Godly Guardrails Keep Kids on the Academic Track

GGG book cover 197x300 - Godly Guardrails Keep Kids on the Academic Track(This article previously was published on the Institute for Family Studies website.)

It is commonly thought that devoutly religious people are less educated. If that were the case in decades past, it is not so anymore, and certainly not among the younger generation. Very religious youth are more likely to get better grades than non- and moderately-religious youth, and they graduate from college to a greater extent. Those are the findings of Tulane University professor Ilana M. Horwitz in her book God, Grades, and Graduation: Religion’s Surprising Impact on Academic Success (Oxford University Press, 2022).

Religion is usually associated with improving one’s prospects in the afterlife. But literally thousands of studies in recent decades confirm how powerful religion can be in improving prospects in this life, mainly in the areas of mental and physical health. God, Grades, and Graduation is a valuable addition to the literature, adroitly explaining how religion can improve educational outcomes. A dry read it is not: Horwitz supplements her extensive findings with scores of personal stories of adolescents. In fact, I found myself reading excerpts from those stories to my own teens, in the hope of inspiring them.

Horwitz focuses on Christian students, mainly because in the Christian-majority United States, they constitute the vast majority of study subjects. And she has no Christian axe to grind; currently Assistant Professor and the Fields-Rayant Chair in Contemporary Jewish Life at Tulane, she is “fairly agnostic about God.” She comes from an academic background of studying educational outcomes based on race, class, and gender. But about a decade ago while a graduate student at Stanford, she could not help but notice how many of her neighbors centered their lives around church and faith, and wondered if that shaped their children’s educational trajectory. She searched for studies on this but came up empty. So she started doing studies of her own.

Drawing from sources that include the National Study of Youth and Religion, the National Student Clearinghouse, and more than 200 interviews, among her findings is that devoutly religious high school students are about 10 percent more likely to earn A’s than other students, “which is statistically quite substantial,” she notes. They are about 40 percent more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree. And they are not few in number; Horwitz estimates that about one in four students in American schools are “abiders” as she calls them – i.e. religiously devout, who orient their everyday lives around their faith.

The grades and graduation rates of abiders versus nonabiders (i.e., non- or moderately religious adolescents) vary depending on race, gender, and socioeconomic status. The gap is particularly pronounced among working- and middle-class white males, who are prone to engage in risky behaviors that derail them from academic achievement. But for a subset, “godly guardrails” keep them on track, she explains.

John was a case in point. Among kids like him whose parents are high-school graduates, only about 15 percent end up getting a college degree. Too many things knock such kids off the road to higher education, such as school suspensions, substance abuse, and a home environment where literacy and learning are not prioritized. But John was religiously devout. His grades weren’t the best, but he did not drink, use drugs, party, or even use profanity. He obeyed his parents and teachers and exercised self-discipline—qualities that helped him go on to higher education.

These days, the ideals of public schools and of religious institutions may seem worlds apart, but one thing they have in common is an emphasis on maintaining social order. A “hidden curriculum” in school is the “three Rs”—rules, routines, and regulations. A central principle of Christianity, writes Horwitz, is a commitment to authority, as well as delaying gratification and following norms and rules. Such habits are highly valued in the public school system. Devoutly religious persons tend to score higher on conscientiousness, which entails being self-disciplined and organized. Cooperation and agreeableness–connoting being considerate, kind, and sympathetic–are factors that tend to boost religious students’ school success as well. These personality traits translate into refraining from skipping class or school, taking more advanced courses, completing homework and curricula, having more academically-oriented friends, and having fewer behavioral problems.

There is something of a paradox in her findings: abiders who come from upper-middle-class and affluent families, especially females, tend to choose less-selective colleges even though they could get into more selective ones. The result can be lower lifetime earnings. Why do they “undermatch”? Reasons given in interviews include a desire to: stay local to be closer to family; attend conservative Christian colleges to stay closer to their faith; live at home rather than on campus in order to avoid an intense party scene; and to avoid spending too much time with people who have different morals. These students are not necessarily eager to climb social class ladders, preferring a God and family-centered life, observes Horwitz.

