When the Pew Research Center released their report on America’s religious landscape in 2014, they noted a striking change—specifically, a dramatic increase in the share of Americans who identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated (“nones”). The increase from 16% to 23% between 2007 and 2014, was largely driven by Millennials, a generation that is not only less religious, but also less likely to view religious organizations positively.
In fact, Pew reported in 2016, that Millennials’ ratings of churches and other religious organizations had dropped 18 percent over a 5-year period. In that time, the percentage of Millennials who said churches had a positive impact on the country fell from 73% to 55%. Amicus Communications’ further analysis found that compared to older demographics, Millennials were 10 percent less likely to agree that “Involvement by churches and religious leaders helps communities solve problems,” or that “Religious values make families more stable and helps make better communities.” The majority (58%) agreed with the statement that “Religion is personal and should not play a significant role in society.”
And yet, in spite of the prevalence of these perceptions among Millennials, social science research on the influence of religious involvement in families and society tells a profoundly different story.
Consider, for example, the influence of religious involvement on marriage. A host of studies indicate that religious attendance is linked to marital satisfaction, less likelihood of divorce, and a stronger inclination toward marrying. One study found that marriages in which both spouses attended church regularly were “2.4 times less likely” to divorce than those in which neither spouse attends church. A study of women’s marital satisfaction specifically found that that the happiest marriages were those in which both spouses shared a strong commitment to marriage and attended church together.
These findings make even more sense when looking at how religious involvement impacts men. Bradford Wilcox’s extensive research on fathers found that conservative religious fathers who attended church weekly were the most active and emotionally engaged fathers and husbands of all. They were more likely to express affection and praise toward their children and spend one-on-one time with them. Their wives, in return, reported feeling more appreciated, and more satisfied with the affection, love and understanding they felt from their husbands. These dads also had the lowest rates of domestic violence.
More recently, Wilcox and Wolfinger found that Black and Latino men who attended church regularly were more likely to be employed, steer clear of substance abuse, and avoid incarceration. They concluded, “Religious faith makes for better men…” This “men’s effect” has profound implications for society.
But it isn’t just married couples and men who benefit from religious faith. Christian Smith’s extensive research on youth and religion led him to conclude that highly religious teenagers fare better than less religious teenagers on a host of measures. Regular church attendance is associated with high self-esteem, positive outlook, stronger family and adult relationships, moral reasoning and behavior, community participation, better school behavior and outcomes, less risky or dangerous behaviors, lower levels of substance abuse and alcohol use, and less crime and violence. The strength of the effect of religious involvement remained even after controlling for numerous demographic and socioeconomic factors.
Teens and young adults who attend church weekly are also much less likely to have premarital sexual relations and, for those who do, to restrict those relations to their future spouse. Those who attended church weekly were eight times more likely to be abstinent compared to those who did not. This has important implications for non-marital childbearing and marital stability. Pre-marital sexual relations with someone other than one’s spouse have consistently been linked to divorce later in life.
But the positive implications of being religiously active do not end there. Consider the implications of religiosity for crime rates. Compared with their less religious counterparts, “religiously involved individuals are less likely to carry or use weapons, fight, or exhibit violent behavior.” Decades of research further confirm that greater religiosity significantly predicts less abuse of alcohol and drugs “whether or not denominational tenets specifically prohibit the use of alcohol.”
Religious belief and attendance is also significantly related to individual happiness and sense of well-being. A review of over 100 studies found that frequent church attendance and religious commitment were associated with reduced risk for depression and suicide, while increased religious practice was associated with having “greater hope and a greater sense of purpose in life.”
It shouldn’t be surprising then to find that religious practice consistently predicts better health and greater longevity “regardless of sex, race, education, or health history.”  One report concluded that highly religious individuals live an average of seven years longer.  In fact, the longevity associated with religiosity is comparable to the difference between non-smokers and those who smoke a pack of cigarettes a day. For blacks, increased religiosity meant an increased life span of 14 years.
As if this were not enough to conclude that religious values and involvement have a positive effect on families and society, there is additional evidence for the positive role of religion on economic wellbeing. A recent analysis of the socio-economic contributions of religion in American society found that religious congregations, schools, charities, health care institutions, and higher education institutions contributed $1.2 trillion in monetary value to the U.S. economy alone. Beyond those direct economic benefits, religion’s emphasis on hard work, self-reliance, and strong families develops the foundational principles and structures for thriving capitalist economies. Further, churches and religious organizations are often directly involved in addressing economic needs through programs that help their members receive needed training and education, find employment, and start businesses.
At a time when religion is increasingly dismissed as either a relic of the past or simply a source of irrational, bigoted thought, it is worth taking a look at how religious involvement influences life and wellbeing in America. Social science evidence for the profound positive role of religious belief and activity on families and society is a story that must be told and retold, especially if Millennials are to understand what earlier generations knew and likely took for granted. Religious belief and practice play a central role in our well-being as a nation.