Study: Religious Kids Are Jerks

A study published in the journal Current Biology testing the behavior of Christian, Muslim, and atheist children has found that religious kids are meaner and less generous.

11.06.15 9:48 AM ET

For many, organized religions like Christianity provide a moral compass. Holy books serve as guides that hold strict rules about what is right and wrong. It is only common sense to think that those who have religion in their lives are the ones with a strong sense of morals, while those who lack religious belief are left wandering in the dark, with no light to show them the right path from the wrong one. But as we have seen time and time again, common sense can be dead wrong. According to a new study published in the journal Current Biology, children that come from non-religious households behave significantly more altruistically than those from religious households, as measured by greater acts of generosity towards others.

At present, 5.8 billion people around the world identify as religious. That’s 84 percent of the total population who hold a system of beliefs that provides them with moral instructions. It is safe to say that for many of these people, religion—at least in part—shapes their behavior and general outlook on life. Religious parents teach their children scriptures as moral lessons, hoping to instill values that will cause them to be honest, just, fair, and for just about every major religion, compassionate human beings. However, somewhat ironically, the world’s foremost religions also teach these children that if they fail to behave in the instructed way, they shall receive punishment from an all-powerful being—and in some cases, eternal damnation. Some pretty heavy stuff, right?

So the question is, do religions really cause individuals to behave more morally? What about children brought up in atheist households, who have no metaphysical motivation to do good? Would they act kindly to others when there are no direct benefits to them, or will they behave like “godless heathens”? A team of scientists decided to experimentally test these intriguing questions directly under controlled laboratory conditions.

Over 1,100 children, aged 5 to 12, from the United States, China, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa were chosen to participate in the study.  Most of the children came from Christian, Muslim, or non-religious households. To test whether children raised on religion would behave more morally than non-religious children, they were asked to play what’s called a “dictator game.” In this game, children were shown 30 stickers and told that they could pick their favorite 10 to keep for themselves. The children were then each told that the experimenter didn’t have enough time to play this game with everyone, so some of the children at their school wouldn’t get any stickers. What the results showed was that children from Christian and Muslim households were both significantly less generous than children from non-religious households when it came to sharing their stickers with anonymous peers.

The findings not only show that religious kids aren’t more altruistic than non-religious kids; it suggests that not being religious may actually increase moral behavior. To most this would seem counterintuitive. The authors of the study have an explanation that involves an interesting phenomenon called moral licensing. The term refers to a sort of mental glitch—whereby doing something that enhances one’s positive self-image makes them less worried about the consequences of immoral behavior. For instance, research has shown that men who report being very opposed to sexism later go on to hire men for what would traditionally be considered a man’s job. They do this because they feel that since they are not sexist—at least, in their own minds—a decision to choose a male over a female can’t be immoral.

Similarly, someone that sees him or herself as being a moral person for devoutly practicing a religion might be less concerned about their actual behavior. In light of this, it is not so surprising that children who identified as religious did not feel as compelled to share stickers, since they believed themselves to be a good person independent of their behavior. On the other hand, an atheist child might be more concerned about the morality of their acts, since it is their behavior that tells them they are a good person, and not the following of rituals or prayer. 

The study also showed that children from religious households were more willing to give harsher punishments to people who committed acts that harmed others, like pushing or bumping into another. Although this could be interpreted as showing that religious children are more concerned with justice, it may also demonstrate that non-religious children are more tolerant of others’ behavior, and more willing to forgive.

What this study makes strikingly clear is that religion and morality are not one and the same. In fact, in some instances those who don’t believe in god might actually behave more altruistically. And since they wouldn’t be doing it out of a fear of being punished, but instead out of what some might call “the goodness of their hearts,” one could argue that they in fact have higher moral standards.

Hopefully such findings will help dispel the widely accepted myth that atheists don’t have strong values, or that an atheist president would lack the compassion and ethical code that world leaders require. The truth of the matter is that as science awareness continues to expand, we will see a progressively secular society. As such, it is important that both religious and non-religious people learn to understand each other better and be more tolerant of one another, so that they may work together to achieve common goals.

But perhaps the best lesson of the study is that it should be your actions that define your morality, and not simply your beliefs.