Religious Kids are Bad – Bad To the Bone (I blame the Parents)

Well it’s official – religious kids are badder than other kids.  Or at least it’s as official as the latest research from the University of Chicago says it is.  The study’s report can be found here and its findings indicate, as it says, that the link between religiosity and morality is a contentious one.

The study concludes that religious children are less altruistic than non-religious ones.  Newspapers have been reporting this with interest as has The Australian here in Oz.  Their article, headlines irenically: “Religious Children meaner than agnostic and atheist kids, study finds” quotes the study’s author:

“Religion and morality are two different things,” said lead author Jean Decety, a Chicago University neuroscientist.

“Past research has demonstrated that religious people are no more likely to do good than their non-religious counterparts. Our study goes beyond that, showing that religious people are less generous — not only adults, but children, too.”

Leaving aside the fact that the gospel seems to attract the really, really bad, and is repugnant to the moral (chief of sinners, not many good, not many noble etc, etc), it’s just a relief that researchers with an axe to grind have learned something over the past sixty years, and haven’t singled out Jews this time.

The article explains the research:

In the study, more than 1100 kids aged between five and 12 were asked to share stickers with anonymous schoolmates. The subjects lived in North America, the Middle East, South Africa and China, and included Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus. Those from agnostic and atheist households consistently proved less likely to keep the best stickers to themselves.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I got one of those SMILE JESUS LOVES YOU stickers at Sunday School for reciting “an eye for an eye” or “vengeance is mine” or some such, it would take more than the pleading look of some atheist offspring to pry it from my cold dead hands.

The article goes on:

He attributed the findings to a phenomenon dubbed “moral licensing”, where people’s perceptions that they were doing good — in this case, practising religion — exempted them from the obligation to perform other worthy deeds. “Apparently, doing something that helps strengthen our positive self-image also makes us less worried about the consequences of immoral behaviour,” he said.

Mind you,  the unspoken religiousness of the human condition means no one gets left out surely!

Hey I may sleep around a little, view late term abortions as somehow liberating, be loud, obnoxious, self-focussed, but I recycle and drive a Prius.  Moral licensing does’t end at the church, synagogue or mosque, that’s for sure.

Maybe for the sake of the good of our culture we should consider how to re-educate the children of religious parents away from such non-altrustic belief systems. More grist for the mill anyway.

Dr Decety concluded his comments by lifting his eyes towards heaven and praying: I thank you that I am not as other men…”


  1. Great post as always. And, if I had a sticker, I’d give it to you. Well, I’d think about it anyway. Blessings to you and keep on writing!

  2. There are so many red flags popping up throughout this so-called “research” that its difficult to know where to begin the criticism! Is he seriously suggesting that an exercise of selective sticker sharing by a small, international, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, sample of 5-12 year old children can be extrapolated as representative of the general failure of spiritually oriented adults to be morally altruistic? What was his control group – a West Papuan tribe with no contact with the outside world of stickers??? And equating “keeping the best stickers” with immoral behaviour – really??? Some of the things that pass for research these days (& obtain university support & government funding!!) are astonishing (in a bad way!!!). At least he has a groovy new gimmicky catchphrase for his next book though – “moral licensing”. Although that doesn’t sound original – he’ll have to invent another one!

  3. It is interesting to look at how the study was setup and what the numbers actually say.

    To begin with it is worth noting that it seems that the mathematical significance required in social sciences is much less than elsewhere. There was an r squared term of 0.176. If that was physics/engineering it would be rejected as having no provable correlation. Apparently this is acceptable in social science due to the complexity of finding cause and effect. Worth noting that there may be unaccounted variables, or questions in experiment design. A quick look at the data graph will show you how spread out a r^2 of 0.176 looks like. Anyone expecting a clumping of results around a trend-line should be prepared to be disappointed.

    I would also take issue with the discussion of the results. For example this quote:

    “They also believe that interpersonal harm is more ‘‘mean’’ and deserving of harsher punishment than non-religious children. Thus, children who are raised in religious households frequently appear to be more judgmental of others’ actions, while being less altruistic toward another child from the same social environment, at least when generosity is spontaneously directed to an ambiguous beneficiary.”

    Apparently the belief that interpersonal harm is more severe comes from a place of lesser altruism. Unfortunately in this point we are already on the back foot as the bible has a lot to say about judgement. If not for the grace offered through Christ we would face it head on. I think this is the authors setting their own goalposts, not entirely uncommon in research.

    Furthermore the study was of 5-12 year old children, and the results were used to comment on religion and altruism as a whole. I would suggest that any of us christian parents that assume that our children have naturally inherited our belief should be a little more concerned. However for my money I would think that if you want to make a correlation between religion an altruism, do it with adults. The authors stated that this had been done in previous studies and the results contradicted their findings, might be worth chasing those references.

    Overall I think the study looks shaky and at best indicates that there is little difference between children of different religious backgrounds. The conclusions made in the discussion appear to overstep the boundaries of the experimental data. I found it difficult to find all the supporting data as it looks like it is behind a paywall. I

    To me if there is a more reasonable conclusion from the article is that there is no great correlation between Sunday school and our kids playing extra nice in the playground. Maybe we put too much hope that our kids will escape the same sinful tendencies we struggle with.

    After our recent Baptism service I am hopeful to someday see my children confess and be baptised. Two of my kids are in the age bracket of the study and even with the raising of our strict non-altruistic fundamentalist household I am yet to see a sure sign that they will.


  4. Wow – great research non-religious researchers (i am making a bit of an assumption based upon their evolution language) 280 christians (they say) a mean age of 8.26 from 6 countries and they have drawn all of these conclusions that finally proves Christian doesn’t work and is bad? What a farce!

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