Are Religious Children Less Generous Than Non-Religious Ones?


Last week The Guardian published the results of a study that claims to demonstrate just that:

Almost 1,200 children, aged between five and 12, in the US, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa participated in the study. Almost 24% were Christian, 43% Muslim, and 27.6% non-religious. The numbers of Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and other children were too small to be statistically valid.

They were asked to choose stickers and then told there were not enough to go round for all children in their school, to see if they would share. They were also shown film of children pushing and bumping one another to gauge their responses.

The findings “robustly demonstrate that children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households”.

Older children, usually those with a longer exposure to religion, “exhibit[ed] the greatest negative relations”.

Someone asked me a few days what I thought about the study. I said, “Non-religious people get to feel superior and vindicated in their choices, conservative evangelicals can complain about the liberal media, and progressive religious types can geek out by wondering about sample size and methodology. Something for everyone.”  I can’t speak to the quality of the research, though I’m told it’s a peer reviewed study, which counts for something. On the other hand, Robert tells me that half of all psychological studies are unreplicatable, so…

But assuming this study is accurate, what would account for a lack of generosity in religious children? Not sure. For the record, I don’t think you need to have a religious tradition or belief in God to be a moral person. And at the same time, there is a strain of judgmentalism in some expressions of Christianity, and apparently Islam too, since that was also mentioned in the study.

But I do have one small hypothesis.

For the past several months, our family has been between churches. Since I finished my tenure at Tiny Church, we haven’t found a church to call home. I may preach in 2-3 congregations a month, but many of these are in other cities, so the kids don’t come with me.

During these months without a church, I’ve been keenly aware that it’s my job and Robert’s job–and pretty much ours alone–to teach generosity and kindness as spiritual practices. I say “as spiritual practices” because to some extent they also learn these attributes at school, during team sports and in other activities. But there’s usually no deeper meaning underlying them–it’s just the way you treat people.

Anyway, if this is our job and ours alone, we will want to approach it with great intentionality and care. Whereas parents who are religious may be relying on their faith communities to do a lot of this work. I used to hear this often from parents when I was a pastor–they rarely felt equipped to pass on the tenets of their faith to their children, and really hoped the church would do it instead.

Yet we know from study after study that parents are their children’s most important teachers. Which means that if parents are relying on faith communities to do this work, then the work isn’t getting done nearly as effectively.

What do you make of the study?


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photo credit: lone kid (6 of 8) via photopin (license)

13 thoughts on “Are Religious Children Less Generous Than Non-Religious Ones?

  1. Robin R

    I’ve been pondering this study the last couple days too, and as you predicted, I started down the “methodology and sample size” road. But then I took a step back from my knee-jerk reaction and said to myself, “Let’s assume that the study is legit. How do we fix it?”

    I’ve more or less reached the same hypothesis as you have– What if we as religious people are relying too much on church to teach altruism and compassion? Regardless of the veracity of the study, it can’t hurt to be more focused on teaching our children how to be kind and generous. Worst case scenario is that our children are better humans. win-win.

  2. Asad

    I’m just throwing these thoughts out there:

    1. The overwhelming majority of religious people follow the religion of their parents. Therefore it’s possible that they just go along with whatever they grew up with and didn’t actually sit down and evaluate their moral code. People like me, who are consciously non-religious (emphasis on “consciously”), often spend time thinking about what they believe in, what’s truly important to their values, and because of a lack of complacency they may choose to be more generous and share that with their children.

    2. Non-religious people are often hippy-dippy people. 🙂 We’re more on the “love is all you need” side of life and thus sharing and not hoarding possessions are important values for us and ones that we want to pass on to our children.

    These two things are said without any scientific bases, they are pure conjecture, so please take them with a grain of salt.

  3. Bob Braxton

    When I was young, I felt bothered with Jesus “why do you call me good – there is none good but the Father [sic]” – the same with “gene”rosity, which I have taken to have root of “source” so I checked Strong’s – for the NT Greek – there are many words that get translated, some with what seems agricultural (plant) metaphor meaning such as – Thick / Hardy and such. Also a Hebrew forget exactly what. Unless children have their own resource (money) in what sense can they -?

