Oct 1, 2019

Does a Religious Upbringing Promote Generosity or Not?

Does a Religious Upbringing Promote Generosity or Not?
An erroneous paper on religion and generosity is finally retracted.

Tyler J. VanderWeele Ph.D.
Psychology Today
Posted Sep 25, 2019

In 2015, a paper by Jean Decety and co-authors reported that children who were brought up religiously were less generous. The paper received a great deal of attention, and was covered by over 80 media outlets including The Economist, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and Scientific American. As it turned out, however, the paper by Decety was wrong. Another scholar, Azim Shariff, a leading expert on religion and pro-social behavior, was surprised by the results, as his own research and meta-analysis (combining evidence across studies from many authors) indicated that religious participation, in most settings, increased generosity. Shariff requested the data to try to understand more clearly what might explain the discrepancy.

Questioning the Reports

To Decety’s credit, he released the data. And upon re-analysis, Shariff discovered that the results were due to a coding error. The data had been collected across numerous countries, e.g. United States, Canada, Turkey, etc. and the country information had been coded as “1, 2, 3…” Although Decety’s paper had reported that they had controlled for country, they had accidentally not controlled for each country, but just treated it as a single continuous variable so that, for example “Canada” (coded as 2) was twice the “United States” (coded as 1). Regardless of what one might think about the relative merits and rankings of countries, this is obviously not the right way to analyze data. When it was correctly analyzed, using separate indicators for each country, Decety’s “findings” disappeared. Shariff’s re-analysis and correction was published in the same journal, Current Biology, in 2016. The media, however, did not follow along. While it covered extensively the initial incorrect results, only four media outlets picked up the correction.

In fact, Decety’s paper has continued to be cited in media articles on religion. Just last month two such articles appeared (one on Buzzworthy and one on TruthTheory) citing Decety’s paper that religious children were less generous. The paper’s influence seems to continue even after it has been shown to be wrong.

Last month, however, the journal, Current Biology, at last formally retracted the paper. If one looks for the paper on the journal’s website, it gives notice of the retraction by the authors. Correction mechanisms in science can sometimes work slowly, but they did, in the end, seem to be effective here. More work still needs to be done as to how this might translate into corrections in media reporting as well: The two articles above were both published after the formal retraction of the paper.

Religious Upbringing and Flourishing in Young Adulthood

Our own research on the topic at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, published last year in a paper in the American Journal of Epidemiology, has likewise suggested results more in line with Shariff’s meta-analysis. Moreover, rather than looking at whether religious children are more or less generous as children, we examined how a religious upbringing shaped children over time from adolescence into young adulthood. We found that during childhood and adolescence, those who attended religious services regularly were subsequently 29 percent more likely to have high levels of volunteering than those who did not. Those who attended services regularly were also 87 percent more likely to subsequently have high levels of forgiveness; and those who prayed and mediated regularly were 47 percent more likely to have a high sense of mission. Again, the effects of a religious upbringing seemed to contribute to a greater generosity toward others many years later during young adulthood.

Our study also indicated that those who were raised religiously were also protected from what are sometimes called the “big three” dangers of adolescence: depression, drug use, and risky behaviors. They were also more likely to have higher levels happiness in young adulthood.

In addition to the primary research paper, we also published a more accessible summary of the study and results for a general reader with the Institute for Family Studies, and earlier this year we published an op-ed in USA Today exploring what our results might mean for parents. The Christian Medical and Dental Association ran a recent podcast on the research.

Implications for Families?

The implications for families and parents arguably need to be more nuanced. While health and generosity are very important to people, decisions about religion are usually not made only on those grounds. Rather, religious beliefs and commitments are shaped by values, systems of meaning, experiences, relationships, evidence, and truth claims about the divine. These are the types of considerations many parents use in making decisions about religious commitments with regard to their family.

While the evidence from our study and others may make the benefits of religious practice clear, recent sexual abuse scandals have left many parents wondering whether they should pull children out of religious communities. Certainly, these instances of abuse need to be addressed and justice served, and those who covered up the abuse cases need to be held accountable. However, what our research indicates is that, on average, the effects of religious community are profoundly positive. These are averages across all positive and all negative experiences; they do not in any way excuse the incidents of harm by religious leaders or institutions, but they do make clear the substantial benefits of religious practice overall. Ceasing those practices could, on average, likely lead to worse health and well-being outcomes. It would, on average at least, lead to more harm than good. The sexual abuse scandals need to be addressed, but abandoning religious practice may not be the best response.

Modern life is busy, and it can take a strong commitment to participate in a community, to set time aside for prayer or meditation, and to encourage children in these practices. Our study suggests that for those who already hold these beliefs, setting such time aside in parenting, and for adolescents to engage in these practices, is worthwhile. The evidence to date does suggest that for those who already hold religious commitments, participation in religious community will increase generosity, and general well-being, in addition, of course, to religion’s primary end of approaching the divine.


Chen, Y. and VanderWeele, T.J. (2018). Associations of religious upbringing with subsequent health and well-being from adolescence to young adulthood: an outcome-wide analysis. American Journal of Epidemiology, 187:2355–2364.


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