Children Raised in Religious Environment Better Protected From Depression, Substance Abuse and Risky Behavior Interview with:

Dr. Tyler J. VanderWeele

Dr. VanderWeele

Dr. Tyler J. VanderWeele PhD
Department of Epidemiology, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health,
Boston, MA What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: There have been a number of prior studies on religious practices of adolescents, but this study is a relatively big step forward because it is considerably more rigorous than the vast majority of prior studies. The study uses a large sample of over 5,000 adolescents, it follows them up for more than eight years, it controls for many other variables to try to isolate the effect of religious upbringing, and it looks at many outcomes.

In our analysis, we found that children who were raised in a religious or spiritual environment were subsequently better protected from the “big three” dangers of adolescence – depression, substance abuse and risky behaviors. For example, those who attended religious services regularly were subsequently:

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

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.

Moreover, a religious upbringing also contributed towards to a number of positive outcomes as well such greater happiness, more volunteering in the community, a greater sense of mission and purpose, and higher levels of forgiveness. For example,those who attended religious services were subsequently:

  • 18% more likely to report high levels of happiness
  • 87% more likely to have high levels of forgivenessThose who prayed or meditated frequently were subsequently:
  • 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. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: The public health implications of this research are somewhat nuanced. People generally do not make decisions about religious involvement based on health, but rather on beliefs, values, truth claims, relationships, experiences and so forth. However, for parents and children who already hold religious beliefs, I think such religious and spiritual practices could be encouraged. Modern life is very busy, and it can take a strong commitment to participate in a community, or to set time aside for prayer and meditation. Our study suggests that for those who already hold these beliefs, setting such time aside in parenting, and for adolescents to engage in these practices, is worthwhile. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: Because our study sample was relatively homogeneous we were not able to look at differences across religious or spiritual traditions. I think this would be an interesting area of future research. In our own work we would also like to examine potential interaction between religious upbringing and parental warmth or love and see how these might mutually reinforce each other. Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Response: We do not often think about religious community or about parenting practices very much in public health. However, the results of our study suggest fairly substantial effects on a number of different health and well-being outcomes. These things do shape the health of populations and I think they need to be discussed and considered more frequently within public health.


Ying Chen, Tyler J VanderWeele; Associations of Religious Upbringing With Subsequent Health and Well-Being From Adolescence to Young Adulthood: An Outcome-Wide Analysis, American Journal of Epidemiology, , kwy142, 


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