Harvard’s School of Public Health recently published important research by Tyler J. VanderWeele and Ying Chen which evidences the positive role played by traditional religion on the development of youth and their health and welfare.
The VanderWeele and Chen study analyzed data from more than 5,000 children and concluded that teens with religious or spiritual practices lead happier and healthier lives in their 20s and beyond. It is somewhat unique in that it tracked children from an early age and followed them into adulthood. The study specifically found that a religious upbringing greatly helps adolescents navigate life’s challenges by providing them with an inner strength that brings about many positive outcomes in young adulthood (including processing and giving expression to emotions).
In particular, those brought up religiously are 47% more likely to have a strong sense of purpose in life, 18% more likely to report high levels of happiness, 12% less likely to suffer from depression, 33% less likely to use illegal drugs, 30% less likely to start having sex at a young age, 40% less likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease, 38% more likely to volunteer for community service, and 87% more likely to have high levels of forgiveness.
Concluding that “the effects of a religious community are profoundly positive,” the study states, “there is evidence that religion is an important social determinant of health over life-course.” By setting boundaries and standards for children, “religion provides directives for personal virtue to help maintain self-control and develop negative attitudes toward certain behaviors.”
In addition, they conclude that “Peer religious youth groups may be an important source of social support and adult role modeling, and they may be an avenue to direct peer influence on behavioral choices. Religious congregations could also connect adolescents to networks and resources in the broader community.”
While this Harvard study joins a multitude of studies with similar findings, it is one of the few dealing with the effect of religious parents on the lives of their children.
The adult studies overwhelmingly found that people of faith tend to be less depressed, less anxious, and far more able to handle the vicissitudes of life than do nonbelievers. A 2015 survey by researchers at the London School of Economics and the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands found that participating in a religious organization was the only social activity associated with sustained happiness.
Benefits of religious upbringing
One of the very first to look at the effects of religion on the development of young children was John Bartkowski, a Mississippi State University sociologist. His 2008 study concluded:
“The kids whose parents regularly attended religious services—especially when both parents did so frequently—and talked with their kids about religion were rated by both parents and teachers as having better self-control, social skills and approaches to learning than kids with non-religious parents.”
Bartkowski postulates three reasons for these benefits. First is the social support provided to parents by their religious network. Such networks usually reinforce the parental messages received in the home. Second, because the dominant values and norms within religious communities tend to be self-sacrificing and pro-family, both adults and children tend to incorporate such principles in their relationships to each other. And, finally, “religious organizations imbue parenting with sacred meaning and significance.”
The latter causality is sometimes referred to as the “sanctification theory”. A study published in Bonn, Germany reinforces the sanctification theory and found that religious affiliation and religiosity have a beneficial effect on the overall physical and psychological health of children ages 6 to 19. An important additional finding is that, “while religious affiliation matters, compared to having no religion, there does not appear to be a consistent significant effect of any particular denomination among the affiliated.”
Policy-Makers Should Pay Heed
The Bonn study referenced likewise confirms important implications for public policy.
“A religion-friendly public policy, even without favoring any one religion, can have positive effects on the population’s health status, even among children, and thereby reduce public expenditures on health care. … In addition, healthier adults generate greater productivity and higher life satisfaction.”
A United Kingdom study reinforces this conclusion by determining that policy makers “cannot afford to be complacent” about the positive influence of religion on family life or “presume that religion only has negative influences.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, the noted commentator on America’s political and social system in the early 19th century, correctly observed (a) religious faith was an indispensable element of a well-functioning society, (b) the absence of religion was both a dangerous and pernicious threat to the well-being of society, and (c) non-believers or secularists should be considered natural enemies of social harmony.
Nevertheless, progressives tend to denigrate the importance of religion in our daily lives. Consider for example the infamous 2008 statement of President Obama in which he portrayed low income Americans as clinging to their religious beliefs in order to avoid the frustrations of a changing economy (“They cling to guns and religion”) and the 2019 swearing in of Senator Krysten Sinema who refused to be sworn in on the customary Holy Bible, opting instead to be sworn in on a secular law book.
This negative attitude toward traditional faith is particularly evident today in the face of modern legislation and cultural trends hostile to the three Abrahamic religions upon which the founders of America premised its constitution and society.
Substantively, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each acknowledge the centrality of the Noahide principles to their religious dogma. All share the ideal of monotheism and a personal relationship with a Heavenly Father. At the Divine revelation at Mount Sinai, of which the Ten Commandments are the centerpiece, the pre-existing universal Noahide laws were reiterated by Moses, the prophet that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each acknowledge as genuinely transmitting these values to their individual belief systems. In fact these principles likely encompasses 75% of the world population: not only the three monotheistic religions but by a circuitous route also Hinduism and Buddhism via the sons which Abraham sent to the East.
Religion versus Secularism
Over 25 years ago, syndicated public affairs columnist William Raspberry perceptively wrote:
“Almost every commentator on the current scene bemoans the increase of violence, lowered ethical standards and loss of civility that mark American society. Is the decline of religious influence part of what is happening to us? Is it not just possible that anti-religious bias masquerading as religious neutrality is costing more than we have been willing to acknowledge?”
The anti-religious bias Raspberry spoke of is part of an ongoing attempt to establish nonbelief in a Deity as the basis of our national government. Historian Wilfred McClay (Univ. of Oklahoma) indicates that “The U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment to the Constitution were not intended to create a purely secular government, neutral or indifferent to religion…The First Amendment…[was intended] to protect against sectarian conflict and exclusiveness and the power grab by some national church.”
McClay distinguishes between two types of secularism: one which recognizes “the legitimacy and even moral necessity of religious faith while preventing any one faith from being established”; and the other, which really becomes an alternative faith that seeks to become the established dominant belief, “hostile or even necessarily suspicious of the public expression of religion.”
Many commentators refer to this latter view as a new religion of secularism. This latter form of secularism is the most dangerous challenge to the West’s traditional way of life as it seeks to expel religion from society and to “liberate” humanity from the religious and metaphysical values of the Noahide laws that undergird the three Abrahamic faiths. Numerous Polls, including a 2013 Harris Poll, a 2015 Pew Report, and a 2018 Gallup poll, confirm that this message is succeeding both in America and around the world.
George Washington, in his farewell address to the American nation, eloquently warned against diminishing religion in the public square.
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. … [L]et us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
While secularists continue to advocate for decreased religiosity, it is important that policymakers become aware of the plethora of studies demonstrating the benefits of religion in society and, in particular, the benefits accruing to youth and the values by which they may live their lives. Clearly the studies cited herein join the many that unearthed numerous benefits to people and society in general by researchers who have looked at the influence of religion on one’s health and well-being.
We need to oppose any efforts to drive G-d out of our public life. “We must rediscover the importance of religion and put G-d back in the foreground of our social and political consciousness.” Creating a purely secular country will inevitably create unimaginable social problems.
Arthur Goldberg is Co-Director of the American based Jewish Institute for Global Awareness (JIFGA), former Co-Director of JONAH, Inc. JIFGA sponsors www.fundingmorality.com, a crowd-funding site for those committed to Biblical values. He has authored Light in the Closet: Torah, Homosexuality, and the Power to Change. You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org