Scientific American recently published an article discussing research into altruism in children, specifically looking at differences between children of religious backgrounds and those without religious backgrounds.  Over one thousand children took part in a study that examined sticker sharing behavior.  The children were sampled from six countries and ranged in age from five to twelve.  The researchers found that children from religious households shared less than those from nonreligious households.

I find it remarkable that the researchers expected to find much altruism at all among children of this age.  Before the age of seven or so, children really do not exhibit much in the way of moral thinking or behavior at all.  Mainly, they attempt to achieve what they want whenever possible while avoiding punishment.  Strict reciprocity is about the limit of their moral practice.  After the age of seven, children mainly want to gain the approval of significant others, and still want to avoid punishment while obtaining their goals.  They adopt a conventional, law-and-order type of moral reasoning, which does not lend itself to altruism to any great extent.  This type of study does not reveal much about religious or nonreligious moral thinking as much as it does about moral development.  If the researchers wanted to examine the effects of religious upbringing on moral behavior, they could just as easily have turned to a sample of adults and used a behavioral test geared toward this end.


…the actual disparity [between religious and nonreligious children] in typical sharing was about one sticker.


What is interesting about this study is the fact that there was little difference between the two groups in the actual number of stickers shared.

Not at all surprisingly, the study shows that religious children considered unkind behavior to be worse and meriting greater punishment than did nonreligious children.  This fits exactly with the law-and-order thinking of conventional morality that is fostered by mainstream religions.  Again, this merely supports previously understood moral developmental theory.

I do need to point out here that a religious upbringing itself does not in any way ensure altruistic or even basically moral behavior in adults.  Mainstream religions generally do not foster very advanced moral functioning.  Rather, a conventional worldview and thinking are fostered, and those who adhere to these conventional religions may never advance to a level of postconventional morality that involves a wider perspective and more complex, comprehensive understanding of others, particularly others from different backgrounds.  When conventional people are faced with the broader thinking of postconventional morality, they are threatened and resistant, because they perceive it as immoral.  Much of our current political turmoil is because of this phenomenon.  Society is moving ahead in many ways, with people calling for more inclusive and complex ways of thinking and organizing ourselves.  For those who have not developed beyond conventional moral thinking, this is deeply wrong, and they will fight it strenuously.  They simply do not have the ability to judge from a broader perspective.

Although religion can provide adequate moral guidance, moral guidance also can be obtained from secular sources.  Religion’s unique contribution is telling us why we should engage in moral behavior.  Contemplative religion goes even further and shows us why.


Copyright © 2016 Teresa Chupp.  All rights reserved.


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