A recent LA Times Op-Ed piece by Phill Zuckerman, a Professor of Secular Studies at Pitzer College, is causing many to wonder
"Is it better to raise our kids without religion?"
I admit I was initially mystified by the research and felt the need to roll up my sleeves, leave the laundry un-attended and dig in. Unfortunately Zuckerman's main source, recent research by sociologist Vern Bengston, is currently "in press" and not available for review or interpretation. Bengston's resume and vita are great. He is a solid researcher who has dedicated his life to the study of aging. I started my academic journey in this field and both value and appreciate his work. Looking at his life work (rather than the specific book), I couldn't possibly question his motives, nor do I question his research methodology.
So assuming that Bengston's research is solid, let's discuss the very question of how kid fare when raised with or without a foundation of faith in a higher power, and more specifically, the general complications in conducting research of this nature. In order to do this, one has to look at the variables (things) measured. For simplicity sake, we are just going to look at how religion is generally measured and how the outcome 'better' is determined.
Religious self identification is not a construct that is easy to measure because you are really talking about a transformation that occurs throughout ones life, from cradle to grave. It is something that should be ranked on a continuum with multiple questions to put together a complex picture. Therefore self-report on one's religiosity is a fairly unreliable measure of how religious someone is, unless you go beyond the "do you believe in God?" Y/N response. Or "Do you attend church?"
Even with a more complex measure of religiosity, when asking devout individuals about their faith one runs into some stickiness. As Darwin pointed out "ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge" (1871). Therefore those who are well schooled on their faith may judge themselves to be less developed in matters of religion than do those who were maybe raised in a faith but not even currently practicing. You could have a young man contemplating the priesthood who scores lower in religiosity than does a individual who hasn't set food in a house of religion in years.
In his LA times piece, Zuckerman points to the lack of atheists in prison, but he fails to also acknowledge that prison culture is set up as a major recruitment site for many extreme religious groups. It is also fertile ground for evangelization for traditional faiths like Catholicism. Caring for those in prison in one of their Works of Mercy practiced by Catholics. Lastly, one's religious affiliation or "coming to Jesus" can influence parole boards as well. For lost souls, with time on their hands and limited access to nice people, spending time in mass or worship, and learning that they are loved and redeemed - well that is just plain attractive. If you wanted to draw the conclusion Zuckerman was making, you would need to show that at the time of arrest or time the crime was committed - these individuals were actively practicing their faith. That is a very different thing than merely citing a lack of Atheists in prison.
Is there a Dosage Effect? If one is really looking to argue that religion is harmful to folks, than we should see some form of a dosage effect. If we conclude that no religion is better than the next step statement must be more religious is worse. In measuring religiosity is there a dosage effect? Are those who attend daily mass and go to monthly confession for instance, the most likely to be vengeful intolerant folks? Are religious missionaries who are living in huts in Rowanda actually the most racist of Americans? Are those who have given themselves wholly to the Church by taking Holy Orders the most vengeful, racist, nationalistic, militaristic folks surveyed? As the Church's struggle with sexual abuse was made public, that argument was certainly put out there, but the facts just didn't match it. Cases of sexual abuse by priests occurred in half the frequency of those by teachers for instance (source).
If one takes into consideration upbringing in the faith, currently practicing, and some dosage of practicing you have a more complex picture.
What religion are we talking about?
Which religions were measured? Were all religions lumped together? While there are some central tenants across religions there are some major differences in social justice teachings as well as in ideas of how to interact with others who are of different faiths. To lump all 'religious' together seems to convolute the outcome variable, which is at this point just listed as "better than". Those who measure religion know that there are huge differences between denominations even within just protestants.
What does better mean? What are the outcome measures? One needs to consider what the values the researchers value as those will influence what the word "better" actually means. A few common measures of 'success' in psychology are whether the individuals are moral, tolerant, vengeful, nationalistic, empathetic. Once those outcomes are defined it is extremely difficult to measure them though self report because people naturally attempt to paint themselves in the best possible light. Duke researchers for instance found that religious people were more racist. If looking to measure racism, it is hard to just ask people "are you a racist?". Researchers are of course more subtle than that, but I pose the question to make a point. When measuring racism you may be measuring a more complicated construct - honest or self awareness. Those who are honest and self aware may say "yes I guess I am a little bit", when they are no more/less racist than the person dishonest or less-introspective person who says "No, absolutely not".
For religious folks, a 'better life' would be considered to be one that is filled with the Lord. So all these questions about whether or not we should be raising our kids religious or not is a mute point being asked only by those without a relationship with God. Those of us who have a relationship with the Lord, want our children to have one too. It is the best gift that we can possibly give our children - a life in eternity. We are looking at the research to find ways to best raise our children to be as close to the Lord as possible.
In no way is this article intended to imply that the highly regarded Bengston's research is poor. I merely want to point out that the question posed by Zuckerman "Is it better to raise our kids without religion?", is more complicated than the op-ed piece implied. Bengston devoted an entire book to the research question and was only quoted once in the Zuckerman article:
"Many non religions parents were more coherent and passionate about their ethical principles than some of the 'religious' parents in our study," Bengston told me. "The vast majority appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose."
In closing, I wonder if the researchers have missed the point entirely. The question and research seems designed to appease the minds of those parents who have chosen to shield their children from religion. Those of us who have chosen to raise our children faithful to a religious teaching have done so in the hopes of equpting our children with the skills necessary for them to know God, love God, and serve God in this life so that they may enjoy eternity with God in the next. That is our end goal and it is hard to find fault in that.