I was alerted to this piece on a social website. In this intriguing article Brian Bethune and Genna Buck, though clearly convinced by the evidence supporting the importance of spirituality in healthy development, do give a balanced picture and report on dissenting voices. Below is a short extract: for the full article, see link.
Research shows kids raised with spirituality are happier and healthier in the vulnerable teen years. Why aren’t we all signing up?
Eighteen years ago, Lisa Miller, now the director of clinical psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College, had an epiphany on a New York subway car. She had been poring over the mountains of data generated by a three-generation study of depressed women and their children and grandchildren. The biological trend was clear: Women with severe—and particularly with recurrent—depression had daughters at equally high risk for the psychological disorder. At puberty, the risk was two to three times greater than for other girls. But the data seemed to show that the onset and, even more so, the incidence of recurring bouts with depression, varied widely.
Miller couldn’t discern why. Raised in a close-knit Midwestern Jewish community, she had already looked for what she says psychologists rarely bothered to seek—religious belief and practice—and found some mild benefit for both mothers and children, but nothing that stood out among the other variants, such as socio-economic status. Then came the subway ride.
“There I was, on a Sunday—quite invested in this question, wasn’t I, going up to the lab on a Sunday,” recalls Miller in an interview. She was in a subway car crowded at one end and almost empty at the other, because that end was occupied by a “dirty, dishevelled man” brandishing a piece of chicken at everyone who boarded while yelling, “Hey, do you want to sit with me? You want some of this chicken?” The awkward scene continued for a few stops until an older woman and a girl of about eight—grandmother and granddaughter, Miller guessed—got on. The man bellowed his questions, and the pair nodded at one another and said, “Thank you,” in unison, and sat beside him. It astonished everyone in the car, including Miller and the man with the chicken, who grew quieter and more relaxed.
The child’s evident character traits—compassion, acceptance, fearlessness—at so young an age prompted Miller’s eureka moment. What struck her was the nod and all it implied: “It was clear as day that the grandchild fully understood how one lives out spiritual values in her family.” Twenty minutes later, Miller was in her lab, running equations on the data that were, in effect, a search for “the statistical nod.” She was looking for mother-teen pairs who had reported a shared religion or non-religious spirituality. She calls the results “the most amazing science I had ever seen.” In the pairs Miller found in the data, shared spirituality (religious or otherwise)—if it reached back to the child’s formative years—was 80 per cent protective in families that were otherwise at very high risk for depression.
It was the start of a long and sometimes rocky road for both Miller and the place of spirituality—however defined—in mainstream psychological thinking. She remembers doors literally slammed in her face and “people walking out of talks I was giving.” But Miller and other researchers, including so-called “spiritual” neuroscientists like Montreal’s Mario Beauregard and the much-cited American psychologist Kenneth Kendler continued to explore the intersection of religiosity and mental health in studies published in major, peer-reviewed science journals. By the end of it, as Miller sets out in a provocative new book, The Spiritual Child, out later this spring, she was convinced not only of spirituality’s health benefits for people in general, but of its particular importance for young people during a stage of human development when we are most vulnerable to impulsive, risky or damaging behaviours.