The new generation of parents aren’t as religious as those before them, which means that more families than ever are raising children without formal religion. In light of this trend, a study was performed comparing religious and atheist children that showed atheist children tend to behave in a significantly more altruistic and moral fashion. This is contrary to the long-held belief that religion would provide a stronger sense of morality. Rather than denigrate parents raising their kids with religion, we should look at this study as proof that you don’t have to go to church to raise good kids.
According to studies done by Quartz, the Millennial generation is largely shying away from affiliating with any kind of religion. They noted that 28% of college students in 2014 say they’ve never attended a religious service compared with 17% in 1969. This same study also shows that while 76% of adults considered Generation X are religious, only 65% of Millennials say the same. That means the coming generation of kids will arguably be the least religious of any before them and as such, it’s important they’re accepted and understood.
A recent study from the journal Current Biology compared 1,100 Christian, Muslim and atheist kids using an experiment called “the dictator game.” From The Daily Beast, the findings:
In this game, children were shown 30 stickers and told that they could pick their favorite 10 to keep for themselves. The children were then each told that the experimenter didn’t have enough time to play this game with everyone, so some of the children at their school wouldn’t get any stickers. What the results showed was that children from Christian and Muslim households were both significantly less generous than children from non-religious households when it came to sharing their stickers with anonymous peers.
According to the authors of the study, these findings might be due to a phenomenon called “moral licensing,” which means that people might see themselves as being more moral than others because they do something moral, such as attend church. Because of that mindset, they might be less likely to behave in a moral fashion because they think that just by being “religious,” they are already moral enough. In this study, it’s possible the atheist kids might be basing their response on concern for their own behavior because they aren’t already praying and going to church, which could be causing religious kids to think they’re moral enough already.
The religious kids were also shown to mete out harsher punishments to people who pushed or bumped into others. As The Daily Beast notes, this could be out of a greater concern for justice on the part of the religious children, or it could mean that atheist kids are more tolerant and willing to forgive.
Overall, the study proves something that we all need to understand with more children than ever growing up in non-religious households — that religion and moral behavior aren’t inextricably linked. Just because a child is raised in a religious family attending church doesn’t mean they will automatically behave in a more moral fashion. Conversely, being raised without religion doesn’t mean a child has no moral compass or that they will behave badly because they have no higher power to be held accountable to. It appears the opposite is true.
From the standpoint of someone who broke from their Catholic faith and decided not to affiliate with any formal religion, this is comforting to hear. Since I was raised with religion and opted not to go that route with my children, I’ve had some lingering doubt about whether I could give them the right kind of upbringing without the help of a church. I’m already finding that my kids are kind friends with big hearts, but hearing it confirmed by science is a relief. All any parent wants to know is that they’re doing right by their children and this study is a nice affirmation for those of us raising kids without religion.