The value of religion

There’s a rapidly growing body of research that attests to the value of religion to society.

Darren Bernard

The best way to project the social problems of tomorrow is to look at the youth of today. You’d be surprised to see what the newest generation has geared up.

Don’t look to television for confirmation but government statistics that show violence, promiscuity and most illicit drug use are at decade lows and continue to fall. According to the Child Trends Data Bank, cigarette use is plummeting. Per Young Adults Educating Responsible Driving, drunk driving among teenagers – while not low enough – shows no signs of returning to past levels. Even suicide is down.

The real problems of today’s youth are much less publicized. By almost every measure, the newest generation – the so-called Generation Y – is materialistic, politically disengaged and pathologically dishonest. Today’s young people have undersized character with oversized bodies: According to the American Obesity Associaton, taxpayers dole out more than $100 billion a year to help their “generously proportioned” peers.

But it’s child’s play next to how Generation Y treats religion. Medical care could be utterly unaffordable, democracy could go the way of communism and corporate scandals could pile-drive our economy back to the 1930s, but it’s God we should be worried about.

During the last four decades, scientific studies and surveys have suggested young people are slowly abandoning organized religion. Today, fewer 18- to 25-year-olds believe in God, attend weekly church services or identify with a mainstream Christian denomination than at any point in our nation’s history.

In its place, as a study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles released last week showed, is “spirituality.”

“Today’s college students have very high levels of spiritual interest and involvement,” the authors concluded about their 112,000-person study. “Many are actively engaged in a spiritual quest and are exploring the meaning and purpose of life.”

Among a slew of other indicators, the study found 76 percent of students have an interest in spirituality “somewhat” or “to a great extent.” A similar number – 74 percent – have discussions about the meaning of life with friends. More than three in five college freshmen say they’ve had a spiritual experience while “witnessing the beauty and harmony of nature.” The study found nearly half of young adults consider it “essential” or “very important” to “seek out opportunities to help me grow spiritually.”

At first glance, the study seems to contradict the hullabaloo coming from conservative opinion-makers about society’s secularization.

But it actually reinforces the fears we’ve had all along. Spirituality – defined by fads in yoga, Eastern philosophy and New Age gobbledygook – is what appeals to Generation Y. Religion, on the other hand – defined by church-going, social capital and philanthropy – is the scorn of today’s youth.

The difference might seem insignificant. It’s not. There’s a rapidly growing body of research that attests to the value of church-going and a belief in a God.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported that researchers concluded in two separate studies last week that church attendance and a belief in a God can reduce the cognitive decline of Alzheimer’s disease patients and thwart feelings of depression among black people. Past research shows elderly adults who frequently attend church services live longer than those who go “infrequently” or “never.” Adults who participate in religious activities spend less time in hospitals, have healthier immune systems, are less likely to suffer from alcoholism or depression and tend to have lower blood pressure.

For children, the correlates of religious participation are virtually limitless. According to research compiled at Child Trends Data Bank, teenagers who are active in their churches are less likely to enjoy danger, get in trouble with the police, skip school, be suspended, expelled or sent to detention, engage in violent behaviors, use illicit drugs or abuse alcohol, or have high levels of sexual experience. Children who frequently attend religious services are more likely to be physically active, volunteer and participate in student government.

And this isn’t even exhaustive. In his acclaimed book, “Bowling Alone,” Harvard University professor and accomplished sociologist Robert Putnam argues church attendance is one of the most powerful means for trimming social isolation. Accordingly, he argues that participation in religious activities is closely linked to secular forms of civic involvement, such as voting, participating in community projects and giving time and money to charity. “Religiosity,” he said, “rivals education as a powerful correlate of most forms of civic engagement.”

Adults and youngsters alike: Be warned. Much of the “good news” about spirituality researchers are starting to spoon-feed us isn’t very good at all. While spirituality is a good thing, it lacks the organizing and motivating benefits religion provides. The glut of research on religiosity should make every parent wonder why it has become so accepted to demonize traditional organized religion. It should make everyone wonder if the vocal secular wings of U.S. society don’t have ulterior motives.

Darren Bernard welcomes comments at [email protected]