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A surprisingly large number of people, including 53 percent of the US population, believes that one must believe in God to be a moral person. New research among children in six different countries should put that idea to rest.

Research conducted by the highly valued Pew Research Center in 39 different countries shows that a great many people believe that being religious is a prerequisite to being moral. Clear majorities in as many as 22 out of these 39 countries believe that one simply needs to believe in God in order to be a good person with moral values, and though more North Americans and Europeans believe that atheists can be moral people too, a slightly shocking 53 percent of people in the United States of America hold the view that one must be religious in order to be moral. 

Does the very pervasive belief that religion makes people moral, and that there can be no morality without a belief in God, hold any water? 

It is clear that religion and the role it ends up playing in your life is strongly influenced by your upbringing. Though I became agnostic later in life, for example, I was raised by Christian parents in Europe, with weekly Church attendance. The message I took away from the Christianity my parents preached was, first and foremost, that "God is love". Concretely, that translated into the wish to help those in need, to share your money, your time, and your strength with those who lacked those attributes whenever possible. It never occurred to me that you have to be religious in order to be moral, and I've certainly seen my fare share of hatred spread in the name of religion, but in our household, the message of sharing was the pervasive one. 

Perhaps surprisingly, it seems that not all children take that same message away. A recently released study doesn't just show that religion isn't required in order to develop the moral values many of us value — a belief in sharing with others who have less, and a belief in compassion — but its results went a step further and showed that children being raised in religious households were, in fact, less likely than their non-religious peers to display altruistic behavior. 

What Did The Study Look At?

Researchers from seven universities all over the world studied the behavior of almost 1,200 children aged between five and 12 in six different countries — Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa, Turkey and the US — to examine the relationship between religiosity and altruism. The children's parents answered questionnaires about their family's religious practices. Forty-three percent of the families were Muslim, with 24 percent being Christian and 27 percent non-religious. Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic and other backgrounds were not represented in large enough numbers to be included in the analysis. 

The study looked both at how likely children were to share, and how likely they were to judge or punish others for behavior they saw as bad. 

The participating youngsters were given the opportunity to share stickers after playing a game. "In this task, children were shown a set of 30 stickers and were told to choose their ten favorite," the researchers wrote. "They were then told 'these stickers are yours to keep.’ Children were instructed 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". Participants were then told that they could place some of their stickers in an envelope to share, if they chose to do so. 

The participants also watched videos in which characters bumped into each other, by accident or on purpose. They were then asked to give their opinion on what punishment, if any, those characters deserved. 

Religious Children Less Altruistic?

"Our findings contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others," psychology and psychiatry professor at the University of Chicago Jean Decety, who worked on the study, pointed out. "In our study, kids from atheist and non-religious families were, in fact, more generous."

The research team reported that their results "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". Was that perhaps the result of the fact that young children haven't yet learned how to implement the values they are being raised with? The answer is no —  the study found that older children from religious families, presumably those with the greatest exposure to the family's religious teachings, "exhibit the greatest negative relations". 

Furthermore, those children who decided to place stickers in an envelope would have ended up sharing with peers from the same school, and frequently children with comparative ethnic backgrounds. In other words, though it is already well known that people have a greater tendency to share with those belonging to the same group, "this result cannot be simply explained by in-group versus out-group biases that are known to change children’s cooperative behaviors from an early age".

The interesting thing here is that those parents who identified as either Muslim or Christian were more likely than those from the non-religious group to consider their own children to be "more empathetic and more sensitive to the plight of others".  Despite this belief, children from these groups were found to have an increased likelihood of being "more judgmental of others’ actions". 

Also fascinating was the finding that, within Christianity, fundamentalists tended to be more punishment-oriented than non-fundamentalists, advocating for harsher disciplinary measures. 

Could their preaching of "hell fire and brimstone" lead fundamentalists to see God as more punitive than compassionate, in turn causing them to believe in correction above empathy? The additional finding that fundamentalists are also less likely to differentiate between different types of transgressions seems to support that idea. 

What Can We Learn From This Study?

This study of 1,200 children most certainly does not warrant a blanket condemnation of religious practices. Instead of concluding that religion induces selfishness — indeed exactly the message some have taken away from this study — we can, however, learn that it is high time to put the idea that atheists cannot be good people that possess the moral values that allow humans to live harmoniously in groups to rest. Rather than judging atheists for a lack of morality, parents who are raising their children with faith may need to question whether their religious teachings alone are enough to instill a spirit of sharing and compassion.

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