Are Religious Parents Raising Selfish Brats?

by squizzard41

Findings from a recent study published in the journal "Current Biology" suggests children raised in religious homes are less giving and more judgmental.

The headlines screamed the news: "Religious Children Are Meaner Than Their Secular Counterparts", "Christian and Muslim Children Less Generous Than Atheists, Study Claims", "Growing Up Religious Can Make You Mean", "Kinder Without God", and "Is Religion Hazardous To Your Children's Health?". The headlines were referring to a recently released study in the journal "Current Biology" which seems to support a hypothesis that children raised under the influence of religion were less altruistic and more judgmental than non-religious children. But, does the evidence truly support this or is it another attempt to discredit and discourage religious belief and practice?

Testing Protocol

What Tests Were Used?

Researchers tested approximately 1,200 children ages 6-12 from six countries: United States, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa. 24% of the children were from Christian identified homes, 43% were from Muslim identified homes and 27.6% were from non-religious homes. 

Each child was given two tests: a moral sensitivity task and the Dictator game. In the moral sensitivity task the children viewed video clips of people being intentionally or accidentally harmed and their responses to the clips were recorded. The Dictator game involved a computer screen with 30 stickers on the screen. The child was told they could pick their favorite ten stickers. After they selected the stickers, they were told that the experimenter did not have the time to play this game with all of the children in their school, so not everyone would be able to receive stickers.

From these two tests, and a questionnaire for the parents researchers concluded these three things: Family religious identification decreases children’s altruistic behaviors, religiousness predicts parent-reported child sensitivity to injustices and empathy and children from religious households are harsher in their punitive tendencies.

Why This Study Is Flawed

Questions About The Research

In an article titled, "Children's Altruistic Behavior in the Dictator Game", by Joyce Benenson, Joanna Pascoe and Nicola Radmore in the journal "Evolution & Human Behavior", the authors state, "Virtually all developmental studies conclude that young children behave selfishly towards genetically unrelated individuals." 

James Andreoni and Justin M. Rao state in their paper, "The Power of Asking: How Communication Affects Selfishness, Empathy, and Altruism" (published in National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series, NBER Working Paper No. 16373) "...we argue that while humans do have a strong capacity to behave altruistically, selfishness typically predominates. Furthermore, social cues have evolved so that altruistic behavior is not expressed indiscriminately, but rather is likely to be expressed when it is instrumental in serving other selfish (or imperfectly altruistic) ends."

Another study by Ariel Knafo, et al published in PLoS ONE, 2011. September 6(9):1-5 lays the blame for selfishness and a lack of altruism on a gene. 

Even Dr. Decety himself has published a paper titled, "Experiencing a Natural Disaster Alters Children’s Altruistic Giving" (Psychological Science, September 2013, 24(9), pp.1686-1695) where he states a discrepancy in the altruism of children, by age, after experiencing a major natural disaster. Were these religious children or non-religious children?

There are virtually hundreds of studies by behavioral psychologists and there is no common agreement on the etiology of selfishness. It could be caused by a gene, it is innate, it is based on family income, or it is a result of nature versus nurture. To make a blanket statement that religious homes produce more selfish and punitive children causes us to question the motive behind the study.


Nurture of Children in Religious Homes

Common Themes

Religious homes differ in one aspect from non-religious: they believe in a deity to whom they are accountable. This accountability extends to the nurture and raising of their children. Proverbs 22:15 says, "Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him." (KJV) and Proverbs 22:6, "Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it." (NLT)

Children from any family background are foolish. Watch any group of 3-4 year olds and you will see children from religious homes and non-religious homes struggling with the concept of sharing. You will witness children exhibiting punitive behavior when they feel their rights have been violated. Hitting, slapping and biting are common behaviors. You will see children throwing themselves on the ground in the grocery store screaming because they have been denied something.

Religious and non-religious parents alike take time to teach their children how to behave correctly in society because children do not innately know proper social etiquette. How many times do you hear parents reminding their children to express gratitude--"Did you say thank you?" Religious and non-religious parents alike also teach consequences of wrong behavior. When a child misbehaves, parents have methods of correcting their children--time outs, removing a cherished object, and yes corporal punishment. Are religious parents more likely to punish physically than their non-religious counterparts? There are no statistics to prove that is the case.

