Study Results: Religion makes kids less compassionate and more intolerant

sn-religionA few articles have been popping up about a new study that reports the discovery that kids raised without god are far more altruistic and compassionate than kids raised with god.

This appears odd (to some) and might perhaps be a surprise, primarily because there exists a popular perception that religion is all about love, kindness, and compassion (It’s not, but lets not get into that now, we can save that for another post). There is also another myth that the non-religious are self-centred, selfish and immoral, so how can it be possible for children raised in a house without religion to be far more compassionate than those raised with religion?

Basically because the prevailing popular moral myths promoted by many beliefs are not true.

Let’s look into this by reviewing the study itself.

Is it a real study, or simply media hype?

The study is quite real and has been published within a reputable peer-reviewed journal, Current Biology (No pay wall, you have full access).


  • Family religious identification decreases children’s altruistic behaviors
  • Religiousness predicts parent-reported child sensitivity to injustices and empathy
  • Children from religious households are harsher in their punitive tendencies


… Across all countries, parents in religious households reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life than non-religious 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.

Now, what is quite fascinating here is that the religious parents were wholly convinced that their kids were far more altruistic and compassionate than the non-religious, but when measured, it turns out that the complete opposite is the truth.

Why is this really interesting?

Well basically because it undermines the popular myth, as explained within the paper (yes, I actually read it) …

Religious values and beliefs are transmitted to children through repeated rituals and practices in their communities. If religion promotes prosociality, children reared in religious families should show stronger altruistic behavior.

… Our findings robustly demonstrate that children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households. Moreover, the negative relation between religiousness and spirituality and altruism changes across age, with those children with longer experience of religion in the household exhibiting the greatest negative relations. 

… A second major finding from these data is that religiosity affects children’s punitive tendencies when evaluating interpersonal harm.

And the scope is also quite wide and not unnaturally confined to just one small group …

most research on the link between religion and morality has focused on convenience populations: college students from western, industrial, educated, rich, and democratic societies.

So how exactly did they work this out?

Well, you could always read the actual paper itself, but there is also a great write up of the precise details on the Science website here

The new research, done with children in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa, and the United States), included 510 Muslim, 280 Christian, and 323 nonreligious children. The study, the first to take such a large-scale look at how religion and moral behavior intersect in children from across the globe, focused on one facet of moral behavior: altruism, or the willingness to give someone else a benefit that also comes with a personal cost.

The test revolved around that ubiquitous childhood currency, stickers. Children ages 5 to 12 met individually with adults who let them choose 10 of their favorite stickers. The children were then told that the adults didn’t have time to distribute the rest of their stickers to other kids in a fictive class. But each child was told they could put some of their 10 stickers in an envelope to be shared with other kids, who were described as being from the same school and ethnic group. The scientists used the number of stickers left in the envelope as a measure of altruism.

The children from nonreligious households left 4.1 stickers on average, a statistically significant difference from Christian children (3.3) and Muslim ones (3.2). Also, the more religious the household, based on a survey of parents, the less altruistic the child. The child’s age, socioeconomic status, and country of origin also played a role, but not enough to override the effect of religious differences, according to the study. In older children, the split was most stark, with religious youth increasingly unlikely to share.

What on earth is going on here, why is it like this?

There is speculation, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, a psychologist at the University of Haifa in Israel and an expert in the psychology of religion has a suggestion …

He suspects the results are connected to the importance many religions place on an external authority and threats of divine punishment. Whereas children in religious households learn to act out of obedience to a watchful higher power, children raised in secular homes could be taught to follow moral rules just because it’s “the right thing to do,” he says. Then, “when no one is watching, the kids from nonreligious families behave better.”

This completely blows away prevailing religious claims

So when it comes to the social assumption that you need to be religious to be good, we now begin to understand that this is not factual. The non-religious have known this for quite some time, it is the religious who should pause and think about all this.

This is best summed up by the study’s author …

“Our findings support the notion that the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact it does just the opposite,” – Jean Decety, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, in Illinois, and the study’s lead author.

Meanwhile, Jean Decety continues with the study and has now expanded it to include 14 countries. The scope is also being expanded to look at how religion influences the decisions the children take to distribute goods amongst different people in a group, and I when the do so and reach a conclusion, I suspect they will find similar results.

One small correction

Much is being made within many media stories of religious kids being less altruistic than non-religious kids, but this is perhaps not strictly correct because we are dealing with a very young age group. It may in fact be more accurate to make the observation that it is really about how children with religious parents are meaner than their secular counterparts.

The Summary in the paper …

This really nails it …

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

2 thoughts on “Study Results: Religion makes kids less compassionate and more intolerant”

  1. So what you’re saying is that they took a topic as vague as morality, and it turns out that non religious kids agreed most with the testers ideas of altruism?

    Not like there are political party splits over morality or ethics classes that have great fun in pitting people against each other in altruism debates.

    I don’t understand how some data numbers can fool so many into not seeing a fundamental flaw in a study.- But who cares- as long as the result of the study agrees with your worldview, you don’t need the altruism to really examine the argument.

    • Chris, I do appreciate that the study must indeed be rather uncomfortable reading for you, and no we are not dealing with opinions, we have good solid objective data here.

      If indeed it was an obscure unknown fringe journal, then you might have a point, … but its not.

      If indeed the authors had no professional credibility, then you might have a point … but they are well-respected academics

      If indeed it was an isolated incident and there was nothing else out there that confirmed this, then you might have a point … but there are much else out there as well.

      For example …

      – Galen, L.W. (2012). Does religious belief promote prosociality? A critical examination. Psychol. Bull. 138, 876–906.

      – Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2009). Morality without God? (New York: Oxford University Press).

      – Beit-Hallahmi, B. (2015). Psychological Perspectives on Religion and Religiosity (Hove: Routlege).

      – Saslow, L.R., Willer, R., Feinberg, M., Piff, P.K., Clark, K., Keltner, D., and Saturn, S.R. (2013). My brother’s keeper? Compassion predicts generos- ity more among less religious individuals. Soc. Psychol. Personal. Sci. 4, 31–38.


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