F Rosa Rubicondior: Good Without God - Children of Atheists More Generous

Friday 6 November 2015

Good Without God - Children of Atheists More Generous

The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World | Current Biology

Despite their posturing as paragons of moral virtue, often shouted out from what more resembles the sewer beneath gutter than the rooftops they imagine they are standing on, a study has shown that children of religious parents, and so it must be assumed the parents from whom these children get their morals, are actually less moral than the children of Atheist parents.

The study was conducted in several countries and included 1170 Christian, Muslim and secular children of a wide range of cultural and ethnic origins. It was carried out by a team led by Jean Decety of the Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, Chicago, Il, USA, and measured what the team termed the 'prosocial behaviour', altruism and judgementalism.

The results were published yesterday in Current Biology in an open access paper.

Children of Muslim parents were found to be the least altruistic and most judgemental, followed closely by children with Christian parents but in a statistically significant lead were children of secular parents who were significantly more altruistic and less judgemental than those of religious parents. The statistical significance was large enough to outweigh other factor such as age, gender or social grouping.

To put this in prosocial/antisocial terms, children from religious families were significantly more antisocial than the more prosocial children of secular parents.

  • 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


Prosocial behaviors are ubiquitous across societies. They emerge early in ontogeny and are shaped by interactions between genes and culture. Over the course of middle childhood, sharing approaches equality in distribution. Since 5.8 billion humans, representing 84% of the worldwide population, identify as religious, religion is arguably one prevalent facet of culture that influences the development and expression of prosociality. While it is generally accepted that religion contours people’s moral judgments and prosocial behavior, the relation between religiosity and morality is a contentious one. Here, we assessed altruism and third-party evaluation of scenarios depicting interpersonal harm in 1,170 children aged between 5 and 12 years in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA, and South Africa), the religiousness of their household, and parent-reported child empathy and sensitivity to justice. 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.*

The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World
Jean Decety, Jason M. Cowell, Kang Lee, Randa Mahasneh, Susan Malcolm-Smith, Bilge Selcuk, Xinyue Zhou
Current Biology 05 November 2015. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.09.056

*© 2015 Elsevier Ltd. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

The test for altruism was to give children 10 stickers but to tell them there wasn't enough time to give some to other children so could they please put some in an envelope for another child. The number of stickers placed in the envelopes were then counted. Children of secular parents were statistically more likely to be generous with an average of 4.1 stickers than either Christians (3.3) and Muslims (3.2). There was no statistically significant difference between the children of religious parents.

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
This is in line with other research which has shown there is no evidence for the claim that religious people are more moral in their behaviour than non-religious people. Although surveys tend to show that religious people claim to give more to charity than non-religious people, when checked these are often found to be based on exaggerated claims (i.e. lies) or to be donations to charities associated with their own religious group (i.e. a degree of self-interest or conspicuous 'generosity'). Other studies have shown that religious people are as likely as non-religious people to 'pass by on the other side' when bypassing a person in distress.

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, a psychologist at the University of Haifa, Israel and an expert in the psychology of religion, was reported in Science as suggesting that these difference maybe due to religious parents teaching their children to obey authority and to do the right thing because they are being watched, whereas parents of secular children teach them to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. When faced with a situation where they think they are not being watched, children from religious families see no reason to behave well but those from secular families still do right because its the right thing to do.

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.
Jean Decety offers an interesting explanation it terms of 'moral licencing', i.e. a religious person sees themselves as a moral person and so feels entitled (even subconsciously) to do wrong. This concept makes me wonder what other apparent contrasts in the behaviour of religious people, particularly, but by no means exclusively, religious fundamentalists or those who wear their religiosity like a badge of honour, between what their religion supposedly teaches and how they actually behave, this 'moral licensing' can explain.

For example, do the creationist loons who infest the social media and seem almost to relish the opportunity it gives them to lie, to use tactics over substance, to abuse, threaten and condescend, to display their intellectual dishonesty and lack of personal integrity without the slightest shame or embarrassment, actually believe their 'superior morality' gives them licence to behave in ways almost diametrically opposite to what the stereotypical 'upright' Christian or Muslim would be expected to behave? The lack of any obligation to not bear false witness for example is almost a characteristic of creationism.

Do the child-abusing priests or the millionaire televangelists who cheat people for money or whose marital infidelities contrast with their moralising or the homophobic bigots who privately bugger anything they can lay their hands on, believe they have earned the right to a little recreational relaxing of their proclaimed moral standards through their righteousness, like a short holiday from work where you can slouch about and drink all day without worrying about what the boss will say?

Of course, it's difficult if not impossible to disentangle the genuinely religious people from those frauds who don't believe a word of it but have discovered a lucrative market to exploit, an endless supply of vulnerable people to abuse or a route to power and privilege, by posing as a devoutly pious Christian or Muslim. Religions which are dependent on the credulous gullibility of their followers will be prey to any charlatan who learns to exploit that credulous gullibility, hence the very many parasitic frauds living off the religiously simple.

The important thing about this study is that it seems to demonstrate that teaching children to do the right thing simply because it's the right thing to do, is significantly more effective than telling them to do the right thing in case they get caught. A child's conscience is a more effective agent of behavioural control than authority. The former inculcates empathy and a sense of moral obligation to others; the latter simply reinforces selfishness and teaches children to avoid detection or look for excuses to ignore others and be self-serving; to try to get away with whatever they think they can get away with.

It also reinforces the results of a recent survey in the UK where, after a generation with high exposure to an increasing number of Atheists, Atheists are now regarded by a majority of people as more likely to be more trustworthy and humanitarian than religious people, even by a large number of religious people.

This latest finding is a complete reverse of the stereotype (maybe a stereotype more typical of the USA than the UK) of a good religious upbringing producing good moral individuals. In fact, it achieves exactly the opposite and could explain the marked difference between the high levels of crime and violence in highly religious societies and the low levels of crime and relative peace in societies with a high level of Atheism and low religiosity.

Contrast the USA with the highest per capita prison population in the developed world and the highest level of Christian fundamentalism with Sweden with one of the highest levels of Atheism and the lowest per capita crime rate at less than half the European average, for example.

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