Actions, not beliefs, define our morality and that of our children. Our politics, opinions, and views, and the principles we profess, are important. But our day-to-day activities and the ways in which we conduct ourselves ultimately matter the most.    

A unique study, published last week in Current Biology, reveals that children from religious households may actually be less generous than kids from a secular background, and that bringing children up in faith-filled homes could make them meaner and more selfish.

The research, led by University of Chicago scientist Jean Decety, focused on the behaviors of 1,170 international kids during an experiment designed to measure altruism: 510 came from expressly Muslim households and 280 from expressly Christian ones; 323 came from non-religious, and a handful of others came from agnostic or “other” homes, including: Jewish (29), Buddhist (18) and Hindu (5).

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The children who participated were told to choose 10 stickers out of 30 with which to play. After the children made their selections, they were informed that not every child in the program would be offered stickers, so if they wanted, they could share their stickers with those children who were not given any.

The children who were believers, the results of the experiment showed, were less willing to give away their stickers. Children of non-believers were significantly more generous than those of believers. Yes, researchers found an inverse relationship between observance level and generosity; children from more religious homes were found to be more selfish than their less religious counterparts. This effect remained, regardless of a family’s wealth or status, the child’s age or nationality.

What’s also interesting is that these findings are in marked contrast to the parents’ assessment of their own children’s sensitivity to injustice. When asked, religious parents reported that they would expect that their children are more sensitive than those of a non-believing parent and more generous as well.

The research psychologists also assessed views on justice through a moral sensitivity task. The children in the study were shown videos of mild interpersonal harm—someone being pushed or bumped. They were then asked to judge the level of meanness inherent in the act, and the level of punishment the wrongdoer deserved. Children from more religious homes thought that the harmful actions they witnessed were meaner than did their secular counterparts, and that they also deserved harsher punishment. When actions are seen as either right or wrong, religious children appear less tolerant of harmful behaviors—even mildly harmful—and favor harsher penalties.

In the study, parents were also asked to score their children as to the degree of empathy and sensitivity they would expect their children to demonstrate regarding this type of mild injustice. Religious parents thought their children would have a strong sense of fairness. This contradicted the objective assessment of the researchers who observed that, in fact, the believers had less compassion.

Could it be that not being religious may actually increase moral behavior, and that religion and morality are not one and the same? Might those who don’t believe in God, or worship an organized religion, actually behave more altruistically than those who do? Could one argue that without the fear of being punished or not being rewarded, a person who acts kindly has higher moral standards?

Religious people often say that religion is what makes people moral. It serves as a principled framework, instilling ethical values in people through stories, texts and rituals. And some studies do show that religious people are more likely than those who don’t identify with a formal religion to be engaged civically, make principled decisions, and give to charitable organizations. But, just as many studies find no relationship between religion and morality.

On the other hand, we can see all around us the huge amounts of religiously-spawned violence and intolerance that exists, today, in this world.

Hopefully, these types of studies may help to dispel the widespread sentiment that non-believers, the non-religious, don’t have strong communal values and, therefore, lack the compassion and the ethical conduct needed to lead. As science and information technology continues to expand at an accelerated pace, we will see and experience a progressively secular society emerging. As such, it is important that both religious and non-religious people learn to understand each other on a deeper level, become more tolerant of one another, and seek common ground to solve the critical problems we face worldwide.