What does the data on religious trauma say? | Opinion


The headlines regarding American religion haven’t been great lately – from sex abuse to financial scandal. From liberal scholars to ex-evangelicals, we have received many stories of “religious trauma” telling us that religious institutions have promulgated a culture of judgment and shame through their rigid moral structure, the repression of female sexuality, the legitimization of “patriarchy” and failure to foster warm and welcoming environments.

Coupled with recent scandals, these messages have undoubtedly played a role in the growing number of young adults who have abandoned the faith of their mothers and fathers and embraced a “none” religious identity as adults.

But do today’s headlines provide us with an accurate assessment of the influence of religion on the lives of Americans? If the statements above are fundamentally true, one would expect to see that religiosity has, on average, a negative effect on happiness and other mental health outcomes. Instead, in study after study, we find that practicing adults are happier, less depressed, and more involved in their community than those who attend services less frequently.

“But wait…” you might say, “it’s easy to go to church when you’re happy. Couldn’t it just be that happy people are those who go to church, not that going to church makes them happier? And that would be a reasonable objection. However, these studies also control for other happiness predictors, such as age and education level, demonstrating that the impact of religiosity is not based on this type of selection effect.

But what about the long-term influence of religion on boys and girls who grew up in a religious home? Does the story still hold for them, or is there some developmental “trauma” these statistics hide?

We answer these questions by examining data from the Baylor Religion Survey, which allows us to see how religious practice at age 12 is associated with a variety of adult outcomes. Again, the story is positive.

Based on the Baylor data, we can clearly see that childhood religiosity predicts a variety of results. Adult men and women who attended religious services at least weekly at age 12 were more likely to report that they were currently “very happy”, more likely to report that they received “a lot” of attention from others, and less likely to report that they were often bored , compared to those who attended less frequently or not at all. For example, those who participated as children were about 6 percentage points more likely to report being “very happy” as adults and 9 percentage points less likely to report being often bored.

These differences are all statistically significant even after controlling for age, gender, education, race and ethnicity, suggesting that childhood religiosity has a lasting effect on emotional life and relationship of people. In reality, these differences are particularly important for happiness and boredom. These differences do not simply reflect current circumstances, but a faith factor that was still evident decades later; the median age of survey respondents was 57 years.

Importantly, these positive effects only emerged if respondents attended religious services at least once a week when they were children. This is consistent with the results of another study, suggesting that religion is of little benefit without consistent practice. Sporadic attendance does not predict these outcomes, likely due to the lack of community integration and personal conviction it tends to imply.

However, for those who attend religious services at least once a week growing up, the effect is, more often than not, positive. Children who grow up in religious communities generally have more opportunities to serve and in return receive the emotional benefits of the community. These children also benefit from a broader social context to structure their understanding of what is right and wrong, which can in turn strengthen their relationships with parents and other authority figures, as well as with their peers. . Finally, their faith can provide them with a spiritual meta-narrative that imbues their lives with a greater sense of purpose and meaning. Given these factors, the positive effect of childhood religiosity is not surprising.

Some argue that this faith factor is simply the result of community integration and should not be attributed to spirituality or belief in God. However, the fact that religious people are less bored in adulthood suggests that there is something more personal and meaningful about their religiosity, since its effect extends beyond their personal happiness and relational integration, even in their involvement in daily activities. Perhaps their beliefs, reinforced by the bonds of religious community, have also helped to make their lives more engaging and exciting than it otherwise would be.

All of this is not to say that cases of abuse or scandal caused by religious institutions are not traumatic, or that the only way to achieve positive social outcomes should be to advocate for greater religiosity. Religion can certainly have a negative influence, especially when used to legitimize behavior that is obviously wrong. And yet, it is often through our religious teachings and traditions that we find the moral language to combat this corruption in the first place.

Beyond that, the negative experiences of some do not negate the net positive effect that faith communities have overall. In an increasingly atomized and unnormed world, the strengths of America’s religious traditions are increasingly important, providing meaning, direction and community to most of those who darken the door on any given weekend. For many, especially those who attend at least once a week, growing up in a faith-based community provides a home in the midst of crisis, and a system of belief and conviction that contributes to happiness, social affirmation and attendance, even later in adulthood.

Those who have given up or have never been linked to a religious tradition should be aware of the average and practical benefits of religiosity, both for themselves and for their families. It is easy to stand outside these institutions and claim that they are “unloving” or “judgmental”. Unfortunately, those who make these claims (which are, in fact, judgments themselves) have often rejected the faith from their own personal experiences (valid as they may be) and may have lost sight of the net positive effect that religion can (and usually does) affect people’s lives.

Certainly, as recent headlines tell us, America’s churches, synagogues, mosques and temples are making mistakes, sometimes serious, even tragic. However, modern religion is not all bad. It faces many of the same problems it has always faced, and the task of reform and renewal still looms before believers. If you are religious, these shortcomings should not be a reason to abandon your faith, but to get involved and use your gifts to make a difference. By doing your best to steer your faith in a better direction, you can also help entire communities to live in accordance with their best impulses to create a better world. The easiest way to reduce your religious community’s chances of doing so is to refuse to participate in the first place.

Brad Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and The Future of Freedom Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. Riley Peterson is an undergraduate student studying religion and sociology at Baylor University.


About Author

Comments are closed.