The Impact of Finding God Early

Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins may not like it, but the findings from a new paper on the impact of a religious childhood sound pretty reasonable to me.  

The Role of Religious and Social Organizations in the Lives of Disadvantaged Youth
Rajeev Dehejia, Thomas DeLeire, Erzo F.P. Luttmer & Joshua Mitchell
This paper examines whether participation in religious or other social organizations can help offset the negative effects of growing up in a disadvantaged environment. Using the National Survey of Families and Households, we collect measures of disadvantage as well as parental involvement with religious and other social organizations when the youth were ages 3 to 19 and we observe their outcomes 13 to 15 years later. We consider a range of definitions of disadvantage in childhood (family income and poverty measures, family characteristics including parental education, and child characteristics including parental assessments of the child) and a range of outcome measures in adulthood (including education, income, and measures of health and psychological wellbeing). Overall, we find strong evidence that youth with religiously active parents are less affected later in life by childhood disadvantage than youth whose parents did not frequently attend religious services. These buffering effects of religious organizations are most pronounced when outcomes are measured by high school graduation or non-smoking and when disadvantage is measured by family resources or maternal education, but we also find buffering effects for a number of other outcome-disadvantage pairs. We generally find much weaker buffering effects for other social organizations.

This echoes findings from a previous paper by 3 of the 4 authors, which showed that adult churchgoers are less likely to suffer a happiness shock when their income falls.

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18 Responses to The Impact of Finding God Early

  1. allen says:

    If your wife was cheating on you, you would be happier if you did not or never found out. But you would prefer to be told. I hope that society would value preference over happiness. The value of truth is not in happiness.

  2. Kevin Cox says:

    Perhaps not needing to “have a god” is one of the extra perks of being wealthy. If this is the case then maybe we could expect that as we get fewer poor people so we will get less church goers.

  3. Patrick says:

    Well, that would seem to hold in Europe, and, if less so, in America.

    Unfortunately many of them actually degrade, by taking something as truly capricious as the Environment for their God, or by even greater failing of the imagination, having no God but taking something as indefinable as ‘capitalism’ as their devil.

    In both cases it is easily arguable that the defining characteristics of the change are not riches but a lack of imagination and an excess of hubris (ie wanting all-good or all-evil ’causes’ within one’s own power to influence, rather than a detached and infinitely superior deity).

  4. Russell says:

    It’s risky though isn’t it – there may be some benefits “overall”, but there’s also the chance of individual catastrophic harm (sexual abuse in Catholic institutions comes to mind).

  5. And in other shocking news economists discover again that religion is indeed the Opium Of The People.

  6. reason says:

    I actually don’t think Chris Hitchins and Richard Dawkins would find it surprising as well. All it says is that poor people are better off with a support infrastructure. The nonsense ideology that comes with it is an unfortunate side effect.

  7. Spiros says:

    Is this true of all relgions, or particular kinds?

  8. Benjamin O'Donnell says:

    I agree with “reason”, for the most part.

    This finding affects Dawkins’ views not at all. His argument is primarily about whether the claims of religion are true, not whether religious belief or practice is beneficial. He does raise possible quasi-Darwinian explanations for the prevalence of religion on the basis that it is not adaptive in itself, but that it’s a side-effect of other adaptive traits. But he doesn’t exclude the possibility that religion might be adaptive in itself.

    This study is probably more of a threat to Hitchens’ case, but since Hitchens’ “case” is largely an empty (if entertaining) rant (unlike Dawkins, who actually has something of value to say) that’s hardly a matter of any moment.

    Interestingly, this study goes a long way to confirming the points made by the third of the “atheist musketeers”, Daniel C Dennett in his “Breaking the Spell” book. Dennett goes on at some length examining the community-promoting effects of religion and expresses concern as to how what he sees as the necessary debunking of religious myths might inhibit this positive social effect of religion.

  9. Verdurous says:

    Patrick,

    Re: -”Unfortunately many of them actually degrade, by taking something as truly capricious as the Environment for their God, or by even greater failing of the imagination, having no God but taking something as indefinable as ‘capitalism’ as their devil.”

    ….and yet sadly some others mistakenly think it is the other way around. But you’ll see the light. :-)

  10. Leon says:

    “And in other shocking news economists discover again that religion is indeed the Opium Of The People.”

    Hmm, I think that comment is actually quite inappropriate in this case. The study didn’t address the impact of a religious upbringing on childhood happiness. It suggested that a religious upbringing tends to help children “achieve” as adolescents or adults.

    It’s more evidence for a Religious Work Ethic than any opiate-like effect, and in fact suggests the opposite of what Marx was implying: the religious amongst the proletariat don’t fail to revolt because they’re drugged, but because they’re on their way to the bourgoisie.

  11. That ‘Opium of the People’ quote is out of context anyway. Marx was arguing in favour of religion, not against it.

    He was arguing that Religion is necessary because it calms people, comforts them when in distress. In Marx’s day, opium was not known for being the insidious drug it is today. He was not saying religion makes people mindlessly happy. He was saying religion is necessary because it is comforting. He meant it in a good way.

    This is the full quote, in context:

    Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

  12. Wayne says:

    Stephen Lloyd,
    There is no doubt that Marx has certainly been one of the most misquoted philosophers of the 19th century and that perhaps, we have misinterpreted his original meaning of opium and religion, but in other tracts Marx is certainly no lover of religion. Marx drew a lot of his anti- religous thinking from the german philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach who believed God was a mere creation by men to control people and religion was a means of organised social control.

  13. TB says:

    Gee, no shortage of comments with an anti-religion bent…

    To take on just one comment that I find jarring, ‘reason’ says “All it says is that poor people are better off with a support infrastructure. The nonsense ideology that comes with it is an unfortunate side effect.”

    But if you read the whole abstract, it clearly says that religious organisations help substantially more than social organisations. Yet your comment appears to ignore that….

  14. reason says:

    TB…
    Other social organisations? Like the boy scouts or football clubs?

  15. reason says:

    TB
    If you want to be in favour of religion, please answer me this one – does it matter which religion it is? Because religions have differing ideologies, sometimes bitterly opposed (30 years war anyone). So if all religions will do, then it is not the content of the belief itself that is important it is the structure and probably the group discipline that it brings with it. I stand by my point.

  16. reason says:

    TB…
    Another thought occured to me about this study – how do they avoid massive selection bias. Could it be that those families that are both disadvantaged (often code for disfunctional) and choose to be non-religious have a particular set of characteristics that make them unsuited for raising children.

    Tell me, how do you think another study that compared the families religious and non-religious tenured academics would pan out? I wonder why they concentrated on the disadvantaged?

  17. TB says:

    reason, if you’ve got questions about the study’s methodology, go and read it. I was just making the obvious point that your comment conveniently ignored what was contained in the abstract, which was the starting point for the post.

  18. reason says:

    Unfortunately, I have to pay to read the study.

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