By Jenet Jacob Erickson, United Families International
New York Times’ executive director, Dean Baquet, exposed a profound contradiction when he said of journalists from major media outlets: “We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives.” His assessment, of course, reflects not only the perceptions of journalists, but many cultural elites for whom religion is often seen as a relic of the past or a source of irrational, bigoted thought. Yet, ironically, more than at any other time, scientific research today provides evidence for the profoundly positive influence of religion in individual lives, families, and communities.
Church attendance and human flourishing
Harvard School of Public Health professor Tyler VanderWeele recently released an analysis summarizing decades of research evaluating the connection between religion and individual wellbeing. He concluded: “Participation in religious services is associated with numerous aspects of human flourishing, including happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships.” Frequent church attendance and religious commitment were specifically associated with a 25-35 percent reduction in mortality, a three to six-fold reduction in the likelihood of suicide, and a 30 percent reduction in the incidence of depression.
His report came on the heels of a University of Pennsylvania review of 800 studies confirming a robust relationship between religious commitment and better physical and emotional health including a substantial increase in the longevity, regardless of sex, race, education or health history.
Protecting youth and families
For adolescents, studies repeatedly demonstrate a host of positive outcomes related to church attendance: higher self-esteem, positive outlook, stronger family and adult relationships, moral reasoning and behavior, community participation, better school behavior and outcomes, less risky or dangerous behaviors, lower levels of substance abuse and alcohol use, and less crime and violence. Most recently, Chen and VanderWeele’s sophisticated, longitudinal analysisof 5,000 youth confirmed that having a religious upbringing itself “contributes to a wide range of health and well-being outcomes later in life.” Specifically, youth from religious families were better protected from the “big three dangers of adolescence” – depression, substance abuse, and risky behaviors – while also reporting more happiness, volunteering, having a sense of mission and forgiveness.
A look at the relationship between religious involvement and family wellbeing reveals similarly robust findings. Religious attendance is linked to marital satisfaction, stronger inclinations toward marrying, and a 30-50 percent reduction in the likelihood of divorce. For women, the happiest marriages were those in which both spouses shared a strong commitment to marriage and attended church together. For men, religious activity was associated with stronger relationships and greater investment in their relationships with their children. Fathers who attended church weekly were the most active and emotionally engaged, and their wives reported feeling more appreciated, and more satisfied with the affection, love and understanding they felt from their husbands.
The basis of strong communities
These findings help explain why religious commitment is not only significant to individual and family flourishing, but why it plays such a role in the strength of communities as well. Religious principles including truth, virtue, trust, the common good, dignity of the human person, and sanctity of human life, provide the foundation for democratic governments. Further, religion’s emphasis on hard work, self-reliance, and strong families is foundational to developing the principles and structures needed for thriving capitalist economies.
Income mobility, for example, defined as the proportion of individuals able to move from low to high socioeconomic levels, is consistently higher in more religiously active communities. This is due to several factors positively related to religious commitment and church attendance: an environment of strong family relationships, reduced divorce rates, reduced non-marital child bearing, and the network of social support available to lower income individuals. Religious communities are often “key sources of neighborhood developmental resources,” playing a significant role in “orienting youth toward a positive future,” reinforcing messages “about working hard and staying out of trouble,” and building a “skill set of commitments and routines” that facilitate academic achievement and success.
Religion and freedom – a solemn partnership
Long before scientific research had the sophistication to confirm the significant, positive influence of religion on society, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville concluded in 1831, that the key to America’s liberty lay in the profound influence of religious belief and participation. His observations led him to conclude, “Liberty regards religion as its companion…It considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.” Without the influence of religion, he warned, Americans would undermine the conditions of their own freedom.
New York Times’ executive director, Dean Baquet’s acknowledgement of a lack of understanding about the profound role of religion in people’s lives sheds light on the dramatically increased risk for suppression of religious speech and expression in today’s culture. These risks have become a reality for some, including CEOs, newscasters, teachers, doctors, professors, and police officers who have lost jobs or leadership positions for expressing their religious beliefs; adoption agencies that have been forced out of offering services because of their religious beliefs; business owners and professionals losing licenses or being fined for refusing to provide services contrary to their religious beliefs; faith-based clubs on college campuses being forced to disband unless they allow anyone including those who oppose their religious beliefs to become members and officers; parents being unable to exempt their children from public education curricula that is contrary to their religious beliefs; and on. Greater threats to larger groups of religious adherents seeking to live out their beliefs continue to loom.
In a nation with citizens of varying religious beliefs, the right to free religious expression is bounded by the need for governments to protect the health and safety of all. But that appropriate balance is only possible when cultures and governments recognize the inalienable right of individuals to hold and express their religious beliefs publicly and privately, as well as the special, unique contribution of religion to the flourishing of individuals, families, and communities. As Dean Baquet revealed, educating others about the specific positive effects of religious commitment will be central to rebuilding an appreciation for the importance of religious beliefs and communities, and why they deserve special protection. The evidence is there. It just needs to be shared.
Dr. Jenet Jacob Erickson is an An Affiliated Scholar at the Wheatley Institution and former assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. She also serves on the UFI Governing Board. Dr. Erickson’s research specializing in maternal and child wellbeing has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, U.S. News and World Report, Slate Magazine, and the Today Show. She and her husband Michael enjoy their family life journey with two young children.