In the opening montage of “Religion,” an episode on Aziz Ansari’s TV series Master of None, we see kids protesting miserably as their parents usher them off to church, synagogue, temple, and some kind of Scientology processing ceremony. They don’t want to go; they would much rather stay home. But their parents, it seems, believe they’re acting out of moral necessity: To introduce your children to religion, after all, is to give them a kind of road map to the art of being good.
Many parents assume that raising kids with some measure of religion is the best way to teach children how to behave ethically—both when they’re young and as they grow into adults. At the same time, in some societies, the role of religion has diminished, and people are becoming increasingly secular. Worldwide, the total number of religiously unaffiliated people (which includes atheists, agnostics and those who do not identify with any religion in particular) is expected to rise from 1.17 billion in 2015 to 1.20 billion in 2060. In the US, about a quarter of the population identifies as religiously unaffiliated today—up from 16% in 2007. In the United Kingdom, in 2017, 53% of adults described themselves as having no religious affiliation.
And so parents are confronting a complex dilemma: While they may not be religious themselves, they were raised with religion, and they feel a nagging obligation to do the same for their children, in a myriad of ways and for a multitude of reasons. Writing in the New York Times, Nurit Novis Deutsch, who describes herself as both a “religious Jew” and an “agnostic,” describes the need she felt to encourage her kids to believe in a God, even though she didn’t. “Sometimes,” she explains, “we teach them things we don’t believe in just because we want so badly to see that sweet innocence at work and experience unquestioning faith, if only by proxy.”
But how necessary is religion, really? And does raising your child religious actually make them a better—or happier—person?
The potential benefits associated with personal religiousness have been well-documented. They may include less drug, alcohol, and tobacco use; lower rates of depression and suicide; better sleep quality; and greater hopefulness and life satisfaction. A 2001 study showed that personal religious belief and practice act as a buffer against stress and the negative effects of trauma among first- and second-generation immigrant youth, and reduces the rates of depression among that population. Another study linked higher rates of religious service attendance with better test scores among US girls in the South, pointing to an emerging consensus on “the generally positive role of religious practice on education,” according to a 2003 Boston University study.
Religion also has a long history of fostering community and cooperation, as sociologist Azim Shariff explains on an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain. From an evolutionary standpoint, religion provided an incentive for people to treat each other well and act morally—lest they be judged by a higher power and punished accordingly. According to Shariff, when people lived in small, tribal communities, they had plenty of built-in incentive to act for the common good: “If you told a lie, stole someone’s dinner, or failed to defend the group against its enemies, there was no way to disappear into the crowd.” But as human communities grew larger, the notion of a “supernatural punisher”—God—took over to deter people from immoral behavior. After all, as Dominic Johnson, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, told NPR, “punishment is very effective at promoting cooperation.”
But some research indicates that the prosocial advantages of a religious upbringing may be less about the presence of religion itself, and more about how religious you are. (Prosociality is, put simply, the evolutionary incentive to cooperate with other members of one’s species.)
Annette Mahoney, a professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University who studies the effect that religion has on families, parenting and children, explained this in her book, The Best Love of the Child: Being Loved and Being Taught to Love as the First Human Right, as the “dosing effect.”
“The benefits of religion for adolescents seem to be largely attributable to differences between the most religiously involved teens compared to those who are disengaged from religion,” Mahoney writes. In fact, inconsistent religiousness seems to bring little to no benefit at all: According to Mahoney, “religion is not especially helpful for the roughly 53% of US adolescents whose faith is sporadic or poorly integrated.” Practically speaking, this means that you can push your children to go to church on Sunday or pray five times a day. But if they don’t believe, going through the motions of religion won’t give them any of its prosocial and developmental advantages.
Moreover, non-religious kids won’t necessarily suffer any negative outcomes. You can get good grades, be happy, exercise, and cooperate with others without religion, too.
Another factor to weigh when it comes to religion is how it affects family dynamics. Most organized religions advocate for loving and healthy relationships between parents, siblings, and extended family members. Religious institutions also offer formal support systems for families, especially those in need. And the activities organized by these institutions offer families a chance to bond, spend time together, and be a part of the same community—from volunteer trips to bake sales and potlucks. The community part seems to be especially important: According to Lisa Pearce, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, “family members who participate in the same religious institution are likely to have a shared set of social ties with other members of that religious institution.”
