Contrary to widespread belief, a new study suggests religious children are less generous than non-religious children.
Published in the journal Current Biology, the study of more than 1,100 children found that those who grew up in a religious household were less likely to share with unfamiliar children at school than those from non-religious households.
What is more, the researchers - including Jean Decety of the University of Chicago in Illinois - found that the generosity of non-religious children increased with age.
The researchers say their findings challenge the widespread notion that individuals who are religious do more good than those who are not religious.
"This view is unfortunately so deeply embedded that individuals who are not religious can be considered morally suspect," says Decety. "In the United States, for instance, non-religious individuals have little chance to be elected to a high political office, and those who identify as agnostic and atheist are considered to be less trustworthy and more likely to be amoral or even immoral."
"Thus," he continues, "it is generally admitted that religion shapes people's moral judgments and prosocial behavior, but the relation between religiosity and morality is actually a contentious one, and not always positive."
To reach their findings, the researchers enrolled 1,170 children between the ages of 5-12 years from the US, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa and China.
Around 43% of children included in the study were identified as Muslim, 23.9% were Christian, 2.5% were Jewish, 1.6% were Buddhist, 0.4% were Hindu, 0.2% were agnostic, 0.5% were identified as "other" and 27.6% were identified as not religious.
All children took part in a "resource allocation task," in which they were asked to decide how many stickers they would like to share with an anonymous individual from the same school and of a similar ethnic group.
Findings 'support theory of moral licensing'
The researchers found that children who came from non-religious families showed the most generosity, while children from more religious families showed less generosity. The generosity of non-religious children increased as they got older, according to the results.
Prior to the task, all parents in religious households reported that their children showed greater empathy and sensitivity for justice than non-religious children. However, to the contrary, the team found that religious children were most likely to deem interpersonal harm as more mean and deserving of harsher punishment than non-religious children.
The team further investigated these effects, incorporating the three largest groups: Christian, Muslim and non-religious children. Again, they found that non-religious children showed the most generosity and were least likely to consider interpersonal harm as mean and deserving of harsher punishment.
Decety and colleagues say their findings may be explained by "moral licensing," the idea that doing something "good" - such as practicing religion - makes one less worried about the consequences of immoral behavior.
Commenting on their results, the researchers say:
"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."
Last month, Medical News Today reported on a study that suggested magnetic brain stimulation can reduce a person's belief in God and prejudice toward immigrants.