They may take a financial hit. But attesting to the adage that money does not buy happiness, it is their overall wellness that counts. “The pattern was clear,” writes the author. “Abiders are significantly less likely to experience emotional, cognitive, or physical despair. They feel less anxious, healthier, and more optimistic about life. Without a doubt, their deep relationship with God helps them overcome several challenges they bump up against. Abiders are simply more resilient. This is driven by their involvement in a religious social community but also their steadfast belief in God.”

In her concluding chapter is a call to action: admissions counselors of selective colleges and universities should seek out religiously devout applicants, not only to boost and maintain the number of top-quality students but also to promote intellectual diversity. There should be an “openness by college admissions counselors to view religious and ideological diversity as valuable when admitting applicants.”

That recommendation is a breath of fresh air in a world where devout Christians on campus often feel they are under siege. Unfortunately, powerful factors are working against increased ideological diversity, not only coming from professors and administrators who are disproportionately atheist, agnostic, or even outright anti-Christian, but also from prospective religious students themselves, many of whom are highly reluctant to step into such an environment. So in addition to Horwitz’s recommendation to make greater efforts to attract abiders, selective colleges and universities should make similar efforts to recruit religiously devout faculty and administrators—and not just Muslims but also Christians and Orthodox Jews.

Speaking of Muslims and Orthodox Jews, Horwitz does not address the extent to which adolescents of those faiths improve their grades and graduation rates, perhaps because survey data is lacking. She does indicate that unlike certain abiders, Jewish adolescents are eager to attend selective colleges, but here she does not differentiate between Orthodox and non-Orthodox.

In any event, it is quite ironic that religious belief and practice are declining while the research on its mental and physical health benefits keeps piling up. With Horwitz’s book, add educational benefits to the mix. By raising a child to be a good worshipper, parents are likely to enjoy the added benefit of raising a good student.

Want Better Health? Go to Church

red cross crucifix 276x300 - Want Better Health? Go to Church

Church-goers are healthier and happier

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, you should be a Christian because you really want to follow the teachings of Christ, not because of any worldly benefits that come with being a Christian.

Even so, there’s one worldly benefit associated with being a regular church-goer that’s worth noting: good physical and mental health. Numerous studies have shown that those who attend weekly religious services enjoy better health, on average, than those who don’t.

Statistically, frequent church-goers live an amazing average of seven years longer than non-church-goers, according to an academic study.

With so many fitness buffs and longevity-obsessed folks, one would think more of them would embrace the Church, given all of the research linking faith and health. Again, this shouldn’t be the main reason for embracing the Church. But it could be an incentive that gets them in the door. Once there, they may even evolve in their attitude and start to go to church out of love of God rather than love of health.

That’s sort of what happened to this observer. After being away from the Church for a number of years, I came back to it upon getting married. Yet I was still lukewarm in the Faith. I read that greater longevity among church-goers could be because of the social relationships one forms there. (I later realized that it’s actually mainly because of the spiritual relationship one forms with God.) It’s one of the things that prompted me to join a men’s group in my church. That along with other positive influences led me to prioritize my spiritual health over my physical health.

So again, while the health benefits of church shouldn’t be an end-all and be-all, they can be a useful incentive.

Atheists, agnostics and non-church-goers take note: your group as a whole suffers, on average, higher rates of physical ailments, depression, suicide, alcohol use and drug addiction. Your group has greater marital instability, weaker parent-child relationships, lower lifetime earnings, lower educational attainment and higher rates of criminal activity. Of course, you personally may be fine. But statistically, you’re at higher risk of the above.

These aren’t some trumped-up claims made by people with a religious ax to grind. These are the conclusions of many scholars in the sciences and social sciences whose work appears in numerous non-religious scholarly journals including Demography, Psychological BulletinJournal of Personality and Clinical Studies, Social Science Research, and Preventive Medicine.

Headlines in LiveScience.com — hardly a religious or conservative publication — include “Churchgoers live longer,” “Online prayer helps cancer patients,” “Churchgoers breathe easier” and “Why religion makes people happier.”

Why would preparation for your well-being in the afterlife lead to greater physical and mental well-being in this life?

