Religious children are more selfish than atheist children, say US neuroscientists

Religious parents think their child is more altruistic than secular children

Children from religious families are less generous and altruistic than their atheist contempories, a study has suggested

According to research published in Current Biology, those who were Christian and Muslim - other religions were not assessed - agreed with harsher punishments, were less generous when sharing and had a tendency to correct others.

Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, who looked at more than 1,000 children from around the world, said religion can encourage people to act badly because they think they have already done something "good" - like praying - at another time.

This is called "moral licensing", said Professor Decety.

"It’s an unconscious bias. They don’t even see that’s not compatible with what they’ve been learning in church," he said, according to Forbes.

Two tests were carried out to assess the levels of altruism and meanness in the five- to 12-year-olds. In the first, secular children, Christian children and Muslim children were all asked to share 30 stickers with another child - with children of no religion sharing more stickers with others.

In the second test, the children watched videos of someone mildly pushing or shoving someone else and were asked to rate how "mean" the action was, and the level of appropriate punishment.

Compared to the other two groups, Muslims thought harmful actions were meaner and believed in harsher punishment. Christians judged the harm to be meaner than secular children - though there was no difference in their punitive ratings. 

Yet religious parents believed, when questioned, that their child would be more altruistic than their faithless counterparts - appearing to be proven wrong in this study.

Religion may lead children to be more fixed in their view of what is right and wrong, and less ethical when considering different situations, the study concluded.