Journal retracts article claiming religious children less generous than nonreligious

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A scholarly article that claimed children raised in religious households were less generous than children raised in nonreligious households has now been retracted. 

The journal article, titled "The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World," published in 2015 by Jean Decety and several others in Current Biology, received widespread media coverage when it was first published but has since been withdrawn due to an error, the authors said. 

Writing in Psychology Today, Tyler J. VanderWeele said the error was discovered by scholar Azim Shariff whose own research into the subject arrived at the opposite conclusion, which is that in most settings religious participation increased generosity. VanderWeele is a professor of epidemiology at Harvard University's school of public health and directs the Human Flourishing Program.

The data in Decety's paper was collected across numerous countries, including the United States, Canada, and Turkey, and the country information had been coded as “1, 2, 3."

"Although Decety’s paper 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," he noted.

When correctly analyzed, using separate indicators for each nation, Decety’s “findings” about religious children being more selfish vanished.

In 2016, Shariff’s analysis of Decety's numbers and the correction was published in the same journal, Current Biology.

Eighty media outlets, including prominent publications such as The Economist, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and Scientific American, covered Decety's initial incorrect study, but only four covered the correction.

Decety is a professor and developmental social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago.

Last month, Current Biology finally withdrew the paper and the journal's website now contains a note from the 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. 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," the retraction reads.

VanderWeele's own work on the subject of religious practice and generosity mirrors Shariff's re-analysis of Decety's incorrect study.

He and his colleagues at Harvard's Human Flourishing program "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," he wrote.

"Those who attended services regularly were also 87 percent more likely to subsequently have high levels of forgiveness; and those who prayed and meditated 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."

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