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Is religion bad for children?

13 November 2015

CHILDREN brought up in religious homes are less likely to be altruistic than those brought up in non-religious homes. This is the surprising conclusion reported in the journal Current Biology (Elsevier Ltd, 2015).

It is based on research on more than 1000 children in six countries, the majority of whom were Christian or Muslim. It suggests that religious children are less likely to share with others, and that they are also more judgmental and believe in harsher punishments for those who transgress.

The researchers claim that their work undermines the often made assumption that religion has a positive input into morality. They suggest that the reverse is the case, and that “the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness — in fact, it will do just the opposite.”

This is dismaying news for those who see the family as the primary place of Christian nurture, and want to believe that family-based faith contributes to social morality. Yet I wonder whether there might be an explanation of the findings which the researchers did not consider.

The children they tested were aged between six and 12. This is the age at which children are developing a sense of self. Religion is one of the factors in distinguishing self from others. I am this, and not that. I belong to this group, and not that one.

When I was about six, I remember a fierce playground game of Protestants against Catholics. I took the Catholic side (my mother had been Catholic). It was a mildly aggressive, competitive game, in which much energy was expended, and no one got hurt. The tendency of children to understand religion as something that distinguishes them from others is one reason why many schools (my own secondary school included) banned the wearing of crosses, stars of David, or other religious symbols.

This all makes me wonder whether being brought up religious might involve a necessary loss of innocence. You get the message that you are special, and interpret it as meaning that you are superior and different. Perhaps you fail to develop empathy at the rate of the non-religious because you are somewhat insulated from the need to seek others’ approval.

But this is a phase. The point is, of course, that we move on. The child bigot gradually learns about his or her own fallibility, and it is from this that empathy develops. Selfishness is transcended, as we come to experience forgiveness and our dependency on others.

I hope this research is not trumpeted as proof that religion is bad for children. It might be truer to conclude that religion makes us worse before it makes us better.

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