Effects of Religious Practice on Society

Considerable research has emerged over the past five decades that demonstrates the benefits of religious practice for society. Religious practice promotes the well-being of individuals, families, and the community.

Regular attendance at religious services is linked to healthy, stable family life, strong marriages, and well-behaved children. Religious worship also leads to a reduction in the incidence of domestic abuse, crime, substance abuse, and addiction. In addition, religious practice can increase physical and mental health, longevity, and education attainment. These effects are intergenerational, as grandparents and parents pass on the benefits to the next generations.

George Washington articulated the indispensability of the freedom of religious practice in his farewell address to the nation:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness-these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.1)

The practice of religion is a powerful antidote to many of our nation's pressing social ills, many of which have reached historically high proportions. Yet, despite the societal benefits of religion, the expression of faith in the public square has faced many challenges. Social science research indicates that permitting and accommodating free religious practice is necessary to move society in positive directions.

1. Education

(See Effects of Religious Practice on Education)

Because education is important in so many ways for all citizens, any factor that promotes academic achievement is important to the common good. Academic expectations, level of education attained, school attendance, and academic performance are all positively affected by religious practice.2) In two literature reviews conducted by Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas at Austin, educational attainment aspirations3) and math and reading scores4) correlated positively with more frequent religious practice. The below graph, based on analysis of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, gives a picture of GPA scores across the U.S. for adolescents in grades 7-12.5)

GPA in Math and English by Religious Practice

Parents' religious practice also affects their children’s educational outcomes. The greater the parents' religious involvement, the more likely they will have higher educational expectations for their children, and the more likely they will communicate with their children about schooling.6) Their children will be more likely to pursue advanced courses, spend more time on homework, establish friendships with academically oriented peers, avoid cutting classes, and successfully complete their degrees.7) According to Dr. Patrick Fagan and Dr. Scott Talkington’s analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, individuals who attended religious services frequently were more likely to graduate from high school8) and to receive a Bachelor’ s degree.9)

Received a High School Degree by Religious Practice

Received a Bachelor's Degree by Religious Practice

Students in religiously affiliated schools tend to exhibit a higher level of academic achievement than their peers in secular schools, particularly in low-income urban neighborhoods. For example, studies continue to find that inner-city students in public schools lag behind in educational achievement, compared with students in Catholic schools.10)

The cultural values of a religious community are also a significant pathway to academic success for adolescents. For example, to earn a high school diploma or take advanced math courses, children must plan for the future and structure their activities accordingly. Religious communities typically invest in forming an ethic of such discipline and persistence. A recent study confirms both this indirect contribution of religious community values and the direct influence of the students' own religious activities in promoting academic achievement.11)

Earlier studies found this same relationship between religious practice and academic discipline. For example, in 1985, the groundbreaking work of Richard Freeman of Harvard University revealed that attendance at religious services and activities positively affected inner-city youth school attendance, work activity, and allocation of time—all of which were further linked to a decreased likelihood of engaging in deviant activities.12) Youth who frequently attended religious services were five times less likely to skip school, compared with peers who seldom or never attended.13)

2. Economy

2.1 Charity

(See Effects of Religious Practice on Charity)

Religious practice is linked to greater generosity in charitable giving and volunteering. In extensive research documenting the relationship between religion and philanthropy, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute found that religious people were 25 percent more likely than their secular counterparts to donate money and 23 percent more likely to volunteer time. Even when it came to nonreligious causes, religious people were more generous.14)

Charity and Volunteering

Brooks also demonstrated that religious practice correlates with a higher rate of care and concern for others. Compared with peers with no religious affiliation, religious respondents were 15 percent more likely to report having tender, concerned feelings for the disadvantaged. This gap was reduced by only 2 percent when the effects of education, income, marital status, sex, race, and age were taken into account.15)

2.2 Social Mobility

(See Effects of Religious Practice on Poor Communities)

For youth in impoverished neighborhoods, religious attendance made the greatest difference in academic achievement prospects, according to research in 2001 by Mark Regnerus. As rates of unemployment, poverty, and female-headed households grew in a neighborhood, the impact of a student's level of religious practice on academic progress became even stronger.16)

Regnerus goes on to suggest that religious affiliation had a positive impact on educational attainment for African-Americans residing in a high-risk neighborhood, even when controlling for family structure, although its effect was strongest for youth living in two-parent families.17) The role of religion in building relationships and habits of hard work “reinforces a conventional (as opposed to alternate or illegal) orientation to success and achievement.” Youth religious affiliation in combination with religious families and friends serves to integrate youth into the broader society and shapes their aspirations for education and achievement.18)

3. Crime

(See Effects of Religious Practice on Crime Rates and Effects of Religious Practice on Substance Abuse)

Religious attendance is associated with direct decreases in both minor and major forms of crime and deviance, to an extent unrivalled by government welfare programs.19) There is a 57 percent decrease in likelihood to deal drugs and a 39 percent decrease in likelihood to commit a crime among the young, black inner city population if they attend religious services regularly.20) Decades of research also indicate that a higher level of religious involvement is associated with a reduced likelihood of abusing alcohol21) or drugs.22)

4. Health

(See Effects of Religious Practice on Health)

In a 2002 systematic review of the academic literature on the effects of religion, the majority of research revealed that religious commitment and practice can lead to increased self-esteem and well-being.23) Religious practice is also related to greater longevity,24) and a reduced risk of a number of health complications like colitis or different forms of cancer.25)

