A bestselling author recently watched “Under the Banner of Heaven” and saw the FX series not only as an indictment of Latter-day Saints, but apparently of “most” religion.
The writer seemed to not know that the show has been widely criticized for inaccuracies and that the murders at the center of the series were committed by two excommunicated members riddled with family dysfunction and mental illness.
The Lafferty brothers, in the parlance of social scientists, are not exactly a representative sample group.
But in our current polarized culture, where we are less and less likely to associate with people whose views and experience differ from our own, media productions like these only further distort the lens through which we view one another. This leads to sweeping and troubling indictments, like that of author and frequent New York Times contributor Roxane Gay, who tweeted after watching the show, “Mormonism is really terrible for women. As most religions are.”
Gay is a sophisticated thinker and a proud feminist, which is why it’s so disappointing to encounter the statement she made to hundreds of thousands of her Twitter followers. The most accomplished and intelligent women I’ve met in my life — strong women not unlike Brenda Lafferty — have chosen to walk in the light of faith because they recognize its benefits. To suggest otherwise only serves to diminish the agency of women.
And more importantly, to say that my faith — and most other religions in general — are bad for women isn’t just insensitive. It’s demonstrably untrue.
For decades, researchers have been exploring what impact, if any, religion has in the lives of adherents. As director of Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Program, epidemiologist Tyler VanderWeele focuses on distinguishing what those effects might be. Nowhere in his findings is anything suggestive that religion is “really terrible” for women; but he does find that the opposite is true.
After an extensive review of research, he concludes, “There is now a large body of rigorous empirical studies with longitudinal data and good confounding control that indicate that religious community is a major contributor to human flourishing.” That includes happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships.”
The effects, in other words, were not simply the result of private religious practices; for those who were part of a religious community, the effects were much stronger. According to VanderWeele, it is the “confluence of religious values and practices, reinforced by social ties and norms, that give religious communities their powerful effects on so many aspects of human flourishing.”
This “human flourishing” is manifest in specific pro-social benefits. Religious attendance, for example, is linked to greater marital satisfaction and significantly less likelihood of divorce. It is also consistently associated with less likelihood of depression, anxiety, hopelessness and loneliness. Regular church attendance is predictive of “a five-fold reduction in the likelihood of suicide, and a 30% reduction in the incidence of depression.”
Regardless of sex, race, education or health history, religious practice and regular attendance is associated with seven years of greater longevity.
But what of the effects of religiosity for women specifically?
Three years ago, The New York Times reported on results from the 2018 Global Faith and Families survey involving 11 countries, including the United States. Nationally as well as internationally, the happiest married women were those who attended church regularly with their husbands. Not only did these women report the highest levels of satisfaction, commitment, closeness and stability in their marriages, they were also twice as likely as their secular peers to say they were satisfied with their sexual relationship.
Critics were quick to say that religious women must have been “brainwashed” to say they were happy. But these findings were consistent with other research. Religious activity seems to particularly impact men’s behavior in ways that result in higher quality marriages for women. Compared to non-religious fathers, those who attend church weekly tend to be the most emotionally engaged with their children and their wives. And wives in religious marriages were most likely to say that they felt appreciated and satisfied with the affection, love and understanding they felt from their husbands.
Raj Chetty at Stanford University found that the greater Salt Lake City metro area had one of the highest rates of upward mobility in the nation, a measure of the capacity to rise from a lower to a higher socioeconomic class, and a follow-up analysis by The Brookings Institution concluded, “Salt Lake City is a particularly good city for girls to grow up in.”
Why? Because growing up in Salt Lake City increased their chances of forming a stable marriage and sharing household income. And that meant significantly improved economic outcomes, especially for women who grew up in a lower economic class.
As noted by the researchers of the Global Faith and Families Survey, scholars and journalists have long been concerned that religion may engender and enforce patriarchal systems that devalue women and “undercut” the possibility for genuine happiness, equality and flourishing. But what these studies indicate is that shared religious faith can also be a potent force for higher quality relationships by shaping beliefs and behaviors that foster commitment, trust, respect and even shared decision making and responsibilities.
This is not to say that religion hasn’t ever been a destructive force in the world. But the human experience captured by a host of studies provides significant insight into what religious practice actually is like “most” of the time and why it still has tremendous influence for good, including in the lives of women.
Roxane Gay herself seemed to understand this when she wrote in 2015, “I was raised by wonderful Catholic parents who were deeply faithful and taught us that God is a God of love. Even though I am lapsed, I respect that others turn to God and religion for guidance, for solace, for salvation.”
Jenet Jacob Erickson is a fellow of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University.