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Science journal retracts study claiming religious upbringing makes kids less generous

The original researchers made a coding error in the handling of data from multiple countries.
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Calvin Freiburger By Calvin Freiburger

Calvin Freiburger By Calvin Freiburger

September 30, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – A biology journal has retracted a paper that erroneously claimed that religious upbringing makes children less generous, four years after its original release.

In 2015, Current Biology published a paper by Jean Decety and a team of researchers finding that “children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households.”

Azim Shariff, another researcher on behavior and religiosity, found the findings suspicious, Psychology Today reports, so he requested the data from Decety and performed his own analysis. Shariff found that the original researchers made a coding error in the handling of data from multiple countries. The next year Current Biology published Shariff’s analysis, which found “no significant effect for religious affiliation on generosity.” 

Current Biology finally retracted the original paper last month, and supplemented with a link to Shariff’s work and a note from the original authors.

“When we reanalyzed these data to correct this error, we found that country of origin, rather than religious affiliation, is the primary predictor of several of the outcomes,” it reads. “While our title finding that increased household religiousness predicts less sharing in children remains significant, we feel it necessary to explicitly correct the scientific record, and we are therefore retracting the article. We apologize to the scientific community for any inconvenience caused.”

Despite the correction, Shariff’s paper only received a fraction of the media coverage Decety’s original enjoyed; Psychology Today notes that articles have been published citing the flawed piece as recently as August 2019.

“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,” epidemiologist Tyler VanderWeele of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health writes. “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.”

A wealth of research over the years has found that religious Americans tend to donate more time as well as money to charitable causes than non-religious Americans.


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