Is Religion Bad for Kids?

Imagine with me two different parenting styles: Type A and Type B. When these two types are scientifically compared to one another, and the outcomes of each approach to children are carefully measured, a wide difference emerges. Furthermore, the differences are controlled for factors such as race, age, sex, rural vs. urban residence, region, parental education, number of siblings, whether the mother works, and the presence of a father or male guardian at home.

Still, it emerges that seniors in high school who are raised by the Type A approach, when compared to the Type B approach, are:

  1. Less likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, drink excessively, go to bars, use, sell, or take drugs, get a traffic ticket, argue with their parents, skip school, be suspended or expelled from school, hit their teachers, be violent, and commit a variety of crimes from shoplifting to armed robbery.
  2. In addition to avoiding these negative behaviors, they are more likely to exercise, play sports, volunteer, and participate in student government.

As a parent who wants the very best for your child, on the basis of this data, which parenting approach makes more sense? If you want your children to be physically active, serving in the community, and leaders at their school, while avoiding violent behavior, criminal activity and drug use, you’re better off with the Type A approach.

If I told you that these Type A kids are those without any religious involvement, what would you say?

Wouldn’t this be good evidence that secular kids outperform religious ones? Doesn’t it show that churches, synagogues, and mosques are not improving society, but are actually having a negative effect on our kids?

In fact, maybe there are even some good explanations for why religious involvement fails to have a constructive effect on the lives of children.

For instance, Richard Dawkins has strongly suggested that children involved in Catholic churches are more likely to suffer physical, psychological and emotional abuse. He believes that the “extreme threat of violence and pain”, as taught by the doctrine of hell, is enough to so terrify children that they will be scarred for life.

In light of these problems, Dawkins argues, in strong agreement with Nicholas Humphrey, that “we should work to free the children of the world from the religions which, with parental approval, damage minds too young to understand what is happening to them.”

As Dawkins quotes Humphrey, the problem is so bad that:

We should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.

The flow of his argument is clear: teaching the Bible is a kind of intellectual prison. If we wouldn’t let parents lock their kids in an actual dungeon, why should we allow them to lock their kids in an intellectual one? Therefore, it logically follows, it should be a criminal act for parents to teach their own children that the Bible is true.

Remember, Nicholas Humphrey isn’t some oddball. Richard Dawkins calls him a “distinguished psychologist.” He has held academic positions at Oxford University, Cambridge University and the London School of Economics.

To summarize so far: given that religious education has far worse outcomes than secular upbringings, we need to discourage parents from raising their kids to believe in God, and instead encourage scientific understanding and free thinking. What could be the solution?

Camp Quest promotes itself as part of the solution. According to their website, Camp Quest is a summer camp:

Particularly geared towards building a community for children from atheist, agnostic, humanist and other freethinking families. Our goal is to provide a place where children can explore their developing worldviews, ask questions, and make friends in an environment that is supportive of critical thinking and skepticism.

In other words, Camp Quest encourages children to be less religious. So I wonder, why doesn’t Camp Quest use their website to promote the sociological research demonstrating the value of non-belief, skepticism, and a lack of religious participation? Of all the summer camps out there, surely a community that is “supportive of critical thinking” would want to highlight the scientific research that supports their model, as well as interact with the scientific research that contradicts their approach.

Here’s my second question: in light of the above, what possible reasons can Christians and other religious people give to support their style of parenting?

The main reason is that, in actual fact, the Type A outcomes are for the most religious high school seniors when contrasted with the least religious high school seniors.

So the data leads us to the conclusion that parents can strengthen the likelihood of good outcomes for their children, not by sending them to Camp Quest, but by fostering religious commitment for their children. The study quoted above is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, a large number of studies demonstrate positive physical, emotional, and psychological benefits, all associated with greater rather than lesser religiosity.

For instance, other studies have shown that the more religious parents are, the more likely the are to have strong and supportive relationships with their children. These positive effects of religion include:

  • Mothers who became more religious throughout the first 18 years of their child’s life reported a better relationship with that child, regardless of the level of their religious practice before the child was born.
  • Mothers who attended religious services less often over time reported a lower-quality relationship with their adult child.
  • Grandmothers’ religious practice illustrates an intergenerational influence. The more religious a mother’s mother is, the more likely the mother has a good relationship with her own child.
  • Greater religious practice of fathers is associated with better relationships with their children, higher expectations for good relationships in the future, a greater investment in their relationships with their children, a greater sense of obligation to stay in regular contact with their children, and a greater likelihood of supporting their children and grandchildren.
  • Compared with fathers who had no religious affiliation, those who attended religious services frequently were more likely to monitor their children, praise and hug their children, and spend time with their children.

Are these studies just cherry-picked in favor of religion? According to one review of the literature, which involved “a larger systematic review of 850 studies on the religion-mental health relationship published during the 20th Century”t:

The majority of well-conducted studies found that higher levels of religious involvement are positively associated with indicators of psychological well-being (life satisfaction, happiness, positive affect, and higher morale) and with less depression, suicidal thoughts and behavior, drug/alcohol use/abuse. Usually the positive impact of religious involvement on mental health is more robust among people under stressful circumstances (the elderly, and those with disability and medical illness).

The fact is that Dawkins and Humphrey, for all their rhetorical flair, have unsupported theories about the effects of religion on children and families, theories which are not supported by the scientific research. They are ‘leaps of faith’, in line with their preconceived secularism, rather than sober deductions from a look at the evidence. Likewise, Camp Quest is encouraging children to adopt exactly the wrong kind of worldview. From the data above, it appears that a religious summer camp is a distinctively better choice for the development of children.

There’s two important caveats: first, these studies certainly don’t show that every religious upbringing is good for kids. If anything, we’ve all heard one too many stories where the parents’ religious commitment was part of the family dysfunction. In my experience, it is the Christian gospel which is most powerful in counteracting the potential negative effects of religion. The gospel leads to human flourishing in a thousand different ways. To give just one example: as we learn about the radical love of God, and internalize God’s amazing acceptance of us as we turn to him for forgiveness, we are transformed to offer a similar love and service to one another. Families that are full of love, acceptance, honesty, and forgiveness are healthy families.

The second caveat is that we typically cannot participate in religious activity ‘just because it works,’ either for us or for our children. At some point we also need to know whether or not the beliefs taught there are reasonable and true.  Mere pragmatism only gets us so far.

Still, on the basis of these studies, the evidence-based conclusion is that religion is good for kids, good for their parents, and good for society overall.