5. Family Relationships

(See Effects of Religious Practice on Family Relationships)

The practice of religion not only stabilizes marriage, but also improves its quality. Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia found that the more frequently husbands attended religious services, the happier their wives said they were with the level of affection and understanding that they received and the amount of time that their husbands spent with them.26) Similarly, religious participation tends to foster an authoritative, warm, active, and expressive style of parenting. Parents who attend religious services are more likely to enjoy a better relationship with their children27) and are more likely to be involved with their children's education.28) Moreover, the greater a child's religious involvement, the more likely both the child and parent will agree about the quality of their relationship,29) the more similar their values will be, and the greater their emotional closeness will be.30) However, some of the same research also shows that religious differences within families can detract from the parent-child relationship.

James D. Richardson, Compilation of Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1897 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1907), Vol. 1, p. 213.
2) , 6)
Jennifer L. Glanville, David Sikkink, and Edwin I. Hernandez, “Religious Involvement and Educational Outcomes: The Role of Social Capital and Extracurricular Participation,” The Sociological Quarterly 49, no. 1 (2008): 105-137.
3) , 16)
Mark D. Regnerus, “Making the Grade: The Influence of Religion upon the Academic Performance of Youth in Disadvantaged Communities,” University of Pennsylvania, Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society Report No.3, 2001.
4) , 17) , 18)
Mark D. Regnerus, “Shaping Schooling Success: Religious Socialization and Educational Outcomes in Metropolitan Public Schools,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 39, Issue 3 (September 2000), pp. 363-370.
Patrick Fagan, Kirk A. Johnson, and Jonathan Butcher, A Portrait of Family and Religion in America, The Heritage Foundation, 2006.
7) , 11)
Chandra Muller and Christopher G. Ellison, “Religious Involvement, Social Capital, and Adolescents' Academic Progress: Evidence from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988,” Sociological Focus, Vol. 34, No. 2 (May 2001), pp. 155-183.
Patrick F. Fagan and Scott Talkington, “'Ever Received a High School Degree' by Structure of Family of Origin and by Current Religious Attendance,” Mapping America Project. Available at http://marri.us/wp-content/uploads/MA-99.pdf.
Patrick F. Fagan and Scott Talkington, “'Ever Received a Bachelor's Degree' by Current Religious Attendance and Structure of Family of Origin,” Mapping America Project. Available at http://marri.us/wp-content/uploads/MA-105.pdf.
Derek Neal, “What Have We Learned About the Benefits of Private Schooling?” Federal Reserve Bank of New York Economic Policy Review, Vol. 4, No. 1 (March 1998), pp. 79-86.
Richard B. Freeman, “Who Escapes? The Relation of Churchgoing and Other Background Factors to the Socioeconomic Performance of Black Male Youths from Inner-City Tracts,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 1656, June 1985.
Douglas M. Sloane and Raymond H. Potvin, “Religion and Delinquency: Cutting Through the Maze,” Social Forces, Vol. 65, No. 1 (September 1986), pp. 87-105.
Archur C. Brooks, “Religious Faith and Charitable Giving,” Policy Review 121 (2003): 39. Available at http://www.hoover.org/research/religious-faith-and-charitable-giving.
Arthur C. Brooks, “Compassion, Religion, and Politics,” Public Interest (September 22, 2004): 57–66.
19) , 20)
Byron R. Johnson, David B. Larson, Spencer De Li, and Sung Joon Jang, “Escaping from the Crime of Inner Cities: Church Attendance and Religious Salience Among Disadvantaged Youth,” Justice Quarterly 17, no. 2 (June 2000): 377-339.
John Gartner, David B. Larson, and George Allen, “Religious Commitment and Mental Health: A Review of the Empirical Literature,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 19, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 6–25.
Deborah Hasin, Jean Endicott, and Collins Lewis, “Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Patients with Affective Syndrome,” Comprehensive Psychiatry 26, no. 3 (May–June 1985): 283–295.
23) , 24)
Byron R. Johnson, Ralph Brett Tompkins, and Derek Webb, “Objective Hope-Assessing the Effectiveness of Faith-Based Organizations: A Systematic Review of the Literature,” Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, 2002, at crrucs_objective_hope.pdf (June 30, 2005).
Jeffrey S. Levin and Preston L. Schiller, “Is There a Religious Factor in Health?” Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 26, No. 1 (March 1987), pp. 9-35.
W. Bradford Wilcox, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 186.
Lisa D. Pearce and William G. Axinn, “The Impact of Family Religious Life on the Quality of Mother-Child Relations,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 63, No. 6 (December 1998), pp. 810-828.
W. Bradford Wilcox, “Religion, Convention, and Paternal Involvement,” Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 64, No. 3 (August 2002), pp. 780-792.
William S. Aquilino, “Two Views of One Relationship: Comparing Parents' and Young Adult Children's Reports of the Quality of Intergenerational Relations,” Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 61, No. 4 (November 1999), pp. 858-870.
Lisa D. Pearce and Dana L. Haynie, “Intergenerational Religious Dynamics and Adolescent Delinquency,” Social Forces, Vol. 82, No. 4 (June 2004), pp. 1553-1572.

This entry draws heavily from 95 Social Science Reasons for Religious Worship and Practice and Why Religion Matters Even More: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability.