Godless kids more generous & tolerant

Godless kids more generous & tolerant

A new American study indicates that young children brought up in faith-free environments are more likely to be generous and tolerant than those who grow up in religious households.

Published in the Current Biology journal, The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism Across the World‘s findings are in line with previous research among adults which showed that the more religious a person was the more intolerant they were.

Dr Jean Decety at the University of Chicago is quoted here as saying said:

Some past research had demonstrated that religious people aren’t more likely to do good than their non-religious counterparts. Our study goes beyond that by showing that religious people are less generous, and not only adults but children too.

Decety his colleagues asked more than 1,100 children between the ages of five and 12 from the US, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa, and China to play a game.

In it they were asked to make decisions about how many stickers to share with an anonymous person from the same school and a similar ethnic group.

Most of the children came from households that identified as Christian, Muslim, or not religious.

Agnostic and atheist kids were more likely to share than children whose parents were religious, but children who believe in God were more likely to be vengeful and back harsher punishments for those who hurt others.

It was suggested this was because religious children feel as they are going to heaven they are less concerned about the consequences of being mean.

The study also included smaller numbers of children from Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and agnostic homes.

The results might be explained in part by “moral licensing”, a phenomenon in which doing something “good”, in this case practising a religion, can leave people less concerned about the consequences of immoral behaviour.

Said Decety:

A common-sense notion is that religiosity has a positive association with self-control and moral behaviours. This view is unfortunately so deeply embedded that individuals who are not religious can be considered morally suspect.

In the United States, for instance, non-religious individuals have little chance to be elected to a high political office, and those who identify as agnostic and atheist are considered to be less trustworthy and more likely to be amoral or even immoral.

Thus, it is generally admitted that religion shapes people’s moral judgments and pro-social behaviour, but the relation between religiosity and morality is actually a contentious one, and not always positive.

Decety will now expand his research to include children of ages four to eight in 14 countries – Canada, China, Cuba, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Turkey, Jordan, Taiwan, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Norway, and Mexico.

16 responses to “Godless kids more generous & tolerant”

  1. Broga says:

    This doesn’t surprise me. Once in the straitjacket of religion bigoted, judgemental and condemnatory attitudes are inevitable. The irony in the USA is that the religious bigots get elected while the non religious broadminded people are dismissed as unworthy.

  2. Rob Andrews says:

    The article didn’t go into to much detail as to why. Here are some ideas:

    Kindness may only aply to the in group of the believer.RCs used to be tought thatr all others are going to hell anyway.
    Children are likely to be rebelious. Telling children to ‘be good’ a lot can cause contrary behavior.
    Fundamentalist protestants are taught that charity is bad’. All should provide for themselves.

    ‘with previous research among adults which showed that the more religious a person was the more intolerant they were”. Certainly when it comes to gay people.

  3. barriejohn says:

    I was really shocked when I first read this story today. Jesus is the perfect example for the dear Christian children who follow him,and as he was always kind and loving I can’t believe that they are not the same. It is surely the children of the wicked unbelievers who lie and cheat and steal, and use bad language! I have all this on very good authority:

    PS I’ve always loved the Peanuts cartoons, and I remember one in which Charlie Brown’s little sister was peering very closely at a page of print, and when he asked her what she was doing she replied: “I’m trying to read between the lines”!

  4. barriejohn says:

    I reckon that the Christian children being surveyed were not being taught correctly:

    Comments disabled – now there’s a surprise!

  5. Edwin Salter says:

    Good news, of course, and we are inclined to believe it both by wish and reasoning.
    But there is the usual problem of correlation versus causation, the explanation perhaps elsewhere – if, for example, the non-religious children are from better educated families.
    Putnam and Campbell’s book American Grace (see Freethinker June 2012) reported that in USA “religious people seem nicer neighbors”, though their explanation was social rather than religious. Also such people in USA would largely feel themselves at home in an assertively Christian society.
    P.S. From the Dalai Lama (The Times Magazine 17/10/15): “If Buddha reappeared today, he would teach secular ethics.”

  6. jay says:

    As much as it is nice to see some studies favorable to non theists, studies of this nature should be taken with a grain of salt. They are at thes same time highly over-simplified, and can’t possibly takeinto account cultural externalities as well as subtle (often unintended) structural biases.

  7. Broga says:

    @AgentCormac: Looks like a great place to live.

  8. AgentCormac says:


    What a wonderful, harmonious, intelligent world it would be if we all followed their example.

  9. Laura Roberts says:

    My theory is that children in religious families are responding to a particularly insidious message: “ours is the one true religion” (i.e., “we are better than other people”). I recall receiving this message myself when I was a small child. My most painful memories of being mean to other children arose from that corrupt idea. Hitch was right: religion poisons everything.

  10. Lucy1 says:

    Iceland rocks. No religion. Space. Gender equality. Tolerance. But they can, as population is low, education is high, economy is ok. They are secure and can therefore trust.

    I went there a while ago. Fucking loved it.

  11. Lucy1 says:

    And google Icelandic pylons. Any country that does that has to be the place to live.

  12. David Flint says:

    “children who believe in God were more likely to be vengeful and back harsher punishments for those who hurt others.” Game theory analysis and actual research show that punishments are needed to deter free-riders as well as the violent. Stephen Pinker’s analysis connects the decline in harsh punishments with the general decline in violence in most parts of the world and over decades to centuries. And both with the advance of human rights and civilised and rational values.

    In short – we are the future!

  13. Bob Dowling says:

    Generosity, tolerance and altruism are three different things. The article discusses altruism and punitive behaviours.

  14. JohnMWhite says:

    @Bob – I’m not sure what your point is. The article discusses altruism in the form of generosity (in this case, giving a limited number of stickers to different people), and tolerance in the form of deciding whether different people deserve punishment.