Are Religious Kids More Likely to Be Good?

Are religious kids less likely to get into trouble? Child Trends’ review of recent research studies says “yes.”

Kids who are more religious are less likely to be involved in theft, vandalism, or violence against others. However, if you statistically control for the quality of the parent-child relationship (which tends to be better for kids who don’t get in trouble and better for kids who are more religious), the link between religion and good behavior is usually not as strong.

Kids who are more religious are much less likely to use drugs or alcohol. For example, a study of high-risk white high school boys found that multi-drug use was more than three times higher among those who never attended church services than those who attended church services at least once each week. (Note that church attendance did not include religious school attendance or church-related social activities.) The “protective value” of church attendance seems to be strongest for teens in the worst neighborhoods. Religious beliefs are not as consistently important as church attendance in predicting drug use.

Teens who attend church, value religion, or hold strong religious beliefs are less likely to have sex, but when religious girls have sex for the first time they are less likely to use contraceptives. In contrast, religious boys apparently use contraceptives more consistently than other boys.

A somewhat surprising finding is that kids who are more religious tend to behave more altruistically, but their attitudes are not necessarily more altruistic than their classmates.

Many people believe that religious faith helps people to feel emotionally healthy. However, there is no research to support a link between children’s religious opinions and mental health or emotional well-being.

Parents’ religious activities also seemed to help protect children from harmful behaviors. Parents who had strong religious beliefs were less likely to have children who were sexually active, substance abusers, or engaged in delinquent activity.

The report concludes that despite the substantial amount of research that has been conducted, little is known about the long-term impact of religious beliefs and behaviors, or about the impact of religiosity involving religions other than Christianity.

  1. Bridges L, Moore K. Religious Involvement and Children’s Well-Being: What Research Tells Us (And What it Doesn’t). Child Trends Research Brief. September 2002
    available free online at