Study: How Religious Moms Screw up Their Kids in Different Way Than Atheist Moms

There are a number of reasons why I’m childfree: I like sleep, I like money, I don’t like sharing my Legos. But one big reason is that I see that there are about a billion different ways a parent can really screw up a kid without even noticing, and that’s a responsibility I just don’t want to take on. Like, check out this clip from Fox News host Jesse Waters where had his mom on.

She seems so nice! She seems to value empathy and rationality. But clearly at some point something went terribly wrong. And this actually gets so much worse because I checked his Wikipedia page and learned that his mother is A CHILD PSYCHOLOGIST. And she and her school teacher husband raised THIS MAN.

Meanwhile, my polite Christian conservative parents raised this loud, obnoxious atheist progressive. You just can’t win!

I’m thinking of all this because of a new study that found, according to the marketing, “Children of highly religious mothers are more likely to internalize their problems.” I saw this because of course it hit Reddit, because “In other words mama does not have a clue about communication” and “Religion is fucking stupid” and “You kidding! Thought that was already known by all.”

And yeah, I’ll admit that my first thought was along the same lines: “oh, okay, the children of highly religious parents probably don’t feel safe communicating with them and therefore they internalize things and end up with disorders like depression and anxiety.”

But you know that if my first thought about something was right, I would never bother making a video about it because that’s boring. Being right is boring. Be wrong is fun because it leads to LEARNING! So. Let’s learn.

This study is titled “Examining the role of maternal religiosity in offspring mental health using latent class analysis in a UK prospective cohort study” and it was published recently in the journal Psychological Medicine. And while it did find a “greater risk of internalising problems” in the children of religious mothers compared to agnostic mothers, it also found a “greater risk of externalising problems” in the children of atheist mothers compared to agnostic mothers. That means they found the religious cohort were more likely to have anxiety and depression, while the atheist cohort were more likely to have hyperactivity or conduct disorder. So this study should definitely NOT be used by nonbelievers as proof that religion is inherently bad, because it found that atheist mothers ALSO screwed up their kids, just in a different way. Having depression isn’t necessarily worse than having anger issues. It’s just a different flavor of mental illness.

On to how they actually performed this study: they used an existing database of surveys, which as always is a red flag with a study that’s not pre registered, as it makes it easier to go into the data and find interesting blips. Also, it’s a very white, English-speaking dataset but it IS a BIG dataset: about 14,000 mothers and their 14,000 7 and 8-year old kids living in the Southwest of England in 1991 and 1992. They focused on mothers on the assumption that they did the majority of child-rearing and that fathers would share the same religiosity anyway.

A lot of this type of research uses very simple identifiers to distinguish between very religious, moderately religious, agnostic, and atheist subjects, something I’ve criticized in past videos because I think people’s personal beliefs are complicated and may differ from the labels they apply to themselves and the way they live their lives. But this study used “latent classes of maternal religiosity,” which ”uses a set of observed variables and the conditional probability of responding in a particular pattern to those variables to probabilistically assign participants to a mutually exclusive unobserved group (i.e. latent class).” Those groups, in this case, are “highly religious” and “moderately religious,” which are pretty self-explanatory, “agnostic,” which in this case means someone who is unsure whether or not a god exists and whether or not they’d ever ask a god for help (I know, it’s not the most philosophically or historically accurate definition but it’s the definition used for these groups), and “atheist” which is defined as people who categorically deny the existence of any gods and who are confident that they’d never ask a god for help.

The mental health measures were not based on clinical information, but on self-reports from the children as well as reports from the mothers. That last one is SUPER important because it means we aren’t just talking about religious parenting leading to children being at risk of internalizing problems – we’re talking about that, but also maybe we’re talking about religious parents being more likely to suspect their kids have internalizing problems, or more likely to NOTICE that their kids have internalizing problems. Atheist parents might be more likely to have kids with externalizing problems, and/or atheist parents might be more likely to think or notice their kids have externalizing problems. For instance, imagine two kids who both have depression – one kid’s Christian mother notices and gets him into therapy. The other kid’s atheist mother dismisses it as a normal reaction to the current state of the world.

The study authors discuss these possibilities. They write that religious mothers may be more attentive toward their kids due to their “higher expectations of their child’s morals, an increased likelihood to perform parental monitoring activities and to be more engaged in their child’s life.” That’s great, but they note that “children of religious parents also perceive their parents to be more controlling, which could in turn lead to more internalising and externalising problems. Combined, this suggests that a degree of monitoring or control is healthy and may lead to more attentive parenting, but when it is perceived to be excessive, it can be a stressor to the child.”

Do agnostic parents manage to walk that tightrope better than both religious and atheist parents? Maybe. But the authors also note that maybe the children of religious mothers have more internalizing problems because they’re ALSO religious (not shocking considering they’re only 7 or 8) and thus may be more prone to “rumination,” or repetitive negative thinking, which can lead to depression.

They point out there are fewer hypotheses for why atheist parents have kids with higher risk of externalizing problems, but they suggest that maybe it’s because atheists have a more “external worldview,” looking outward rather than in and thereby encouraging kids to lash out rather than inwardly.

In other words, there are no solid answers here, only more questions. Religious belief is complicated, and the way we raise kids is complicated. It’s certainly possible, even likely that a parents religious beliefs affect the way they interact with their kid, but it can do so in both positive and negative ways. And I say that as someone who is an atheist who thinks that overall, religion is a net negative for humanity – despite that, individuals can use the tool of religion for good or evil. We’re not going to ever see a study that shows unequivocally that atheists are just better parents than Christians or other theists. It’s never going to be that simple.

So just a little heads up: if you see this study wielded as a cudgel against religious parents, that’s just not true. 

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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