Religion Is Good for Families and Kids Some of the Latest Social Science, Which Makes Religion Sound Evil, Is Wrong, Writes W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia

By Wilcox, W Bradford | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 20, 2015 | Go to article overview

Religion Is Good for Families and Kids Some of the Latest Social Science, Which Makes Religion Sound Evil, Is Wrong, Writes W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia


Wilcox, W Bradford, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


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," renowned atheist 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 neuroscientist 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 to 12 around the globe. Using a non-random and non- representative sample, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 the General Social Survey indicate, for instance, that Americans who attend religious services often are markedly more likely to report that 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.

When it comes to kids, the research tells us that religious parents spend more time with their children. The 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. …

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