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Some religious people say religion is what makes people moral. Studies show that religious people are more likely to be civically engaged, make ethical decisions, and give to charitable organizations than those who don’t identify with a religion. In its most positive form, religion can serve as a strong moral framework, instilling ethical values in people through stories, texts, and rituals. From a more cynical perspective, if God is watching, you might be more inclined to do the right thing.
On the other hand, plenty of people say that’s poppycock. Aside from the high levels of religious violence or intolerance in the world, many studies find no relationship between religion and morality. Others report that non-religious people behave more ethically than their religious peers, making decisions that are more motivated by compassion and exhibiting lower levels of racism. So who’s right?
A new study from the University of Chicago claims to show that religion does not necessarily provide the foundation for more moral beings. For the study, published on Thursday in the journal Current Biology, researchers surveyed more than 1,000 kids across six countries. They found that those raised in religious households were actually more selfish than their nonreligious counterparts. These findings “contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others,” the authors write. “More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development.”
The study took the form of a thought experiment. First, children aged 5 to 12 in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Turkey, Jordan, or China were each given 30 stickers and told to choose their 10 favorite ones. Those 10 were theirs to keep, they were told. Then, the children were given the option to give some of their stickers away to other children who had not been given any stickers. Regardless of the children’s country of origin, age, and other factors, researchers found that children raised in nonreligious households gave away more stickers to their stickerless peers. Religious children exhibited “significantly less sharing,” according to the paper. Those little misers...
The study’s findings bode well for our future as America becomes less religious, says Decety, who plans to expand the work with additional children in 14 countries: Canada, China, Cuba, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Turkey, Jordan, Taiwan, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Mexico. According to him, the findings support the idea that religion today is less central in helping people form a moral framework. Instead, people may be drawing moral guidance from a variety of sources outside of religion, including philosophy, history, politics, and other secular communities or ideas. In the paper, he and his co-authors also point out that democratic countries with the lowest levels of religion also have among the lowest violent crime rates and highest levels of well-being, including the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Belgium, and New Zealand.
Current Biology, Decety et al.: "The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children's Altruism across the World" dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.09.056
Source: Slate Magazine