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Perspective: Don’t believe the headlines. Few people suffer trauma from religion in childhood

People who regularly attended religious services as children are more likely to be happy as adults

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Illustration by Alex Cochran, Deseret News

The headlines regarding American religion have not been great of late — from sexual abuse to financial scandal. From liberal academics to ex-evangelicals, we’ve been getting many stories of “religious trauma” telling us that religious institutions have promulgated a culture of judgment and shame through their rigid moral structure, repression of female sexuality, legitimization of the “patriarchy” and failure to foster warm and welcoming environments.

Paired with recent scandals, these messages have undoubtedly played a hand in the rising number of young adults who have left behind the faith of their mothers and fathers and embraced a religious identity of “none” as adults.

But do today’s headlines provide us with a fair assessment of the influence of religion on Americans’ lives? If the claims above are fundamentally true, one would expect to see that religiosity has, on average, a negative effect on happiness and other mental health outcomes. Instead, in study after study, what we find is that religiously devout adults are happier, less depressed and more involved in their communities than those who attend services less frequently.

“But wait…” you may say, “it’s easy to go to church when you’re happy. Couldn’t it just be that happy people are the ones going to church, not that going to church is making them happier?” And that would be a reasonable objection. However, these studies also control for other happiness-predicting factors, such as age and educational attainment, demonstrating that the impact of religiosity is not based on this sort of selection effect.

But what about the long-term influence of religion on boys and girls who grew up in a religious home? Does the story still hold for them, or is there a developmental “trauma” that these statistics are hiding?

We answer these questions by looking at data from the Baylor Religion Survey, which allows us to see how religious attendance at age 12 is associated with a variety of outcomes in adulthood. Again, the story is positive. 

Based on data from the Baylor survey, we can see clearly that childhood religiosity predicts a variety of positive outcomes. Adult men and women who attended religious services at least weekly at age 12 were more likely to report that they were currently “very happy,” more likely to report that they receive “a lot” of attention from others, and less likely to indicate that they were frequently bored, when compared to those who attended less frequently or not at all. For instance, those who attended as children were about 6 percentage points more likely to report they were “very happy” as adults and 9 percentage points less likely to report they were “frequently bored.”

These differences are all statistically significant even after controlling for age, sex, education, race and ethnicity, suggesting that childhood religiosity has a lasting effect on people’s emotional and relational lives. In fact, these differences are particularly significant for happiness and boredom. These differences do not merely reflect current circumstances, but a faith factor which was still evident decades later; the median age of the survey respondents was 57.

It is important to note that these positive effects only kicked in if respondents attended religious services at least weekly as children. This is consistent with findings in another study, suggesting that religion is not practically beneficial without consistent practice. Sporadic attendance does not predict these outcomes, likely due to the lack of communal integration and personal conviction it tends to imply. 

However, for those who do attend religious services at least weekly growing up, the effect is, more often than not, positive. Children who grow up in religious communities are usually given more opportunities to serve and to receive the emotional benefits of community in return. These children are also given a wider social context to structure their understanding of what is right and wrong, which can in turn strengthen their relationships with their parents and other authority figures, as well as their peers. Finally, their faith may provide them with a spiritual metanarrative that imbues their life with a greater sense of purpose and meaning. Given these factors, the positive effect of childhood religiosity is not surprising.

Some claim that this faith factor is merely the result of communal integration and should not be attributed to spirituality or belief in God. However, the fact that religious people are less bored as adults suggests that there is something more personal and meaningful about their religiosity, since its effect extends beyond their personal happiness and relational integration, all the way into their engagement with daily activities. Perhaps their beliefs, fortified in the bonds of religious community, have also contributed to making their lives more engaging and exciting than it would be otherwise.

All of this is not to suggest that cases of abuse or scandal caused by religious institutions are not traumatic, or that the sole way to engineer positive social outcomes should be to advocate for greater religiosity. Surely religion can have a negative influence, especially when it is used to legitimize behaviors that are clearly wrong. And yet, it is often through our religious teachings and traditions that we find the moral language to combat this corruption in the first place. 

Beyond this, the negative experiences of some do not eliminate the net positive effect religious communities have on the whole. In a world growing increasingly atomistic and normless, the strengths of America’s religious traditions are ever more important, providing meaning, direction and community for most of those who darken the door on any given weekend. For many, especially those who attend at least weekly, growing up in a faith community provides a place to call home in the midst of crisis, and a system of belief and conviction that contributes to happiness, social affirmation and industriousness, even later in adulthood. 

Those who have left or never been connected to a religious tradition should be aware of the average, practical benefits of religiosity, both for themselves and their families. It is easy to stand outside these institutions and claim that they are “unloving” or “judgmental.” Unfortunately, those who make these claims (which are, in fact, judgments themselves) have often rejected the faith out of their own personal experiences (valid as they may be) and may have lost sight of the net positive effect that religion can (and usually does) have on people’s lives. 

To be sure, as the recent headlines tell us, America’s churches, synagogues, mosques and temples make mistakes, sometimes serious, tragic ones. However, modern religion is not uniquely evil. It is facing many of the same issues it always has, and the task of reform and renewal always stands before believers. If you are religious, these failings should not be a reason to give up on your faith, but to get involved and use your gifts to make a difference. As you do your best to steer your faith in a better direction, you may also help entire communities to live in accord with their best impulses to create a better world. The easiest way to undercut your religious community’s chances of doing so is to opt out of participating in the first place. 

Brad Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and The Future of Freedom fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. Riley Peterson is an undergraduate studying religion and sociology at Baylor University.