It is widely believed that religion plays an essential role in a child’s moral and psychological development. However, according to an international study published by the University of Chicago, children raised in religious homes may not be as kind, empathetic or altruistic as you might think [1]. The study analyzed the behavior and responses from 1,170 children, aged between 5 and 12 years as they participated in several tasks to determine their altruism and moral sensitivity.

Surprising Test Results

The results showed that children growing up in religious homes are less likely to share with others than children from atheistic or non-religious homes [2]. During one of the tasks, the children were each given 10 random stickers and encouraged to share with another child who was hidden behind a screen. This was done to objectively evaluate each child’s reaction. It was discovered that children from religious families were significantly less likely to share their stickers than those from non-religious families.

It was also discovered that at any age, children from non-religious homes were more generous and more forgiving than those from religious families. “These results challenge the widely held belief that religion promotes prosocial behavior and suggests that the secularization of one’s background does not influence their human kindness negatively. On the contrary, it does the opposite.” Prof. Jean Decety, director of the University of Chicago NeuroSuite. These findings raise the question of the importance of religion in morals development.

Religion and Moral Development

Interestingly enough, the study showed that the older the children are the more likely they are to share. Although this was consistent with previous studies, it was discovered that children from religious households were still less altruistic than their counterparts; even the older ones. On the contrary, there was a negative relationship between religion and altruism as it was discovered that children who had a longer experience of living in a religious family were the least likely to share.

The study also found that children from religious homes favored stricter penalties for anti-social behavior. Punishments are usually taken seriously in religious families as religious parents attempted to raise their children to set rules and doctrines. This discovery was not all that surprising as previous studies among religious adults have found that religion shares strong tied with severe disciplinary attitudes toward antisocial behavior [3].

On a surprising note, the study found that religious parents were more likely to report that their children showed more altruism and empathy towards others than non-religious parents [4]. This could be as a result of religious parents choosing to believe that their children were much better behaved and morally developed as a result of their religious practices. It could also mean that they were less in touch with the developmental process of their children.


To be fair, the study does not cover all aspects of child development, religion and altruism, but it does raise some legitimate questions about raising children in households with strict devout laws and warnings of eternal condemnation.


  1. “The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World”, Current Biology. May, 2019.
  2. “Religious upbringing associated with less altruism, study finds”, University of Chicago News. May, 2019.
  3. “Religion, Violence and Conflict Resolution”, Mark Gopin. Portland State University. May, 2019.
  4. “Study finds that children raised without religion show more empathy and kindness”, Danthropology. November, 2015.
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