Charity begins at home, and that's also where it is first taught. But that might not hold true for many children brought up in religious households, finds a study by researchers at the University of Chicago.
In fact, although religious parents were more likely to describe their children as more altruistic and fair than secular kids, religiousness proves inversely predictive of charitableness, but positively correlated with punitive tendencies, the authors write in their study for the journal Current Biology.
Humans are a cooperative species by nature that develop prosocial behaviors early in life, so the lessons learned in adolescence will carry into adulthood.
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"Some past research had demonstrated that religious people aren't more likely to do good than their nonreligious counterparts," lead author Jean Decety said in a statement. "Our study goes beyond that by showing that religious people are less generous, and not only adults but children too."
For their study, University of Chicago researchers enlisted 1,170 children between ages 5 and 12 across six countries, including the United States, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa. The majority of the households identified as Christian, Muslim or non-religious, though children of Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu homes were included as well.
All of the children played what is known as the Dictator Game, an exercise in which in which they determined whether to share stickers they received with their classmates. The kids also undertook a "moral sensitivity task," in which they judged a series of scenarios involving interpersonal harm. Parents also completed questionnaires on religious identification as well as empathy and justice measures for their children.
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Older children tended to be more generous than younger ones, but the most altruistic children were those who came from atheist or non-religious households. Children from religious households also determined harsher punishments for wrongdoers in the moral sensitivity task.
The findings echo a University of California – Berkeley study published in 2012 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science that found that adults who regarded themselves as religious were less motivated by compassion than non-believers when it comes to generosity. Instead, doctrine, individual reputation and communal identity proved more powerful inducements in leading believers to be charitable.
In fact, under the right conditions, specifically when primed to consider their beliefs or reputation, religious individuals are more likely to engage in prosocial behavior than the non-believers, found a University of British Columbia study by published in the journal Science in 2008.
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Taken together, these studies highlight the complex relationship between faith and moral decision-making. Although religion can certainly foster cooperation and prosocial behavior, it doesn't appear to have a monopoly on these virtues.