The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The latest social science is wrong. Religion is good for families and kids.

On average, people of faith lead more fulfilling family lives.

St. Florian Roman Catholic Church in Hamtramck, Michigan. (Photo by Salwan Georges for The Washington Post)

It’s a message we hear more and more: Religion is bad.

And certainly recent headlines — from terrorist attacks perpetrated by radical Islamists in Paris and San Bernardino to the strange brew of warped Christian fundamentalism that appeared to motivate alleged shooter Robert Dear at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs — feeds the idea that religion is a force for ill in the world. But in “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason,” Sam Harris not only asserts that the “greatest problem confronting civilization” is religious extremism, he further waxes that it’s also “the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself.”

Taken together with the assessment of social scientists — the high priests of our contemporary culture — the message, increasingly, is clear. Just last month, a new University of Chicago study conducted by psychologist Jean Decety posited that religious children are less altruistic than children from more secular families. He went so far as to contend that his results reveal “how religion negatively influences children’s altruism. They challenge the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior, and call into question whether religion is vital for moral development — suggesting the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact, it does just the opposite.”

It’s a sweeping indictment of the role of religion in society based on a study of sticker-sharing and cartoon-watching among children aged 5-12 around the globe. Using a non-random and non-representative sample, Decety found, among other things, that children from religious homes were less likely to share stickers with an unseen child than children from secular homes. In response to Decety’s findings, a Daily Beast headline proclaimed “Religious Kids are Jerks” and the Guardian reported “Religious Children Are Meaner than Their Secular Counterparts.”

As I see it, the impulses behind this thinking are several and, to some degree, understandable. Religion is frequently seen by secular observers as an obstacle to social progress on issues like abortion and gay rights, or as an adjunct of conservative politics in general. Meanwhile, a growing number of young adults in America identify as religious “nones,” often with little appreciation or understanding of religion. But is religion really as negative a force in our daily lives as its detractors and skeptics suggest? No.

On average, religion is a clear force for good when it comes to family unity and the welfare of children — the most important aspects of our day-to-day lives. Research, some of it my own, indicates that on average Americans who regularly attend services at a church, synagogue, temple or mosque are less likely to cheat on their partners; less likely to abuse them; more likely to enjoy happier marriages; and less likely to have been divorced.

Data taken from National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey indicate, for instance, that Americans who attend religious services often are markedly more likely to report they are “very happy” in their marriages compared to those who rarely or never attend. Frequent attendees are about 10 percentage points more likely to report they are “very happy” in their marriages, even after controlling for their education, gender, race, ethnicity and region. So, faith seems to be a net positive for marriage in America.

And when it comes to kids, the research tells us that religious parents spend more time with their children. Indeed, the Deseret News/Brigham Young University American Family Survey tells us that parents who attend religious services weekly are more likely to eat dinner with their children, do chores together and attend outings with their children, even after controlling for parental age, gender, race, marital status, education and income.

Religious parents are also more likely to report praising and hugging their school-aged children. Contra Decety, University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter finds that religious teens are more likely to eschew lying, cheating and stealing and to identify with the Golden Rule. Children from religious families are “rated by both parents and teachers as having better self-control, social skills and approaches to learning than kids with non-religious parents,” according to a nationally representative study of more than 16,000 children across the United States.

In contrast to Decety’s assertions, faith is a net positive when it comes to “prosocial behavior” among American children.

French sociologist Emile Durkheim explained that what makes religion vital, in part, is that it provides rituals, beliefs and a sense of group identity that deepens people’s connections to the moral order. In his words, the faithful “believe in the existence of a moral power to which they are subject and from which they receive what is best in themselves.”

The rituals associated with religion lend meaning to life, including its most difficult moments and seasons — from the loss of a job to the loss of loved one. Moreover, as I’ve noted elsewhere, more formal “rites as a baptism and a bris, congregations erect a sacred canopy of meaning over the great chapters of family life: birth, childrearing and marriage.” Religious rituals encourage us to take our family roles more seriously and to help us deal with the stresses that can otherwise poison family relationships. The norms — from fidelity to forgiveness — taught in America’s houses of worship tend to reinforce the faithful’s commitments to their spouses, family members and children and give them a road map for dealing with the disappointments, anger and conflicts that crop up in all family relationships. And as one of the most powerful sources of social capital outside of the state and workplace today, religious social networks provide support and succor to millions of Americans.

Religious faith is not a cure-all when it comes to families and children. And, of course, millions of secular Americans enjoy strong and stable families — indeed, a majority of husbands and wives who rarely or never attend church report that their marriages are “very happy.”

To be sure, there are scenarios in which religion can be a source of tension. Evidence suggests that religious children are “less tolerant of social change and diversity in lifestyle,” according to Hunter. Their identification with and adherence to orthodox religious beliefs, in particular, seems to make them less likely to support abortion and gay rights.

And religious disagreement in the family — whether between husbands and wives or between parents and children — can spell trouble, especially when this disagreement is deep and heartfelt. Less conservative, less religious women married to theologically conservative men, for instance, are more likely than average to be physically abused. Nominal evangelicals — especially nominal evangelicals from the South, the region I hail from — are more prone to higher rates of domestic abuse and divorce, even compared to their fellow citizens who have no religious affiliation.

But religion in America is not the corrosive influence that it’s often made out to be nowadays. On the contrary, for many Americans, it’s a source of inspiration that redounds not only to their benefit, but also to their families and communities.