Religious Practices are Healthy for Your Children
January 24, 2019
by David Stevens, MD, MA (Ethics)
I’m in West Palm Beach, Florida as I write this, having just finished a series of talks at the Gregory School of Pharmacy at Palm Beach Atlantic University, a Christian school. I’m enjoying wonderful temperatures and bright sun before I head back to chilly Bristol, Tennessee in a few hours.
My first opportunity to speak was a mission forum for the entire university where I shared my testimony wrapped around my life verse, Matthew 16:24. One of my comments that brought a chuckle was, “If going to church could get you to heaven, I would be there already. I was in more services by the time I was eight than most of you will be in your lifetimes.”
The reason was my dad was an evangelist, and he took my mom, my sister, my brother and I on the road with him when I was two, my brother was one and my sister had just turned four. He bought a used 40-foot house trailer and pulled it behind our Oldsmobile down many a country road. We parked by small churches where he was the revival speaker both morning and evening for 10 days. Then we were on to minister at the next church. When my sister started first grade, we settled in Wilmore, Kentucky but still traveled as a family during the summer to camp meetings where dad was one the evangelists. I attended two or three services a day.
I thought I had a great life. We saw more than half the United States, stopped and visited historic sites between meetings, were part of great children and youth programs and saw God work in individual lives, including mine. At eight years of age when my dad gave an invitation at the end of his sermon, I rushed down a sawdust aisle, knelt at a simple altar built out of two-by-fours and accepted Christ. Numerous people were kneeling there that evening, but my dad left the podium and made a beeline to pray with me.
Of course, it didn’t end there. During the primary school years, my mom had us in Sunday school and church every week. Youth group was added later. Then I headed off to Hampden Dubose Academy for high school in Florida, a Christian boarding school. We had chapel and vespers each school day, plus three services on Saturday. During my four years at Asbury College in my hometown we had chapel three times a week, along with Sunday services at my home church.
With the increasing scandals in both the Catholic and Protestant churches because of infidelity and child abuse, some would assert my upbringing wasn’t a good thing. Some like Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist, would go further. He compared a religious upbringing to child abuse. He commented on a child abused by a priest, “Horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.” He made the same claims in his books The God Delusion and Atheism for Children.
I was reminded of those quotes when an important article came to my attention a few weeks ago entitled, “Associations of Religious Upbringing With Subsequent Health and Well-Being From Adolescence to Young Adulthood: An Outcome-Wide Analysis” authored by Ying Chen and Tyler J. VanderWeele of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. The article was viewed on the web more than 29,000 times, and it was the journal’s most-read article for more than four weeks.
Dr. VanderWeele is an epidemiologist and son of a CMDA member. I was so impressed with his and his co-author’s study and its applicability to families and to our healthcare practices that I spent a half hour on the phone with Tyler last week. You won’t want to miss that interview on Christian Doctor’s Digest, but let me give you the cliff notes.
They did an eight-year longitudinal study of 5,000 adolescents while controlling for many variables to isolate the effects of a religious upbringing on the social, behavioral and developmental challenges of growing up. Their meticulous work showed that, contrary to what Dr. Dawkins claims, a religious upbringing is a very large protective factor on adolescents.
Those who attended religious services regularly were subsequently:
- 12 percent less likely to have high depressive symptoms
- 33 percent less likely to use illicit drugs
They didn’t delineate between adolescents who had been required to go to services like I was and those who went voluntarily.
On the other hand, voluntary participation in prayer and meditation as expression of their own faith had an even greater effect. Those studied were:
- 30 percent less likely to start having sex at a young age
- 40 percent less likely to subsequently have a sexually transmitted infection
Not only did religious activities prevent negatives, it promoted positive effects in their lives. Religious services attendance resulted in being:
- 18 percent more likely to report high levels of happiness
- 87 percent more likely to have high levels of forgiveness
Those who prayed or meditated frequently were subsequently:
- 38 percent more likely to volunteer in their community
- 47 percent more likely to have a high sense of mission and purpose
These are not small effects on health and well-being, but were religious practices really the cause? Though showing causality is not easy in a study, I was impressed with what they did.
- The religious variables were measured eight to 14 years before they studied the health and psychological outcomes, which makes this study superior to most previous studies in this arena. They had a rigorous longitudinal design.
- They controlled their study for health and psychological characteristics of the adolescents at the time the service attendance and religious behaviors were assessed to try to rule out positives in those areas being the causative factors.
- They also controlled for numerous other social, demographic and health characteristics.
- They reported a new measure, the E-value, which looks at how robust the results are compared against potential unmeasured variables. You will have to read their article to get a better understanding of that if you are not familiar with it.
Of course, people don’t often go to church because they want to improve their health, but on the other hand this study gives powerful information to discuss religious behavior with parents in your practice who are concerned about the perils of raising their children in our American culture. For those who don’t have a personal relationship with Christ yet, you can pray that their beliefs, values, relationships and experiences will be transformed by His grace when they attend church.
For those who are Christians but state they “can’t find a good church” or can’t attend because one of their children is on a competitive sports team that travels on weekends or any other reason, you can let them know the critical importance of prioritizing their children’s faith experiences, including being with peers and adults of faith who will teach and mentor them in their own relationship with Christ.
This is great information to share, and Dr. VanderWeele told me he has other studies underway. We will keep you informed of those in future blog posts on The Point.