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praychildI remember it like it was yesterday. April 2007. Fox News announced that a sociologist in Mississippi had come out with a study on the benefits of religion for kids… (harp music and waaaavy lines…)

Religion Is Good for Kids” said the headline. I scanned the story for anything that might temper the triumphant certainty of that headline. The source was Fox News, whose fairness and balance are legendary, so I breathed a relieved sigh at the guaranteed absence of spin. “Religion” (everything from voodoo to Unitarianism, presumably) had been confirmed as “good” for “kids.”

Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be less clear-cut.

I expected the study, authored by sociologist John Bartkowski, to show a correlation between membership in a religious community and certain positive outcomes for children. Other studies have explored this (though even the best studies are oversimplified in the media). The correlation has nothing to do with Jehovah, of course, but simply and unsurprisingly points to the benefits of raising kids in a cohesive and supportive community.

Takes a village, and all that.

Religious communities are just one way of achieving this, but they are indeed one way. I could easily see a well-conceived study coming to such a conclusion, then carefully defining what is meant by “religion, “good” and “kids,” noting that this is just one type of supportive community, that more research is needed, and all the other common earmarks of rigor and prudence.

bartBartkowski (author of The Promise Keepers: Servants, Soldiers, and Godly Men and Remaking the Godly Marriage) opens his article on the study with three admirable caveats: (1) The benefit is defined primarily by how well-behaved children are, (2) the data, based on parent and teacher interviews, are entirely subjective, and (3) the data were gathered from a survey conducted for a different purpose and from a cohort consisting almost entirely of first graders.

I consider the first to be the most damning. I want my kids to behave, but that’s sixth or seventh on the list behind many, many other qualities on my list of constituents of the good.

Having acknowledged these three caveats, Bartkowski largely disregards them. By the middle of the paper, he has declared that “the findings that emerge from the present investigation are robust and quite clear.”

In fact, the data are a bit too robust. The study’s data tables indicate that many variables other than religion show significant effects — some even greater than religion — but those go undiscussed in the study. Bartkowski cherry-picked religion and declared it the cause of the child’s “goodness” — a classic example of the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy.

Parenting Beyond Belief contributor Dr. Jean Mercer wrote a response to the Bartkowski piece at the time for the Institute for Humanist Studies. “Bartkowski acknowledged that the direction of causality (if any) was unclear… A study of this type is severely handicapped with respect to interpretation, making it impossible to conclude that one of the measured factors caused another.”

An argument could just as easily be made that cause and effect have been reversed — that the intention to raise compliant kids can lead to church attendance, not the other way around.

Dr. Mercer also considers the subjective data problematic. “It appears that there were no objective measures of child development employed. Instead, parental and teacher assessments of children’s emotional characteristics and ‘approaches to learning’ were analyzed.” Add to this the third element — that a cohort of first-graders represents all kids — and the study’s credibility falls to pieces.

“Membership in a religious group…may have functions similar to those of membership in secular groups such as the Sierra Club or a bowling team,” Mercer concludes. “The appropriate comparison may not involve religion, but the organization of family life around shared interests.”

Given the fatal flaws in the Bartkowski study, I’d suggest the evangelical leanings of the researcher colored his research design and skewed his conclusions, which were then lapped up by an eager Fox. At the very least, the headline should be reworded:

Study: Religion May Make Some First Graders Marginally Easier to Manage

Waaaavy lines…and we’re back in 2010, awakened by the sound of an email hitting the bottom of my inbox (“Have you seen this?”) with a link to an article from the Christian News Wire: “Religious Families Raise Better Children.”

Another study? Well, no. A gentleman by the name of David Beato has written a book testifying to the power of religion in his own life. Religion helped him through personal setbacks and tragedies (among them “deceptive family members who tried to ruin him”), and he suggests it will do the same for others. Fair enough. But to support his case, Beato dredged up none other than the weak Bartkowski study and sent press releases to the usual suspects declaring that “religious families raise better children.”

Hundreds of religious news outlets and church websites have now posted the claim.

“What the research suggests is what many of us have known all along,” Beato says in another release. And there’s the problem. Pretty memes never die. Most people most of the time will pass on claims that reinforce what they want to believe, no matter how weak the foundation. We are ALL prone to this. In most cases, once preference has spoken, no argumentative stake penetrates the heart of a pretty idea.

I usually accept this kind of unkillable thing without retort, and increasingly so as I age and become ever-less-convinced of the ability of argument to pierce the armor of confirmation bias. I know that the most effective response to (for example) the idea that you can’t be good without gods is not to whang on about the Euthyphro dilemma, but to be good without gods.

In this case, the resurrected idea that religion is an essential good for families goes too directly to the heart of Parenting Beyond Belief for me to sit quietly by. I don’t harbor delusions about killing the pretty misconception, but it’s worth making this message available for those who care enough to look for it: Not only is it possible to raise ethical, caring, confident and well-adjusted children without religion, but millions of us are doing so already. The perfect reply. Onward.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.