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Is religion good for children?

Harvard study indicates religious upbringing helps adolescents navigate life’s challenges

Surprisingly for a scientist, Richard Dawkins supports his charge on the long-term psychological damage of a religious upbringing with little more than anecdotes. Photograph: Alan Betson

Religion in Ireland is currently under strong and persistent criticism from liberal commentators. One frequently heard criticism is that it is seriously wrong to “indoctrinate” young children in religious dogma, a charge that, in practice, seems to be aimed almost exclusively at the Catholic Church – most liberal critics go all coy when other religions are mentioned.

As usual, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coins the most caustic criticisms, for example his infamous remark in the context of the sexual abuse of a child: “Horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place” (The God Delusion, Bantam Press, 2006).

Surprisingly for a scientist, Dawkins supports his charge with little more than anecdotes. But what does scientific investigation tell us about the merits of a religious upbringing? The latest study by Harvard University scientists Ying Chen and Tyler VanderWeele (American Journal of Epidemiology) reports profound positive effects.

Positive effects

A considerable body of existing research correlates religion with better health and wellbeing in adults. Some of this research suggests religion has even greater positive effects at younger ages. Chen and VanderWeele’s research targets adolescence and young adulthood where many social, behavioural and developmental challenges are encountered. Their results indicate a religious upbringing greatly helps adolescents to navigate these challenges and also brings about many health and well-being outcomes in young adulthood.

The Harvard workers studied more than 5,000 adolescents, followed them up for over eight years and took particular care to control for many variables in order to isolate the effect of religious upbringing. For example, religious upbringing was assessed eight to 14 years before the health and psychological outcomes were measured in order to establish the temporal order of the relationships.

The study found significant effects indicating that the practice of religion and prayer/meditation can help adolescents/young adults to successfully navigate life’s challenges. Specifically the study found those who regularly attend religious services, at least once weekly, are 12 per cent less likely to suffer from depression, 33 per cent less likely to use illegal drugs, 18 per cent more likely to report high levels of happiness and 87 per cent more likely to have high levels of forgiveness compared with those who never attend religious services.

And those who pray/meditate frequently, at least once a day, are 30 per cent less likely to start having sex at a young age, 40 per cent less likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease, 38 per cent more likely to volunteer for community service and 47 per cent more likely to have a strong sense of purpose in life, compared with those who never pray.

The authors acknowledge the difficulty of proving causality in an observational study such as this but insist that their well-controlled study offers strong evidence that religious upbringing contributes positively to health and wellbeing outcomes.

But what about the bad things we know can happen in religious institutions that deal with young people, for example the sexual abuse scandals? Commenting on their study, author VanderWeele condemns these abuses and calls for both perpetrators of abuse and those who covered up this abuse to be brought to account. Acknowledging that the overall positive effect of a religious upbringing in no way excuses clerical sexual abuses, he also points out that these abuses do not nullify the positive effects demonstrated in this research.

Shared beliefs

Why does a religious upbringing have such pronounced positive effects on health and wellbeing? VanderWeele speculates, reasonably it seems to me, that regular attendance at religious services and belonging to a community with shared beliefs, practices and values may partly account for the enhanced health and well-being benefits. Also prayer/meditation provides an experience of transcendence that lessens the need for teenagers to look towards drugs and risky sexual behaviour seeking “something more”.

This research is statistical, averaging all the positive and negative experiences, and finds that the overall effects of a religious upbringing are distinctly positive. It follows, therefore, that the abolition of religious upbringing would very likely lead to worse average health and wellbeing outcomes. Dawkins’ assertions about the dangers inherent in a religious upbringing are wrong.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC