CNN Response

There’s been a lot of commentary–not all of it pretty– on a article about *Almost Christian* that appeared today ( ).  I’ve had some emails from people who want to know the source of this statement:  

  “There are countless studies that show that religious teenagers do better in school, have better relationships with their parents and engage in less high-risk behavior,” she says. “They do a lot of things that parents pray for.”

Great question.  I wish the article would have said that we shouldn’t raise children as Christians to keep them safe–but that’s a theological position, out of bounds for the secular media.  However, there are a number of places you can find social science research that points to the relationship between at-risk behavior and teenage religiosity.  Most of them note that religiosity is correlated with less risky behavior.

You could scroll through the Sociological Abstracts data base and come up with these studies.  But one place where this literature is summarized is in Christian Smith and Melinda Denton’s *Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers* (Oxford, 2005).  (Some of these studies are also on their website –  These findings echo research I was involved in with the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development twenty years ago.  Search Institute in Minneapolis has also done research over the years on the role of religiosity in reducing at risk behavior adolescents.  Religious participation is one of the “developmental assets” that help young people grow up healthier, according to Search’s research.  

But let me offer three caveats (because news articles never have enough nuance to satisfy people like me):  

1) As you know, correlation is not causation.  I wouldn’t want to say religiosity causes these behaviors–it might, it might not–but there is a consistent correlation.   

2) Many young people are unaware that there is a correlation between their religious faith and their behavior (most youth are in this boat, according to the National Study of Youth and Religion).    

3) Many studies consider “participation” (worship attendance, going to youth group, stuff like that) as the indicator of high religiosity.  I’m not so sure about that personally.  It would be nice if that were true–but there’s plenty of at-risk behavior going on among church-going teenagers.  So while there is *less* at risk behavior among religious teens, religious participation does not eradicate it. 

I get nervous when people think, “Oh, if we make teenagers go to church, they will be safe.”  I’m not convinced that Christ calls us to be safe. If you want teenagers to be safe–is a religion based on a guy who died on a cross out of divine love for others really the place to go?  

Thanks for the thoughtful questions!