Mike the Psych's Blog

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Religious children more selfish, not a good sign

Given the current problems with religious fundamentalists trying to influence school policies about uniforms and the way children are taught British values – for example the way  head teacher Neena Lall, of St Stephen’s state primary in east London, who tried to prevent children under the age of eight from wearing the hijab in class, was attacked by muslim fundamentalists, I thought it worth while updating and re-posting this from one of my other blogs two years ago.

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The idea that religious children might be more selfish  may seem counter-intuitive as you might expect people with strong religious beliefs to be “better” people.

However a study carried out by the University of Chicago of children around the world aged 5 to 12 found that children brought up in a religious families were more selfish than those from atheist or agnostic ones. And the more they went to their place of worship, be it church or mosque, the more selfish they were.

The study used a test of altruism and involved sharing stickers with anonymous children in their school. The idea was to test the notion that being religious has positive associations with self-control and moral behaviours. Jean Decety, the lead author of the study, says this view is so deeply embedded that in some countries e.g. the USA, not being religious can make you a morally suspect person.

While Jesus may have believed in the social benefits of sharing in this study it was the non-believers who demonstrated the principle not his followers. Furthermore muslim children were more likely to believe that when their peers transgressed they should receive more punitive punishments.

This research fits with earlier studies which showed that religious people were the most selfish. And the point in a colleague’s blog about not needing to be religious to have moral values seems borne out by this research.

Why should this be the case? One view is that it is due to what is called “moral licensing when people use something good to justify something bad” without realising what they are doing. Religious people believe they have done something good simply by being religious and this gives them the licence to do something bad.

Doing something which strengthens their positive self-image makes them less worried about the consequences of doing something immoral. Decety said “I hope people begin to understand that religion is not a guarantee for morality and that religion and morality are two different things. Societies that cultivate secular values are more peaceful and generally “healthier” than those countries which anchor or base their values in religion

Personally I don’t think we should have any faith schools as I believe they are divisive. And when the Chief Inspector of Schools Amanda Spielman is warning that religious extremists are using schools to narrow children’s horizons and “pervert education”, I think that supports my view. She said some community leaders see schools as vehicles to “indoctrinate impressionable minds” – with extremist ideology in some cases. This is really worrying as there is good evidence that religious societies are more violent and suffer more anti-social behaviour than more secular ones.

 

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