In a 1998 study published in the American Sociological Review, Pearce and her colleague William Axinn studied white, mostly Christian families from Detroit using data from the Intergenerational Panel Study of Mothers and Children, and followed them for 23 years. They found that mothers who attend religious services regularly, with or without their kids, reported more positive relationships with their children over time. But while moms who attended religious services seemed to view the quality of their relationships with their kids more positively, it didn’t seem to affect kids’ perceptions either way.
It’s also the case that religion can significantly worsen family relationships—if it becomes a contentious issue. A 2008 study in Social Science Research found that religious discord affects intergenerational relations among younger families. When parents value religion more than their teens do, adolescents tend to report poorer relations with parents. This was especially true in families where both parents and their children shared the same religious affiliation, and in families where the parent was an evangelical Protestant. This makes intuitive sense: if parents try to push their child against their will to pray in a certain way or avoid a certain type of food, that’s bound to create tensions–sometimes, irreconcilable ones. Differences in religious belief cause the most harm in situations in which nonreligious kids live in moderately religious households, as opposed to those where moderately religious kids live in very religious households.
Overall, when there is a religious discord among families, or when some family members practice or believe differently than others, religion can do more harm than good. But for many younger families, religious institutions provide a support network, a system of beliefs and practices to instill their children, and a formal setting in which to share experiences and time with their kids. As Pearce told Quartz, “Parenting can be hard and exhausting, and religion can help you cope and get through the rough times.”
It’s also worth noting researchers in religious studies aren’t sure whether the benefits associated with religion are the result of faith itself, or the rituals that are associated with it. As Mark Regnerus and Glen Elder explain in a 2001 study presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, “the ritual action of attending worship services is a process that operates independently of particular belief systems and organizational affiliations.” You don’t have to be a strong believer to perform some of five pillars of Islam, for example, like zakat, or charity.
“To say that frequent church attendance is associated with better health tells you everything and nothing at the same time,” says Neal Krause, a professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan who studies the social aspect of religion and its impact on adults. “When you walk through the door of that place called a church or a synagogue or a mosque, it’s not like just one thing happens.” What’s helping worshippers, he says, could be anything from prayer to singing church hymns to inspiring sermons or chatting over coffee with fellow parishioners.
Parents who decide to raise their kids without a religion shouldn’t worry that they’re dooming them to lives of unbridled debauchery. “Many people assume that religion is the root of morality, and that religious instruction makes moral kids,” says Will Gervais, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky who studies atheism in the United States. But “our best evidence suggests that moral instincts arise on their own in kids.”
Studies have shown that there is no moral difference between children who are raised as religious and those raised secular or non-believing. Moral intuitions arise on their own in children, independently of religious understanding: For example, as Jenny Anderson writes in Quartz, kids as young as four years old want to cooperate and intuitively dislike freeloaders. “Kids have a pretty strong set of pro-social intuitions around fairness and cooperation, and the need to contribute to larger public goods,” Yarrow Dunham, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, tells Anderson.
Studies have shown that even the youngest kids show signs of understanding the importance of being helpful. But just because kids are inclined to be helpful when they’re young doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll grow up to be. That’s where parents come in: Through a process known as “scaffolding,” they can teach their child to channel that natural desire to be helpful in a productive way.
A great example of this comes from indigenous families in Mexico and Guatemala, where children often volunteer to help around the house in ways that might well inspire envy among other parents. It’s what’s known as being acomedido, which Andrew Coppens, an education researcher at the University of New Hampshire defines for NPR as the act of “knowing the kind of help that is situationally appropriate because you’re paying attention.” The secret to this amazing feat is that parents in Mexico and Guatemala encourage toddlers’ natural desires to be helpful and to learn, which teaches kids to be self-sufficient and accommodating as they grow up.
And so there’s no reason to think that a religious upbringing is necessary to raising a kid with good character and morals, according to Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College. “Morality is about not harming others, and helping those in need, and the idea that this is somehow religions’ domain is one of the greatest lies … in Western civilization,” he said. In fact, his research has led him to conclude that “secular people tend to be less ethnocentric, less racist, less misogynistic, less homophobic, less nationalistic, and less tribal on average than their religious peers.”
The good news for parents struggling to decide how to deal with religion and their kids is that there’s no bad choice—or at least, no definite, foolproof good one. Gervais concludes, “a lot of religious folks assume that religion would be good for kids and atheism would be bad for kids. A lot of prominent atheists assume the opposite. They’re both probably wrong.”
Read more from our series on Rewiring Childhood. This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.