SALT LAKE CITY — Youths who regularly attend religious services, pray or meditate may get a well-being boost that sticks around into young adulthood, according to a new Harvard study that joins a body of research showing benefits from religiosity.

Senior author and epidemiologist Tyler J. VanderWeele knows most people don't make decisions about religion based on health, but rather on beliefs, values, experiences and relationships. "However, for parents and children who already hold religious beliefs, such religious and spiritual practices could be encouraged both for their own sake as well as to promote health and well-being," said Vanderweele, a professor in Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The study, by VanderWeele and Harvard research scientist Ying Chen, is published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Among the findings, youths who attended religious services at least weekly as children and adolescents were:

  • About 18 percent more apt to report higher happiness between ages 23-30 than those who didn't
  • 29 percent more likely to be volunteers
  • 33 percent less likely to use illegal drugs

Those who prayed or meditated at least daily as kids were, as young adults:

  • 16 percent more likely to report higher happiness
  • 30 percent less likely to have sex at a young age
  • 40 percent less likely to have a sexually transmitted disease

The researchers said while adult literature indicates worship service attendance has greater impact on health, compared to meditation and prayer, for youths the benefits are equal or perhaps even slightly less.

"One possible explanation is religious attendance patterns may be shaped by parents, but prayer and meditation may reflect their own beliefs, Chen said.

The study was conducted against a background of national decline in religious service attendance and some controversy, including sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and parents who wonder if their kids should be in religious settings at all, the researchers said.

Chen said she and VanderWeele wanted a well-designed study to get at facts, using rigorous science.

"The research indicates that, on average, the effects of a religious community are profoundly positive," VanderWeele told the Deseret News by email. "This does not in any way excuse the incidents of harm by religious leaders or institutions, but it does make clear the substantial benefits of religious practice overall. Ceasing those practices will, on average, likely lead to worse health and well-being outcomes."

Other studies

In the last quarter century, some 4,000 studies have looked at religion and health, the vast majority finding benefit, said Loren Marks, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University, who was not involved with the Harvard research. What's novel, he said, was tracking kids from a young baseline, then seeing what happens as they become adults.

"It gives (the researchers) additional power to indicate it's not just that these health outcomes happen to occur along with religious involvement. It seems like they're at least probably closely linked," he said. Though VanderWeele and Chen are careful not to claim X causes Y, "it's closer to indicating a causal link than any research I've read to this point," Marks added.

Studies have shown that religious attendance, religious practices, and religious beliefs are three aspects of religiosity that all predict more positive outcomes, compared to those who eschew faith, Marks said, adding there are probably also not-yet-discovered factors. Taken together, they point strongly toward benefits.

Historically, some have assumed that children who attend religious services are not so much engaged as they are "jumping in the car and going with mom and dad to church, to temple, to synagogue or mosque," Marks said. The implication is that won't yield benefit, if youngsters are forced, coerced or not really engaged.

But Marks thinks kids who go today "want to be there. A significant portion are not being forced."

That could help explain why the Harvard study found little difference in benefits between those who attend worship services and those who practice beliefs more individually, in prayer and meditation.

There's another benefit for attending services. Marks said research suggests a faith community is one of the very few contexts where a young person can experience being tied to people in a meaningful way across multiple generations. "There's something humane about being tied in across the life course that seems good for us.

"Even if it's somewhat coerced, there are positive things that happen there socially if not morally and ethically that benefit our youth that they cannot garner at school or through athletics," he added.

"One thing I've noticed as I've interviewed youths from various faiths is those with religious views seem to have a strong sense of identity," said David Dollahite, also a professor of family life at BYU.

Teens wait for President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to speak at Safeco Field in Seattle, Wash., on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.
Teens wait for President Russell M. Nelson, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to speak at Safeco Field in Seattle, Wash., on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. A Harvard study found that when youth attend religious services, pray or meditate they report higher levels of health and well-being as adults. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

He describes religiously active children and adolescents as often being people who have a strong sense of identity that is tied to faith. "In their circle of friends, they identify as the Jewish Kid, the Muslim Kid, the Christian kid," he said. Friends, for example, would know a religiously observant youth wouldn't do certain things that cross their beliefs, like eating a certain food or drink.

Dollahite also suggests many religious youth have made personal sacrifice for their faith, so they are likely used to not doing harmful drugs and other things kids try. Studies also show religious kids are typically more likely to talk to their parents about important issues. And they may have strong connections to other caring adults, like church youth leaders.

"Obviously, sexuality is an issue religious institutions tend to have high moral values around. It's not surprising religiously involved youths are less likely to be promiscuous," Dollahite aid.

Study mechanics

For the Harvard study, VanderWeele and Chen looked at health data collected from mothers in the Nurses Health Study II and from their children in the companion Growing Up Today Study. The 5,000 youths were tracked between ages 8 and 14, into at least their early 20s. They first assessed children in the 1999 GUTS wave and started checking back in 2010.

The study had some limitations, the authors said. Most of the participants were white — an artifact of nurse demographics at the time. The researchers said that studies suggest positive effects of religious service attendance may be even greater for blacks than for whites, though.

Chen said people speculate those who are depressed are less likely to attend services, as are those who are more physically ill. They controlled for those effects and others, including age, race, sex, demographic region and socioeconomics.

Funding for the Harvard study came from Templeton Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. The latter also funded the original data collection on nurses and their children_._