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Giving Up

Among Christians it's generally considered a truism that a religious upringing instills good behaviour in children. But scientists at the University of Chicago may have found otherwise.

Developmental neuroscientists have been collaborating with researchers in Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa and Turkey, as well as with other Americans, to study children (aged five to 12) and their families. 1,170 families were involved. 510 identified themselves as Muslim, 280 as Christian, 29 as Jewish, 18 as Buddhist and five as Hindu. A further 323 said they were non-religious, three were agnostic and two ticked a box marked 'other'.

Each child was given 30 stickers and told that they could keep ten. Once a child had chosen some s/he was told that there was not enough time to play the game with all the children at the school, but that s/he could give away some of their stickers to a friend who could not otherwise take part.

The children were given time to think about what they wanted to do, and after they'd made a decision, the scientists noted whether they gave away stickers, and if so, how many. What they discovered may be surprising: children of non-believers were more generous than children of believers.

They gave away an average of 4.1 stickers. Children from a religious background gave away 3.3. This effect was constant regardless of a family's wealth and status, the child's age, or the nationality of the group studied.

Religious children were also more inclined to approve of harsher punishments for harmful and anti-social behavior. Children raised on religion also judged more severely in regards to the assessment of the animated characters' meanness.

'Our findings support the notion that the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact it does just the opposite,' says Jean Decety, the study's lead author.

Decety, whose work focuses on the emergence of morality in children, says the pattern of religious children being less generous may be tied to a phenomenon called 'moral licensing.' This occurs when a person feels permitted - consciously or not - to do something wrong, because they see themselves as a morally correct person.

The study is causing some consternation in the field since it contrasts with similar studies of adults. Azim Shariff, a psychologist at the University of Oregon in Eugene, says that previous research found no overall effect of religion on adults faced with these kind of moral tests.

He praised the scale of the study but suggested that the findings could reflect a developmental stage, producing different results than for adults. He also noted that such controlled tests might not fully capture how people behave in daily life.