A new study published by Current Biology (hat tip: OregonLive) explores the degree to which religion is linked to children's generosity to strangers. "While it is generally accepted that religion contours people’s moral judgments and prosocial behavior, the relation between religiosity and morality is a contentious one," researchers stated.
The conclusions reached in the study are likely to be viewed as even more contentious.
The study involved 1,170 children ages 5 to 12 from six countries. The kids played a game that involved doling out stickers to anonymous participants in their peer group. In another experiment, kids were asked to weigh in on the proper level of punishment for hypothetical examples of "everyday mundane interpersonal harm that occur in schools," presumably stuff like playing games unfairly or hurting someone else's feelings.
"Across all countries, parents in religious households reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life than non-religious parents," the study's authors wrote. "However, religiousness was inversely predictive of children’s altruism and positively correlated with their punitive tendencies."
In other words, children raised in religious households were found to be harsher in cracking down on bad behavior, while also being less generous in terms of giving to others. "Our 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," the study states.
Previous studies, mind you, have indicated that Americans with a religious affiliation are more likely to give to charity than people who don't identify with any religion. Therefore, religious folks are generally deemed more generous. Yet atheist groups point out that the charitable giving described above includes donations made to the church and faith-based charities—which is where the lion's share of all American charity goes.
So religious people may indeed be more generous, but only in terms of giving to the church rather than charity in general. Maybe the religious children in the study would have given away more stickers if they thought they were going to the church, rather than to other kids.