Children brought up in religious families are more selfish than those from atheist or agnostic houses, a study claims, and the more often they go to church or the mosque, the worse the effect.
Scientists studying children from religions around the world found that there was a consistent link between the piety of their household and youngsters being less likely to put that piety into practice, at least when it came to sharing.
The research, published in the journal Current Biology, involved an altruism test, administered to more than 1,100 children aged 5 to 12 from around the world. The children were given stickers and asked how many they would like to share with an anonymous person in their school.
The idea was to test the common view that those with religious upbringings are “better” people.
“A commonsense notion is that religiosity has a positive association with self-control and moral behaviours. This view is so deeply embedded that individuals who are not religious can be considered morally suspect, especially in the US,” said Jean Decety, of the University of Chicago, the lead author of the study.
Jesus may have exhorted people to love their neighbour and demonstrated the societal benefits of sharing but the experiment found that it was non-believers who were more on board with his philosophy.
The researchers also found that Muslim children were far more likely to believe that, when their peers transgressed, they deserved more punitive punishments. The research fits with previous studies into adults, which also found that the more religious were the most selfish.
Quite why this would be the case is unclear. One theory is that it could be down to what is known as moral licensing.
“Moral licensing is using something ‘good’ to justify something ‘bad’, often without even realising it,” said Dr Decety. Since religious people believe that they have done something good simply by being religious, the idea is that this gives them licence to then do something bad.
“It is an interesting mental glitch: apparently, doing something that helps to strengthen our positive self-image also makes us less worried about the consequences of immoral behaviour, and therefore more likely to make immoral choices.”
For Dr Decety the conclusion is clear:“I hope people begin to understand that religion is not a guarantee for morality, and that religion and morality are two different things. Societies that cultivate secular values are more peaceful and generally “healthy” than those countries which anchor or base their values on religion.”