What if we could find something that would make teenagers less likely to become involved in crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and premarital sex? And at the same time, what if this little miracle "something" would turn adolescents into safer drivers, make them more likely to participate in extracurricular activities like sports or student government, and give them a higher sense of self-esteem?

Sound too good to be true? It's not. Religion is the key -- more specifically, the religious communities that are able to transmit the beliefs, values and morals that help give young people a sense of the transcendent, an ordered universe and their own place in it.

That's the conclusion of a new scientific study from the Commission on Children at Risk in its report Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities. The results have tremendous implications for the future of our culture and, perhaps, Western Civilization. But those results also carry deep challenges for the church, which often seems to miss the truth almost as badly as do those in the secular fields of science.

Withering in the Midst of Plenty?

The commission describes itself as an independent, jointly-sponsored initiative of Dartmouth Medical School, the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), and the Institute for American Values. The members consisted of a group of 33 children's doctors, research scientists, and mental health and youth service professionals.

The commission was convened because of a growing sense that children and teens today are facing a widespread and deepening crisis. "In the midst of unprecedented material affluence, large and growing numbers of U.S. children and adolescents are failing to flourish," the commission said.

Mental and emotional difficulties seem to have afflicted our youth at staggering rates, including depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, conduct disorders, and thoughts of suicide -- and a wide variety of physical ailments that have their roots in emotional troubles, such as heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome and ulcers.

The report said: "Despite increased ability to treat depression, the current generation of young people is more likely to be depressed and anxious than was its parent's generation. According to one study, by the 1980s, U.S. children as a group were reporting more anxiety than did children who were psychiatric patients in the 1950s." (Emphasis in original)

Hand-in-hand with these mental and emotional problems, the report also noted what it said were unacceptably high "rates of related behavioral problems such as substance abuse, school dropout, interpersonal violence, premature sexual intercourse, and teenage pregnancy."

There are profound and long-term ramifications of this breakdown, as noted by Dr. Robert Shaw, a child and family psychiatrist and director of the Family Institute of Berkeley in California, in his recent book, The Epidemic: The Rot of American Culture, Absentee and Permissive Parenting, and the Resultant Plague of Joyless, Selfish Children.

If the title of Shaw's work is a bit cumbersome, its message is not. These mental and emotional problems are affecting the nation and its future. "Large numbers of children, even including those who could be considered privileged, are no longer developing the empathy, moral commitment, and ability to love necessary to maintain our society at the level that has always been our dream," he writes.