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When my friends, a pregnant couple about to have twins, asked me if they should raise their children with a religion, I immediately got curious about the science involved in that profound question.
So, predictably, I did some research. I thought I might find lots of studies that revealed the harm that overzealous religious indoctrination could do to children, and yes, I learned, some of those do exist.
Instead, though, I found them vastly outweighed by a whole host of new, extensively well-researched studies that gave me a very different picture from what I initially expected. Space prohibits publishing them all here, but one typical recent study, from the respected American Journal of Epidemiology, conducted by a research team at Harvard University’s School of Public Health and its Institute for Quantitative Social Science, might give you a good sense about the impact of a religious upbringing on a child’s character, behavior and future:
Associations of Religious Upbringing With Subsequent Health and Well-Being From Adolescence to Young Adulthood: An Outcome-Wide Analysis, by Ying Chen and Tyler J. VanderWeele.
Abstract: In the present study, we prospectively examined the associations of religious involvement in adolescence (including religious service attendance and prayer or meditation) with a wide array of psychological well-being, mental health, health behavior, physical health, and character strength outcomes in young adulthood. …
Compared with no attendance, at least weekly attendance of religious services was associated with greater life satisfaction and positive affect, a number of character strengths, lower probabilities of marijuana use and early sexual initiation, and fewer lifetime sexual partners. Analyses of prayer or meditation yielded similar results. Although decisions about religion are not shaped principally by health, encouraging service attendance and private practices in adolescents who already hold religious beliefs may be meaningful avenues of development and support, possibly leading to better health and well-being.
Another study, called Religion and Child Health, first published in 2010, reached strikingly similar conclusions. The study’s authors discovered that children with an identified religious affiliation, who view religion as very important, and who participate at least weekly in a faith community, have higher levels of overall physical and psychological health.
The Religion and Child Health study, which researched the lives of 2,604 children ages 6-19, found multiple positive correlations between children’s physical and psychological health and any kind of religious affiliation. Children and adolescents who regularly attended religious meetings or services, the research showed, tended to derive a whole host of benefits from their involvement: a significantly lower risk of suicide or suicide attempts; less alcohol and drug use; and fewer dangerous sexual behaviors. The conclusion: membership in a religious group can moderate unhealthy behavior, provide social support, enhance marital or financial prospects, and strengthen family bonds.
So if you’re searching for a scientific answer to the question about raising your children with some religious training, it’s certainly available—and the consensus has become clear. The Harvard study came to some strong conclusions: that going to weekly religious services, or even regular prayer and meditation, resulted in not only greater life satisfaction and the development of a positive psychological affect, but also in higher levels of volunteering, a greater sense of mission, and more forgiveness. These character virtues, as you might expect, produced better and more positive life results as children grew into adolescence—fewer depressive symptoms and lower probabilities of probable posttraumatic stress disorder, a lower incidence of cigarette smoking, less prescription drug misuse, a lower history of sexually-transmitted infections, etc., etc.
Multiple studies now show that in all measures of healthy life functioning, an early childhood connection to religious teachings made life better. My conclusion from reading the multiple research studies I found: the science increasingly points toward the lifelong benefits of a spiritually-infused upbringing on character strengths, happiness and psychological well-being. Pretty fascinating, right?
This scientific conclusion unequivocally supports what the Baha’i teachings recommend for parents:
From the very beginning, the children must receive divine education and must continually be reminded to remember their God. Let the love of God pervade their inmost being, commingled with their mother’s milk. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 127.
As to thy question regarding the education of children: It behoveth thee to nurture them at the breast of the love of God, and urge them onward to the things of the spirit—that they may turn their faces unto God; that their ways may conform to the rules of good conduct and their character be second to none; that they make their own all the graces and praiseworthy qualities of humankind; that they acquire a sound knowledge of the various branches of learning—so that from the very beginning of life they may become spiritual beings, dwellers in the Kingdom, enamoured of the sweet breaths of holiness, and may receive an education religious, spiritual, and of the Heavenly Realm. – Ibid., p. 142.
In fact, we’ve now known for decades, thanks to the literally hundreds of scientific studies conducted on this important subject, that adherence to a religion correlates with better health and well-being in adults. In fact, if you want to live longer and healthier, the science reveals a direct relationship between frequent religious service attendance and lower mortality risk, even in the most rigorous studies. Multiple research findings have proven that religious involvement links to a wide range of other positive outcomes—greater psychological well-being, increased character strengths, reduced mental illness, and healthier behaviors. We know, then, that religion has generally positive outcomes for adults—and now the science shows it also can help children in their growth and development.
The Baha’i teachings urge all parents to give their children the benefit of an early connection to the spiritual aspects of life. Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, prescribed it this way:
As to the children: We have directed that in the beginning they should be trained in the observances and laws of religion; and thereafter, in such branches of knowledge as are of benefit, and in commercial pursuits that are distinguished for integrity, and in deeds that will further the victory of God’s Cause or will attract some outcome which will draw the believer closer to his Lord. We beg of God to assist the children of His loved ones and adorn them with wisdom, good conduct, integrity and righteousness. – Baha’u’llah, From a tablet translated from the Persian and Arabic.
When we train children “in the observances and laws of religion,” we actually fulfill that most important job of every loving parent by giving our offspring the tools, habits and skills they’ll need to navigate their way through life.
But how—if we do decide to give our children a set of spiritual guidelines through religion—do we choose which religion to teach them? Should it be an inherited parental Faith; or one the parents agree upon and choose? Should parents teach their children one particular religion, or several of them? In the next essay in this series, we’ll explore those important questions.