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Religious teenagers are happier, volunteer more, Harvard study reveals

A study published by Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health has found that religion “can profoundly help adolescents navigate the challenges of these years”.

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The study of 5,000 teens also found “a religious upbringing contributes to a wide range of health and well-being outcomes later in life”.

“Religious upbringing is of positive benefit for many health behaviours and psychological well-being outcomes.”

The study followed the teens for eight years and controlled for other variables which allowed the researchers to try to isolate the effects of a religious upbringing.

Teens attending religious services regularly were subsequently:

12% less likely to have high depressive symptoms
33% less likely to use illicit drugs

18% more likely to report high levels of happiness
87% more likely to have high levels of forgiveness

Those who prayed or meditated frequently were:

30% less likely to start having sex at a young age
40% less likely to subsequently have a sexually transmitted infection

38% more likely to volunteer in their community
47% more likely to have a high sense of mission and purpose

“These are relatively large effects across a variety of health and well-being outcomes,” according to one of the researchers, Tyler J. VanderWeele, Professor of Epidemiology in the Departments of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health.

“Religious practice and prayer or meditation can be important resources for adolescents navigating the challenges of life.”

According to the researchers, running the study over years – with religious upbringing measured eight to 14 years before the health and psychological outcomes were measured – meant the study was better designed and more reliable.

“Wherever possible, we controlled also for the health and psychological characteristics of the adolescents at the time that the service attendance and prayer/meditation was assessed, to try to rule out that it was just positive health or psychological states that was leading to greater religious practice,” said VanderWeele. “… We controlled for numerous other social, demographic and health characteristics at the time of adolescence to try to rule out that these might explain the relationship.”

The study used data from two large scale longitudinal studies that followed teenagers into adulthood, as described in an article in the American Journal of Epidemiology. This meant that the cohorts would have reflected the structure of American society, and it can be safely assumed the religious attendance reported was  largely Christian.

The claim that religious upbringing is bad for children – and Richard Dawkin’s claim that it amounts to “child abuse” – is specifically refuted by the Harvard researchers.

“Our study shows that on a number of important health and well-being outcomes, Dawkin’s claim just isn’t true,” the researchers stated.

“It is disrespectful of those who have experienced sexual abuse, and it is just plain wrong with regard to the average effects on health and well-being that religious practice brings.

“Religious upbringing is of positive benefit for many health behaviors and psychological well-being outcomes. Before making his claims, it would have been good if Dawkins, the scientist, had actually looked at the science.

“At the very least, parents who bring up their children religiously can be reassured that, on average at least, they are creating important psychological and behavioral health benefits that their children will carry with them into adulthood.”

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