Shady Science in ‘Spiritual Child’ Bestseller

A new book purports to show how religion helps protects children from the dangers of adolescence. How its shaky interpretations of science obscure the message.

Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters

Nothing will protect our children like a well-developed sense of spirituality, argues Columbia University psychologist Lisa Miller in her new book, The Spiritual Child.

Readers inclined toward skepticism are met with an impressive round of statistics connecting early spirituality to lower rates of what Miller calls the “big three dangers of adolescence”—depression, substance abuse, and risk taking.

While Miller shows a vibrant command of storytelling and scientific data in service of an important topic, her book rests on a concept of spirituality that’s too narrow, leaving little room for a spirituality that’s rooted in the secular world. Occasionally, Miller indulges too far in some metaphysical spookiness and shaky interpretations of science that fall outside her field of expertise—including a study that doesn’t quite exist—but as a guide for parents, it’s a fun and accessible book that does its job well. It’s a missed opportunity, though, to connect to a burgeoning movement aiming to make spirituality accessible to a growing number of nonreligious Americans.


“No other preventative factor known to science and medicine,” Miller writes, “has such a broad-reaching and powerful influence on the daily decisions that make or break health and wellness.”

Citing her own research, Miller shows adolescents with high ratings of spirituality to be 80 percent less likely to suffer ongoing or recurring depression and 60 percent less likely to abuse substances. Adolescent girls high in spirituality, she further finds, were 70 percent less likely to have unprotected sex compared to their less-spiritual peers.

Taking these findings at face value poses a problem for a growing number of Americans. Gallup’s most recent polls report that 12 percent don’t believe in God or a universal spirit. The conception of spirituality Miller discusses in her book, however, relies intimately on one or the other. In the first chapter, Miller precisely defines spirituality as “an inner sense of relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding,” and though the specifics of that higher power can be fleshed out in different ways, “the important point is that spirituality encompasses our relationship and dialogue with this higher presence.”

This is disappointing, since otherwise her book has very much to admire—and since so much other good work has recently explored how to reap the rewards of spiritual fulfillment without supernatural commitments. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly in All Things Shining wrote about how the nonreligious can turn to great works of literature to find meaning and sacredness in everyday life; Dan Harris’s 10% Happier walks through the many benefits of mindfulness meditation; Nancy Ellen Abrams in A God That Could Be Real finds strength and comfort, not in the supernatural, but in collective human aspiration; and even Sam Harris, the father of New Atheism if there ever was one, has made laudable efforts to reclaim the word “spiritual” for secular purposes in his most recent book, Waking Up.

I was hopeful that Miller would continue this trend, but such views get extremely limited treatment.

While discussing the tight correlation between spirituality and positive traits like grit and optimism, Miller found in one of her studies that 16 percent of adolescents and young adults didn’t fit this pattern. They scored low on spiritual transcendence but high on these positive qualities. She spends a few sentences intrigued by these outliers (which she calls “virtuous humanists”), but never addresses the topic again. In a relatively long book so dense with data, rich stories, and human portraits, this oversight is striking. Either her conception of spirituality is too narrow and may miss as many as one in six cases, or there are other promising ways to access spirituality’s many benefits.

Miller and I spoke about this and other topics on the phone, and she informed me that virtuous humanism is even more common in adults. “It’s about one in five,” she told me. “That is extremely important because for many people the value in living is in the relationship between people. It’s in the space between them and those they love.”

She went on, “I hope that [research] is the bedrock for saying ‘Let’s assess the meaning and purpose found in the relationships of the 20 percent, because it’s working.’” I asked Miller why virtuous humanism was excluded from the view of spirituality discussed in her book. “If we were to look at, say, the 150 to 200 best studies,” she told me, “they didn’t address what you’re raising.”

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“This book sums up where we are,” she added.

Miller is at her best when telling stories, be it from her own family or from the parents standing around during her children’s soccer practice, or discussing research from her own field, clinical psychology. Straying too far from that center, though, can lead Miller onto shaky and sometimes spooky terrain.

Two studies in particular, cited from The Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, stood out to me. First, Miller was discussing what she called “heart-knowing,” something I initially read as metaphorical. She went on, however, to suggest that the heart may literally function as a “neurophysiological organ of perception, particularly in relation to intuition,” citing a paper that argues that hearts are able to perceive the future.

The paper puts forward a theory “based on holographic principles” that explains “how intuitive perception accesses a field of energy into which information about future events is spectrally encoded.” Later, to support the idea of a “nonlocal mind” which can psychically connect parent to child, Miller cites a study that purports to show that psychic healers in an fMRI scanner can cause brain activation to a recipient being scanned in another room. These ideas aren’t incidental—Miller includes such scientifically suspect abilities like heart-precognition and psychic links as part of her six core spiritual strengths.

At one point, Miller described a study by Yale psychologist, Paul Bloom, where 5- and 12-month-old infants watched a puppet show involving one nice puppet and one mean one, and the infants could distribute candy between the two. In Miller’s description, both sets of infants recognized the mean puppet’s infraction (based on eye gaze), but only the 1-year-old babies responded in turn to the mean puppet’s cruelty (by giving them less candy). The 5-month-old infant, however, shared candy equally between the nice and mean puppets. To Miller, this is evidence of infants’ “unconditional love and acceptance” and their “generous and complete” hearts—a feature that is lost by the time babies turn 1 and act based on “moral merit” and “contingent value.”

The issue, however, is that no study quite like it exists.

I was a student of Bloom’s as an undergraduate and an assistant in his lab (on unrelated projects), and the study Miller described was unfamiliar to me. She provided me the paper before we spoke—only Bloom’s book, Just Babies, was cited in her own book—and there were important differences to the study she described. The ages of the infants involved were different (5- and 8-month-olds, as well as some toddlers, not 5- and 12-month-olds), and only the toddlers distributed treats to the puppets. The study wasn't interested in judgments toward nice and mean puppets per se, but rather judgments about puppets that were nice or mean to the nice or mean puppets.

The central question being explored was whether infants care about the recipients of actions over and above the actions themselves. Eight-month-olds do, they like puppets that treat mean puppets meanly; 5-month-old infants don’t, they always like the nice puppet, even if it’s nice to a puppet that’s mean.

Addressing these differences, Miller said, “This is a parenting book, and we tried to summarize in sketches, and it’s possible that we summarized in a sketch that perhaps oversimplified. But the conceptual point is that the 5-month-old may truly be showing some form of unconditional love or be motivated by what people call radical love. They’re non-retributive. They don’t harsh out on bad guys.”

I spoke with Bloom briefly over email to get his take, and he has a different understanding of the moral lives of infants. “There’s a lot of evidence that even the youngest babies carve the world into ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ and they are strongly biased to favor the ‘us.’ Babies are tribal beings, favoring those in their group and cold-blooded towards the rest of humanity,” he told me. “Our morality is pretty much what you would expect given that our natures have been shaped not by a loving God, but by the unforgiving force of natural selection.” I may be overindulging my wonkish interest in the nuances of cognitive and social development, but these discrepancies stuck with me.

On the whole, Miller is keen in her apprehension of modern ills—we’re indeed too often focused on external markers of success, too often disconnected from loved ones, too often bereft of moral meaning and purpose, too often incurious or quick to judgment, and too often stingy with our love and gratitude. The prescription she presents in the book, though, is incomplete and misses something important.

We don’t need to believe anything otherworldly to slow down and reflect, see intrinsic value in one another and meaning in our relationships, or greet the natural world with wonder and curiosity. And the bond between a parent and child is in no way cheapened without involving a mystical connection between nonlocal minds, just as our hearts are in no way hardened without the ability to sense the future. Any view of spirituality that doesn’t recognize this will be a spirituality that’s far too narrow, and Miller, to her credit, seemed hopeful the science would grow.