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A study published in the most recent issue of Current Biology purports to demonstrate that the more religious a family is the less altruistic the children will be. It also concludes that religious parents have a more positive view than of their children’s sensitivity to injustice than non-religious parents and that children of religious parents demand harsher punishments when they see injustices carried out.

This paper has provided atheists with ammunition to claim not only that atheists can be “just as good” as a person of religion, but that they can be better. According to the lead author, Professor Jean Decety, of the University of Chicago, these results “challenge the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior, and call into question whether religion is vital for moral development — suggesting the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact, it does just the opposite.”

The knee-jerk reaction of those of us who take our religion seriously (and the report includes children from all types of religious background, although mainly Christian and Muslim) would be to claim, even without reading the study, that the research methodology must have been flawed or that the authors have drawn the wrong conclusions, because of course it stands to reason that children brought up in a religious household must be more generous than their atheistic peers.

But we should stop before we do so and, with a bit of humility (which hopefully is in bigger supply among religious people than non-religious) remember Christ’s tirades against the Pharisees who were among the most religious (in a certain sense) people of his time and also caricatures by, among others, Dickens and Trollope of some of religious people of the 19th century. The conclusions of the paper are a challenge to people of religion to make sure that they really are walking the talk.

Nevertheless, the research leaves a lot to be desired and generates many unanswered questions. The research took a sample of around 1,150 pupils aged between 5 and 12 from 6 countries, the United States, Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa and Turkey. Roughly half were girls.

They assessed the socioeconomic status of the family, its religious identification, their frequency of religious attendance and level of spirituality.

The children were asked to play a game which involved them picking 10 stickers and then deciding how many to give away to an unknown fellow pupil. They were also asked their reactions to actions of one pupil on another such as pushing and bumping. The parents were asked for their views on how sensitive their child was to injustice for others.

The overall results of the study were that religious parents reported that their children showed more empathy towards others. However, the study also showed that the religiosity was inversely related to altruism and positively correlated with what the authors called “punitive tendencies”.

The study therefore shows two positive traits of religious families. The first is that children brought up in religious households have greater levels of empathy. Although this is based on parental reports, I assume that the assessment tools used by the researchers are able to correct for parental bias in their view of their children.

The second positive trait, and this is consistent with the views of the parents, is that children of religious parents take a harsher view of typical anti-social behaviour found in school playgrounds ie, pushing and bumping, and would expect harsher punishments to be imposed.

It is interesting to note the difference in terminology used by the researchers. They use the negative sounding phrase “punitive tendencies” when these should be seen as a sign of greater empathy. Also they conclude that while religiousness was predictive of lower levels of altruism, it was only correlated (a lesser relationship) with “punitive tendencies”.

Looking at the test on the children’s altruism, the actual game played does seem to be a reasonably valid test of altruism. However, the test does not go far enough. Ideally the researchers would have asked the children why they kept the number of stickers that they did and what they intended to do with them.

For example, and I am only speculating, children from religious households may have more siblings and may have wanted the stickers to share with them rather than to keep them for themselves. Or they may want to share them with friends outside of school.

There may also be confounding effects from linkages between religious affiliation and socioeconomic status which have not been picked up. It seems to be the case that young children from poorer households tend to be less altruistic than those from richer households. There are also likely to be confounding linkages between religion, country of original and wealth. Turkey and Jordan one would expect to be predominantly Muslim while China would be predominantly non-religious. Canada, USA and South Africa will be more likely to be a mix of Christian and non-religious although with different experiences of Christianity. It is not clear that the research has really unpacked all of the influences these linkages could create. One would need to know a lot more about the family background before placing too much reliance on the results of this study.

The most this study has shown is that children between 5 and 12 are less altruistic if they come from more religious households. A better test, however, would be the altruism of older people. This should be tested not by games in the classroom but by actually seeing who is doing what — for example, who is helping out with the migrant crisis in Europe.

Dermot Grenham is an actuary in Glasgow.

Dermot Grenham is chief actuary for the social security, demography and overseas pensions team of the Government’s Actuary Department in the UK. He has held various financial reporting...