in high quality global bonds.

    Ignore the spiel about the “free” book. I’m not buying into a monthly subscription either. He is nevertheless very truthful and gives a lot of info to back up his argument. I would very much look forward to Donald Trump becoming the next Pres of the USA. Nothing mealy mouthed or Christian about that guy, and he knows actually how the political system works. I don’t care how un-PC he is.


    • Holy, I am still unsure who to support (not that I can vote). On the Democratic side Clinton is still favourite. I’ll vote for Trump over Cruz any day although I want more specifics from Trump. I see Bush now use mommy and his brother to stump for him. Rubio shouldn’t have dropped the ball during the last debate. Kasich seems more sane then Carson.

      I really want a woman president, but I cant support Hillary and Bill. I wonder if Trump will use the Lewinsky issue against Hillary.


        • You’re not supposed to laugh at news stories like this, Gerhard. It’s a heart rending waste of three super-intelligent lives.


      • It doesn’t matter who is president, male or female, but look at the mess Angela Merkel has created in Germany.

        I picked up this article from Taki Blog:

        Future Letter from a Socialist to President Trump

        by Gavin McInnes 12 February 2016

        It’s 2019 and the fact that you and Vice President Cruz have decided to run for a second term deeply disturbs those of us who still care about this country. Like many true patriots, my wife and I voted for Sanders in 2016 and considered moving to France when you and that creepy Canadian won. We stayed and we regret it.

        In just under four years, you have irrevocably changed this country for the worse. You said you would be hard on immigration and you lied. You let more people in from Western Europe, Canada, and Australia than any other president. While opening the floodgates to the Aryan barbarians, you shut the doors on those who really needed to be here—most notably, Mexicans and refugees. This lead to the death of thousands of Syrians in their home country, not to mention the slaughter of possibly millions of people all over Africa and the Middle East. Angela Merkel picked up the slack and it appears to have driven Germany into a civil war. When asked to atone for these sins you asked the chancellor, “What’s the German word for brassiere?” and added, “DasShouldStopEmFromFloppin.” This is likely the most ridiculous thing said by any president in history. My wife and I are very well educated, by the way, and we are both familiar with many European words. The German word for brassiere is likely something remarkably similar as English has its roots in German.

        Without the affordable labor of undocumented workers, our youth were torn from their social lives and forced to do menial labor like a sad horde of indentured servants. In the summer the streets are barren as adolescents mow lawns, clean pools, flip burgers, babysit kids, and do all the other jobs Americans shouldn’t have to do. You point out that the working and middle classes have never been wealthier without mentioning that the top 20% have grown at a much larger rate. This might be the biggest gap between rich and poor in American history. We all—rich and poor—need to go back down to a fairer income until we can get all the discrepancies worked out. That was Bernie’s plan and that’s what’s fair.

        You brag that unemployment reached record lows in 2018, but at what cost? As with Thatcher, your first few months in office saw the deaths of thousands of government jobs. Is there even a Department of Energy anymore? The Department of Education offices look like they’re in Detroit (old Detroit, not the capitalist hellhole you turned it into).

        The Department of Energy was created by the people, for the people, to create alternative energy sources. We could be living for free off the grid using wind and solar, but the oil companies you work for shut that down. Fracking is now rampant all over the country and we have no idea how that will affect the water table. You claim you created thousands of jobs revitalizing the Keystone Pipeline project, but you did it against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wishes, which is an act of war. The environmental destruction you caused includes destroying several habitats such as those of the Ross’s goose, black-footed ferret, sandhill crane, least tern, piping plover, Sprague’s pipit, and, of course, pallid sturgeon.

        Out of all the developed countries in the world America is now last, I repeat LAST in the fight to combat Climate Change. Your crass comments about women in Minnesota wearing bikinis are a slap in the face to the Inuit and Northern peoples who rely on polar bear and penguin meat to survive.

        More people would know about this destruction if you hadn’t killed education by privatizing virtually every school in the country. Public schools weren’t perfect, but the problem was systemic and related to the parents just as much as the teachers. By refusing to fix a broken system and starting anew, you have left thousands of teachers unemployed as well as many times more in the administration and teachers’ unions.

        Postsecondary education has been hit even harder as government aid to non-STEM education has been completely cut off. My wife teaches Sexual Intersectionality and Patriarchal Discourse at Brown and attendance has been so poor, I have been forced to completely neglect my S.A.D. (stay-at-home dad) blog and go back to work.

        This isn’t the America we know. It’s not the America Obama built for us. You have completely wiped out all the goodwill he brought us from the Muslim world. They hate us more than ever and the only reason China and Russia don’t hate us too is because you handed off the war in Afghanistan to Putin and the North Korean conflict to whomever is in charge of China. Are you aware of the human rights records these leaders have? We have no idea the kind of senseless slaughters being perpetrated toward the peoples of Islam and Northern Korea. You said we are “no longer the world’s police” without justifying how we can turn a blind eye to all this suffering.

        Speaking of police, their war on African-American people of color continues unabated. You say this “employment boom” is most prevalent in the black community, but at what cost? By cutting welfare down to almost nothing, you are denying single mothers the care they deserve. Abortion would have been a way out of this mess, but you cut that, too. The “black family is back” (as you put it), but it’s not because they love each other. It’s because you denied black women their independence. That’s not romance. It’s marriage rape. Also, you lie when you pin this back-to-work trend on the drop in crime. Crime is down because your draconian laws have forced everyone into what are essentially labor camps across the country. Detroit hasn’t been revitalized. Slavery has.

        Crime is also down because of fear. Abolishing gun control has left the poor petrified of being shot by racists. What have you done? How can you sleep at night? We used to be a nation that cared for huddled masses. Now we crack the whip and march them into factories. Animals die, the arts suffer, and everyone wakes up thinking, “Who will blow my head off today?” This morning I went into a Starbucks and a man was carrying what looked like a semiautomatic AK-47. My daughter asked me what it was and I was left no choice but to begin crying. This made her cry also and I got down on one knee to hold her. “I want Obama back,” she said as she wrapped her arms around my neck. “Me too,” I replied while sobbing much harder, “Me too.”


      • Ted Cruz is a Bible bashing Christian imbecile but he will be fine as Vice President doing what he is told. The only fear with a Trump presidency is that Mr Orange Comb Over keels over of an acquired allergy to orange hair dye and the US is left with Ted Cruz as president. Trump is very, very bright and knows exactly what stupid people want to hear, which is shit from the Baaaibel. As long as the shit with the Bible under his arm doesn’t call the shots.


  4. Christene vra my altyd – Wat het jy om te verloor om in god te glo? Dit is soos om te redeneer – Wat het jy te verloor om aan feetjies te glo? Niks maar ek gaan defnitief nie tyd met snert mors nie.


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