New research published by a team of U.S. neuroscientists claims that children from atheist families exhibit greater generosity and kindness than their religious counterparts, but lumps together a majority of Muslim children with a minority of Christian children under the generic heading of “religious.”
The study was conducted on 1,170 children between 5 and 12 years of age from Muslim, Christian and non-religious families across six different countries: China, Jordan, Canada, Turkey, South Africa and the U.S.
The sample comprised nearly double as many Muslim children (43 percent) as Christians (24 percent), and another 28 percent were children from families that self-identified as non-religious. Many of the media outlets reporting on the results of the study failed to mention that the so-called religious children were mostly Muslims.
“Overall, our findings … contradict the commonsense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind towards others,” said the authors of “The Negative Association Between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism Across the World,” published this week in Current Biology.
The study found that on the whole, the “religious” children tended to be less tolerant of harmful actions and favored harsh penalties than the non-religious children, as well as showing decreased altruistic behaviors.
One of the scientists, Jean Decety, contended that religion can permit people to behave badly if they think they have already done something good to balance their behavior, such as praying, at another time. Decety referred to this tendency as “moral licensing.”
“It’s an unconscious bias. They don’t even see that’s not compatible with what they’ve been learning in church,” he said, without explaining how his research led to this interpretation.
Results of the new study run counter to extensive research done previously that finds religious people within the United States to be significantly more generous than non-religious people.
The massive Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey conducted in the year 2000 across a group of 30,000 U.S. citizens found that religious people are more likely to give both of their time and their money than their non-religious counterparts.
The study found the variance between “religious” and “secular” giving to be dramatic. Religious people are 25 percentage points more likely than secularists to donate money (91 percent versus 66 percent) and 23 points more likely to volunteer time (67 percent versus 44 percent). In real dollars this translates into an average annual giving of $2,210 per person among the religious as compared to $642 among the secular.
Regarding hours volunteered, religious people were found to volunteer an average of 12 times per year, while secular people volunteer an average of 5.8 times. To put this into perspective, the study found that actively “religious” people make up 33 percent of the U.S. population but are responsible for 52 percent of donations and account for 45 percent of times volunteered.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome