Organized religion is a cornerstone of spiritual community and culture around the world. Religion, especially religious education, also attracts secular support because many believe that religion fosters morality. A majority of the United States believes that faith in a deity is necessary to being a moral person.

In principle, religion’s emphasis on morality can smooth wrinkles out of the social fabric. Along those lines, believers are often instructed to act selflessly towards others. Islam places an emphasis on charity and alms-giving, Christianity on loving your neighbor as yourself. Taoist ethics, derived from the qualities of water, include the principle of selflessness

However, new research conducted in six countries around the world suggests that a religious upbringing may actually yield children who are less altruistic. Over 1000 children ages five to twelve took part in the study, from the United States, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa, and China. By finding that religious-raised children are less altruistic in the laboratory, the study alerts us to the possibility that religion might not have the wholesome effects we expect on the development of morality. The social practice of religion can complicate the precepts of a religious text. But in order to interpret these findings, we have to first look at how to test morality.

In an experiment snappily named the dictator game, a child designated “dictator” is tested for altruistic tendencies. This dictator child is conferred with great power to decide whether to share stickers with others. Researchers present the child with thirty stickers and instruct her to take ten favorite stickers. The researchers carefully mention that there isn’t time to play this game with everyone, setting up the main part of the experiment: to share or not to share. The child is given two envelopes and asked whether she will share stickers with other children at the school who cannot play the game. While the researcher faces the wall, the child can slip some stickers into the donation envelope and some into the other envelope to keep.

As the researchers expected, younger children were less likely to share stickers than older children. Also consistent with previous studies, children from a wealthier socioeconomic status shared more. More surprising was the tendency of children from religious households to share less than those from nonreligious backgrounds. When separated and analyzed by specific religion, the finding remained: children from both Christian and Muslim families on average shared less than nonreligious children. (Other religious designations were not represented in large enough numbers for separate statistical comparison.) Older kids from all backgrounds shared more than younger ones, but the tendency for religious children to share less than similar-aged children became more pronounced with age. The authors think this could be due to cumulative effects of time spent growing up in a religious household. While the large numbers of subjects strengthens the finding of a real difference between the groups of children, the actual disparity in typical sharing was about one sticker. We need to know if the gap in sticker sharing is meaningful in the real world.

There are difficulties in devising experiments to look for religion’s effect on selflessness. Some would argue that childhood is the best age to study effects of a religious upbringing, when education’s effects may be more immediate and powerful. Others would argue that only as adults do we begin to use a mature moral compass, and this stage is more important. In adults, religiousness has been linked with greater charitable giving and generosity, but a common problem of these studies is relying on surveys. While surveys are useful for collecting information en masse, people may report giving more to charity because they believe in contributing, even if they didn’t live up to their own expectations. We all know our memories are less than perfect, and it’s possible that people who are regularly encouraged to perform charitable acts may overestimate their contributions on a survey. Clearly, the best way to study the issue is using experiments in which people actually share items (like stickers) or by looking at records of giving.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy took the second approach by aggregating IRS charitable deductions to compare ZIP codes in terms of factors like religious identification, though the analysis was restricted to tax deductions and doesn’t tell us about individuals. By integrating statistics on religious affiliations of each area, the Chronicle’s study found that religious areas gave more to charity. What the data doesn’t tell is whether the extra contributions go to support local religious congregations and religious organizations. In the end, what do we call generosity to one’s own group?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines altruism as “disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others,” but categorizing a behavior as entirely selfless has troubled scholars for years. Books like The Selfish Gene,published in 1976, brought to the public the idea that what seems like altruism may actually be selfish on a genetic level if the act of kindness is directed to closely-related individuals. A closely related individual bears similar genetic material, so helping relatives could be construed as “selfish” behavior if you imagine a gene helping its likeness housed in another body. Alternatively, expecting help in the future could lead a self-interested individual to “perform” altruism. He might gain the esteem of the community by helping others publicly, while consciously or unconsciously waiting for the good deeds to pay off.

However, this strict terminology is not what we intend in everyday speech. Broadly, altruism is generosity. In the case of the current study, the researchers corralled altruism into donation of stickers to anonymous schoolmates. Perhaps a child refuses to donate stickers into an envelope so that he can take them home and share with his siblings or friends rather than a stranger. Does that qualify more as nepotism or generosity? If the children from religious backgrounds also happened to have more siblings, then the results might actually reveal a link between siblings and stickers. Correlation is a tricky indicator of causation, as we all know. Aside from this altruism test, are there other indicators of morality?

Religion often instructs believers in forgiveness and moral justice. To test children’s reactions to interpersonal conflict, the researchers showed cartoons of people pushing or bumping one another. Researchers determined that Muslim children rated the pushing or bumping as more “mean” than Christian children did, and in turn Christian children rated the videos as more mean than nonreligious children. When asked to assign punishments for the pushing or bumping, Muslim children tended to assign higher punishments than Christian and nonreligious children.

Interpretation of these experiments is also difficult. The findings could conceivably signal a stronger sense of justice in Muslim-raised children, and greater sensitivity to the victim for Muslim- and Christian-raised kids. Or, as the paper suggests, the children from nonreligious homes might be less harsh in punishing others. The moral course of action is not clear.

Overall, the study has provoked strong reactions from readers. Some have smugly inflated the findings (religious children as “jerks” ). Others have listed the shortcomings of the research at length. One conservative news source worried that Christian and Muslim children were analyzed in a single group.

The leader of the study, Professor Jean Decety, has stood by his results. Decety mused in an interview that every presidential candidate in the US “has to say that they love the Bible…to make sure that people will vote for them.” Decety argues that his findings “call into question whether religion is vital for moral development – suggesting the secularisation of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness.” Though a proprietary moral high ground for religion is problematic, Decety’s paper leaves questions open. We cannot confirm that religious upbringings cause differences in sharing and punishment, or that these differences are large enough to be meaningful in adults, but the questions raised are well worth answering.