A study published in Current Biology is making a lot of headlines for what it suggests about atheists and altruism.
Neuroscientist Jean Decety, of the University of Chicago, ran an experiment to measure the generosity levels of children. In essence, children in six countries were asked to select 10 stickers from a larger sample… then told that they could give up some of those stickers to a friend who wouldn’t be able to play the game otherwise.
The question was: How many stickers would these kids be willing to give up?
It turns out the children of non-religious parents gave away an average of 4.1 stickers, while kids from a religious background gave away only 3.3. (There was no statistical difference between children of Muslim and Christian parents.)
In another experiment, children watched videos of kids doing mean things (like pushing each other) and then told to rank how malicious the incident was along with how much the instigator deserved to be punished. The children of religious parents were more like to say someone was mean and more likely to say those people deserved punishment.
Our findings robustly demonstrate that children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households. Moreover, the negative relation between religiousness and spirituality and altruism changes across age, with those children with longer experience of religion in the household exhibiting the greatest negative relations.
That’s an interesting result, but keep in mind it’s just one experiment. These things need to be replicated before we make a big deal out of it, and Decety himself plans to try this study again with children in 14 additional countries. That said, other researchers have come to similar conclusions.
The important question here, obviously, is why are we getting these results? Assuming the research is valid, what is it about children of non-religious parents that makes them more generous?
You could argue that non-religious parents instill a sense of justice to children: God’s not going to fix problems in the afterlife, so we need to do everything we can to make things fair on Earth.
You could also say that kids who are taught that their actions don’t matter as long as they believe in Christ’s divinity are less inclined to be generous.
Just remember this study the next time someone claims you can’t be moral if you aren’t religious. Indeed, if you’re religious, you have plenty of reason to not be moral.
On a side note, perhaps the most interesting part of the research was in the acknowledgments section:
This research was supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation (Science of Philanthropy Initiative).
So the people who love promoting religion through science funded a study that found the less religious kids to be less selfish. How’s that for irony?
(Thanks to everyone for the link)