Is religion turning perfectly normal children into selfish, punitive misanthropes? Seems like it.

Screenshot from
Screenshot from “Children of the Corn” (Director: Fritz Kiersch, 1984)

The main argument that religious people have against atheism or agnosticism is that without a guiding deity and a set of behaving rules, how can one trust a non-religious person to behave morally? In other words, there is no incentive for the non-religious to behave in a societally accepted manner. Or so it seemed. Past tense. There has been some evidence showing that, contrary to expectations, non-religious people are less prone to violence and deliver more lenient punishments as compared to religious people. Also, the non-religious show equal charitable behaviors as the religious folks, despite self-reporting of the latter to participate in more charitable acts. But these studies were done with adults, usually with non-ecological tests. Now, a truly first-of-its-kind study finds something even more interesting, that calls into question the fundamental basis of Christianity’s and Islam’s moral justifications.

Decety et al. (2015) administered a test of altruism and a test of moral sensitivity to 1170 children, aged 5-12, from the USA, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa. Based on parents’ reports about their household practices, the children had been divided into 280 Christian, 510 Muslim, and 323 Not Religious (the remaining 57 children belonged to other religions, but were not included in the analyses due to lack of statistical power). The altruism test consisted in letting children choose their favorite 10 out of 30 stickers to be theirs to keep, but because there aren’t enough stickers for everybody, the child could give some of her/his stickers to another child, not so fortunate as to play the sticker game (the researcher would give the child privacy while choosing). Altruism was calculated as the number of stickers given to the fictive child. In the moral sensitivity task, children watched 10 videos of a child pushing, shoving etc. another child, either intentionally or accidentally and then the children were asked to rate the meanness of the action and to judge the amount of punishment deserved for each action.

And.. the highlighted results are:

  1. “Family religious identification decreases children’s altruistic behaviors.
  2. Religiousness predicts parent-reported child sensitivity to injustices and empathy.
  3. Children from religious households are harsher in their punitive tendencies.”
Current Biology DOI: (10.1016/j.cub.2015.09.056). Copyright © 2015 Elsevier Ltd
From Current Biology (DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.09.056). Copyright © 2015 Elsevier Ltd. NOTE: ns. means non-significant difference.

Parents’ educational level did not predict children’s behavior, but the level of religiosity did: the more religious the household, the less altruistic, more judgmental, and delivering harsher punishments the children were. Also, in stark contrast with the actual results, the religious parents viewed their children as more emphatic and sensitive to injustices as compared to the non-religious parents. This was a linear relationship: the more religious the parents, the higher the self-reports of socially desirable behavior, but the lower the child’s empathy and altruism objective scores.

Childhood is an extraordinarily sensitive period for learning desirable social behavior. So… is religion really turning perfectly normal children into selfish, vengeful misanthropes? What anybody does at home is their business, but maybe we could make a secular schooling paradigm mandatory to level the field (i.e. forbid religion teachings in school)? I’d love to read your comments on this.

Reference: Decety J, Cowell JM, Lee K, Mahasneh R, Malcolm-Smith S, Selcuk B, & Zhou X. (16 Nov 2015, Epub 5 Nov 2015). The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World. Current Biology. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.09.056. Article | FREE PDF | Science Cover

By Neuronicus, 5 November 2015

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2 thoughts on “Is religion turning perfectly normal children into selfish, punitive misanthropes? Seems like it.

  1. True, sampling is key in any experiment. This is precisely why this study provoked so much hype: it has a huge sample size by any standard, from 5 different countries (to put it in perspective, imaging studies from neuroscience, that use functional magnetic resonance or positron emission tomography, rarely have more than 20-30 subjects). The children were pooled together for statistical analyses based not on country or school, but religious affiliation as reported by parents, thus assuring variability within sample. Moreover, this study is just the tip of the iceberg; the authors are now expanding their research to 14 more countries. The authors do not expect any different results on that one either.

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