  4. Eunice Fernandez

    I wonder if the researchers asked the children that shared the reason for their generosity.
    I remember a two or three-year old child being given a pack of chewing gum to share with a small group of people
    of which I was a part.
    The toddler got to the last stick and he needed to give one to me, but he also had to consider keeping it for himself.
    I wondered what the child was going to do. He surprised me by tearing the last stick of gum in half and sharing it
    with me. I’ve never forgotten that toddler’s generosity.

  5. David

    I read the study itself, and not the summaries either in popular media or as pitched out by blogs with an agenda. Dig it up! It’s worth looking at. It’s a whole bunch more nuanced, as studies tend to be. In that nuance, there might be answers to the “what does that mean for us” question you rightly raise.

    For example, there are significant variances between the response of kids in fundamentalist households and those raised with a more open faith…variances that eliminate the clickbait “religious are less generous” headline entirely. There, I think, lies a core learning for people of faith: fundamentalism makes you a less pleasant human being.

    As for broader implications, I’m not willing to speculate. From my time at the Aspen Institute, I was exposed to robust massive-sample longitudinal research indicating that religiosity positively correlates to giving and generosity…findings that were repeatedly replicable. That doesn’t delegitimize this study, but it does mean that…well…um…more research is needed.

      1. Eli

        Can someone share the direct link to the actual study, not the articles citing the study? I have a few thoughts but want to read the entire study first.
        In short my thought is if they didn’t control for family size in making the assessments, then they have missed a big piece of the shaping of a child. Non-religious families tend to be smaller with one or two children at best which means parents can tag team, kids have more parental time, more access to resources in the home (bathroom being the primary one), and more access to items that are their own. Religious (those that are practicing and subscribe to a single faith) tend to be larger. In a family with 4 or more children, the kids have less 1-1 parental time, less access to resources such as sharing a room, waiting for the bathroom, and getting hand me downs or having to share more items. If asked in a situation about taking something and then being told it was in limited quantity, the single kid tends to take one because they are confident in having one they don’t need more. The kids who are constantly vying for resources will take more because they don’t have thee confidence of having just one. I don’t think this is just religion is ultimately what I’m saying.
        Family size and family resources accounts for much of the child’s behavior. Also, while this was international in scope, was it among the upper middle class because you would see something different completely among the lower middle class and lower income levels.
        Just my thoughts. Great topic.

        1. Bob Braxton

          Family size – birth order – distribution between female and male – I agree. My father (1916) was the one male offspring – older one sister, two sisters younger. I am firstborn of eight: first 2 brothers, then 5 sisters (youngest 16 years my junior). 1951 Easter was the 40th birthday of my father’s older sister. She had two girls older than I, otherwise I would have been oldest on my father’s side of the family. We had an outdoor Easter Egg hunt at that house. There were already four in our family (of the eventual eight) and perhaps three or already four children – the final answer – in that family). Well, I was grabbing eggs in the hunt (with gusto) and felt traumatized when my aunt Hazel Harmon Braxton Neave told me: “it is important for you to share.” To me that was total opposite of what I at the time understood “share” to mean – it meant to let someone else participate with a possession that already belonged to me (important perspective in my mind as a child). So how, in God’s name, could “share” be applied to something I did not yet possess (and as a consequence of “share” would never possess). I suspect this kind of “throttle back” happens a lot – to females – am I wrong? At my age (not yet seven) that year, this felt very unjust to me. “Sharing” and “generosity” is in some senses grandiosity because it presumes that I possess and I have and therefore the power is mine to decide what to do with what is mine. It is a different matter to “share” what you do not yet have and therefore will never have. Even the two-mite “widow” had that power to decide and therefore the power of “generous.” However, I prefer the perspective of steward, where nothing is mine (it all belongs to God Creator) and therefore, in the Walden perspective of Henry David Thoreau, all is “mine” – I am king / queen of all I survey. Sensing / experiencing / enjoying is sufficient and therefore it is / would be – not necessary for me to possess “mine” nor for you to receive (“share”) in what is not mine to begin with. These were feelings of mine (I possessed) when I was still a six-year-old child.


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