Religious belief often prompts one to view one’s body as sacred and a gift from God, which reduces the likelihood of such factors as smoking, drinking, unhealthy eating, unsafe driving, physical inactivity and substance abuse. Religious persons also tend to have a greater support network of family and friends, which encourages healthier lifestyles. And as indicated above, direct intervention from God no doubt has something to do with it.

People prone to anxiousness and depression tend to die sooner than would otherwise be the case, and religious practice often reduces those negative mental conditions. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found that very religious persons are less likely to have been diagnosed with depression during their lifetimes than the moderately religious or nonreligious.

The evidence that religion has such a strong positive effect on health and well-being is so compelling that some non-religious mental health professionals even recommend religion therapy for their patients. “Religious therapy resulted in significantly faster recovery from depression when compared with standard secular cognitive-behavioral therapy,” according to a study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

It definitely cuts down on suicide. A New York Department of Transportation worker, Isidor Suarez, talked a man out of jumping off a bridge. After confirming the man was a Christian, Suarez told him, “If you kill yourself, it’s like murder.” The man relented. He must have recalled the Christian teaching that suicide is a sure ticket to hell.

The hell factor I’m sure is just one of the many factors resulting in less suicide among church-goers. An American Journal of Psychiatry study found that they’re significantly less likely to commit suicide than those who never attend religious services. The latter saw fewer reasons for living and had fewer moral objections to suicide.

Another very secular institution, National Public Radio, featured a story that goes a long way in explaining why religion has such a profound positive effect on outcomes and behavior. The perception that someone or something is always watching, evaluating and judging your every move can make a model citizen out of you in no time.

NPR interviewed Jesse Bering, director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University, Belfast, and a committed atheist. He conducted a fascinating study where he divided children into three groups and had them do a game where it was almost impossible to win unless they cheated. One group was unsupervised, another group was supervised and another group was told an invisible magic princess was watching them.

The results? You guessed it — while the unsupervised group cheated the most, the magic princess group was just as likely to not cheat as the group supervised by a human.

The NPR reporter mentioned a similar study with adults showing that people are far less likely to cheat when they think a supernatural presence is watching them.

“God knows what you did. God is going to punish you for it. And that’s an incredibly powerful deterrent,” Dominic Johnson of the University of Edinburgh told NPR. “Everywhere you look around the world, you find examples of people altering their behavior because of concerns for supernatural consequences of their actions.”

The French philosopher Voltaire is said to have banned any talk of atheism around his servants. “I want my lawyer, tailor, valets, even my wife, to believe in God,” he said. “I think that if they do, I shall be robbed less and cheated less.”

What if you’re an atheist or agnostic who’s convinced that church is a good thing, but you just can’t bring yourself to believe?

Go to church anyway. As reported by LiveScience.com, a study in the American Sociological Review concluded that the social networks one forms at church are a big factor in boosting well-being. People with more than 10 friends in their congregation were almost twice as satisfied with life as people with no friends in their congregation. And who knows — you just may come around to believing.

If you still can’t be a believer, raise your kids to be, if you have any. While it’s no guarantee, chances are that it will help them live longer and be happier.

And, as predicted based on the magic princess example above, religious kids are more likely to be better behaved and adjusted, according to a study. (Although the opposite could happen if parents regularly argue over their faith at home, the study found.) Another study concluded that religious children have higher self-control and lower impulsiveness, and do better at delaying gratification and social adjustment.

This begs the question: Would the well-known atheist Christopher Hitchens have lived longer than age 62, had he not embraced atheism?

Not necessarily. If it was smoking and drinking that led to his throat cancer, turning toward religion certainly may not have tempered his preference for booze and tobacco. There are plenty of unhealthy church-goers who die before their time, and lots of healthy atheists who live long and fruitful lives.

Statistically, however, the religious outdo the atheists when it comes to longevity and satisfaction.

Another French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, urged atheists to make a wager. Embracing religion means you have everything to gain in the afterlife if there’s a God, and nothing to lose if there isn’t a God.

But it’s not just the afterlife. When it comes to being healthy and happy, embracing religion means you have everything to gain and nothing to lose in this life, too.


(A version of the above article previouslly appeared in The Daily Caller.)

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