Proverbs 22:6 assures parents if they teach their children the correct social skills when they are older they not leave it, they will comprehend the teaching and implement it in their life.

The Bottom Line

Does Religion Influence Behavior?

What Evolutionary Psychologists, like Dr. Decety, want to make us believe is that raising children in religious homes does not make them morally superior to non-religious children. He is, in fact, correct in that supposition. Raising children in religious homes does not make them better than non-religious children BUT it doesn't make them worse. Children will be children and will behave like children. It is a parent's responsibility to guide them and teach them.

Parents in religious and non-religious homes believe in accountability. Being accountable for behavior entails recognizing your failure, asking forgiveness for your failure, learning from it and moving on. Dr. Decety calls asking for forgiveness "moral licensing" implying it is a way of justifying bad behavior while it is completely opposite. Asking for forgiveness establishes a foundation of recognizing when we've done wrong and making amends. Telling your child to apologize to another child for hurting them is teaching them pro-social skills not sociopathic ones.

So, as with any psychological study we take the findings with a grain of salt and move on.  Human nature is complex and making judgments on the personal beliefs of individuals, who follow a code of conduct in opposition to yours, calls into question the true motive of your study. Are religious children bigger brats than non-religious ones? Or are children, in general, just acting their age and behaving accordingly? I tend to believe kids are kids regardless of whether they are raised in a religious home or not. It is when they get older that we get a more honest measure of how valuable religious training was.

Suggested Reading

Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids without Religion

Foreword by Michael Shermer, Ph.D. Contributors include Penn Jillette, Julia Sweeney, and Dr. Donald B. Ardell This is an abridged edition of the print classic. It does not incl...

View on Amazon

Raising Faith-Filled Kids: Ordinary Opportunities to Nurture Spirituality at Home

Family life is a spiritual path Is your family calendar so jammed that there’s never enough time to “be spiritual”? Maybe you need to think about spirituality in a new way. Auth...

View on Amazon

Updated: 11/10/2015, squizzard41
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squizzard41 on 11/10/2015

Thank you, frankbeswick! I myself feel the two tests weren't particularly suitable to the study. If you're going to test altruism in children I think they need to be in actual situations where they have to make a judgment. Picking stickers on a computer screen doesn't seem particularly conducive to formulating a logical conclusion. I appreciate your comment, thank you!

frankbeswick on 11/10/2015

Religion covers such a variety and range of different attitudes that just testing religion is plain silly. Besides the differences between Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, all of whom were tested by this survey, judging from the countries in the sample, there is also Allport's distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic religious belief to be taken into consideration. This distinction measures the sincerity of belief, to put it simply. There is also the problem that one test designed in America was used to assess children across a variety of cultures, which raises the issue of cultural bias and prejudice. Not impressive!

However Lynn, this is a good article displaying balance and critical skills. i hope that we on Wizzley hear more from you.

squizzard41 on 11/10/2015

That connection made me question the validity of the study as well, Mira. I don't think they should make broad judgments based on two tests. Also, I found it interesting they had 2x as many Muslim participants versus Christian. That didn't seem like a balanced sample to me. Thank you for commenting!

Mira on 11/10/2015

I wonder how come they made the connection between the religious identity of the parents and the kids' behavior. Christians vary in behavior, as Carley said, and kids of Christian parents vary, too. Too bad people do such poorly devised studies.

squizzard41 on 11/10/2015

I agree, Carley. Our job as parents, regardless if we are religious or not, is to raise children who are good citizens of society. We are to teach our children to be kind, loving and accepting of others and this can be taught by religious or non-religious parents. Thank you for your comment.

CarleyClagg on 11/10/2015

I don't think the issue here is religion vs. non religion. Religion is supposed to enforced good moral values, yet I also know non religious people to have good moral values as well. I think the issue is some people label themselves as "christian" or whatever religion, yet they do not follow the moral values of that said religion. Those who judge, are selfish, and do wrong set poor examples for their children and raise them in that type of environment. To me, I don't think it has to do with religion at all. Good article!

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