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Children, religion, and morality

November 8, 2015

Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, led the study getting so much attention, claiming that religious children are less altruistic and more punitive than non-religious children. (Cite.) And that religious parents nonetheless view their own children as more empathetic than other children. Three aspects of this research jump out. First, the study looked at families from several nations. If the results hold, this isn’t a purely an aspect of American or European culture. Second, the researchers looked not just at religious identification, but at the degree of religious practice, and the results varied with that.

Third, this isn’t a study of religion generally, but of two similar religions, Christianity and Islam. While some Buddhist and Hindu families were included in the study, their numbers were too few to be meaningful and the authors rightfully restricted their analysis to Christian, Muslim, and secular families. While there is much variance across sects, both those religions teach a singular, all-powerful god who judges the world. I don’t find it too surprising that children who learn that at an early age tend to be more punitive and less altruistic in their outlook than those who don’t.

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