Meaning, Values and Spirtuality in Children and Youth

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 14. December 2013 - 17:29

Symposium on Meaning, Values and Spirituality
in the Development of Children and Young People

Winterthur, Switzerland, 5-6 December 2013

organized by the Centre for Social Pediatrics, Cantonal Hospital of Winterthur
in collaboration with the Club of Rome

See a synthesis of the main points at

As a medical centre, the Centre for Social Pediatrics, as part of of its daily work with children, young people and parents, as well as in discourse with experts, frequently focuses on the question of values and ideals, and how these are communicated. What are the reference points for adolescents? What are their wishes and aspirations? Who are their role models; what are their guiding principles? In childhood, it is usually the parents that communicate purpose and values. But when dealing with the challenges of our globalized world, adults also sometimes experience insecurity, asking “What it’s all about?” – material independence, happiness, love, faith, knowledge…? Is there anything that “holds the world together in its inmost folds”, as Goethe puts it in Faust? Can faith – a spiritual foundation – help children, young people and adults find fulfilment and contentment?

The symposium was of particular interest because it provided a scientific perspective on many of the issues being addressed by the International Environment Forum, although the focus of most speakers was Europe rather than the whole world. The multidisciplinary perspectives from sociologists, psychiatrists, theologians, educators, and even a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, highlighted some key issues about religion and spirituality in the modern world and the challenges ahead. The decline of interest in the environment among young people is of particular concern. The full programme is given below.


In the first keynote, Prof. Freidrich Schweitzer, who holds the chair of Religious Education/Practical Theology at the University of Tübingen, reviewed various studies of youth and religion, of which few were methodologically sound longitudinal studies, and then mostly American. He noted that secularization, individualization and relativism were replacing the plurality of religions and world views, which were themselves differentiating. He concluded that religion is a resource for education and therapy, since youth want experience that will give them a values orientation. While there are risks of traumatizing with the wrong approach, they should be dealt with rather than just excluding religion. Growing children have questions, like about death and dying, that religion can help to answer. The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child includes a right to spirituality, so religion is a fundamental human right for children.

Prof. Gunther Klosinski, former Medical Director of the Clinic for Children's and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Tübingen, asked if faith can damage a child's soul. He referred to extreme cases of religious and spiritual abuse, having treated those who had left scientology, hari krisha, opus dei, trancendental meditation, etc. However in a pluralistic society where institutionalized churches were less appealing, it was normal to ask: Who am I? Where am I going? A psychiatrist must offer something in a dialogue with patients. He reviewed eight theories of youth psychiatry:
1. Images of God are part of a general world view that changes as children grow up, always unfinished;
2. Religion has roots in an archetypical primal trust, where God holds and welcomes us;
3. An exclusively anthropomorphic perspective, human-like, with God the father or mother;
4. Different stages of religious development, in which faith is challenged;
5. Dedicating to God what I cannot control or influence, with the metaphor of the guardian angel;
6. The time at school, in puberty, when faith is caught between poles or contradictions: power-powerlessness, justice-injustice, meaning-lack of meaning;
7. The danger of indoctrination or spiritual abuse, where a punishing, sanctioning God leads to guilt;
8. The subjection to a religious dogma, where religion may trigger or be drawn into depression, psychoses and other mental disorders.

The concept of God is an interpersonal event, both real and imaginary, and an emotional and intellectual challenge, that can identify support and help in life.

He also reviewed neurobiological findings, such as the ability to show empathy linked to mirror neurons. Overload from religious or spiritual abuse can switch this off. Some religious groups use hypnotic space, internal focussing or guided affective imagery to leave people open to a guru's suggestions which can lead to dangerous dependence.

There is a clear connection of religion and health, with religious people psychologically and socially healthier, from a strong basis for self-esteem, better coping strategies, and the social support of like-minded people. Attachment theory says that the quality of attachment is important in childhood development. To over-simplify: people with secure childhood attachments see God as loving, caring and close, while those with insecure attachments feel unworthy of God's love, see God as remote and cannot relate.

He reviewed religious abuse, leading to feelings of guilt, fear of failure, and self-punishment. Religion should help to develop self-identity, not alienate, prevent critical rationality and stop dialogue. It is difficult to rebel against a religious cult that claims to have the ultimate truth (Seventh-day Adventist, Jehovah's Witness, Hare Krishna). Inability to deal with ambiguity or to question can lead to narcissistic transfer or masochism, but it is dangerous to be outside. Youngsters find themselves alone outside. Children must accept what the parents say, but they see the contradiction between their family and everyday life. The result can be obsessional neuroses, with compulsive rituals to satisfy God or prevent danger. An almighty punishing God will hinder young peoples' development. If parents separate or disagree, religion can be mixed into the conflict between parents with the children trapped in between, which can be traumatic.

He concluded with guidelines for educating children positively about God. The infant starts with the primal trust in the parents. By the second year, God shows mercy but has both sides. At 3-5 years, God should integrate their reality, with language and words, so they can think for themselves, and can touch it. In primary school, children can understand shades of grey, different forms of God, and relative justice. Puberty is a time for guiding without indoctrinating, a positive approach without hidden commitments. The ideal belief is a search for God that never ends, with a concept always evolving and moving (or it will fossilize).

Dr. Thomas Gensicke, a sociologist and project leader on family, education and civil society at TNS Infratest Social Research Munich, explored value orientation and identity markers in children and young people, based on a major longitudinal study of 7000 German youth 12-25 years old. Values are what people wish to have, what is important, anchored in emotions. They can be discussed but are not easily challenged. In principle they determine action (but not always), since putting values into action is difficult. The system of values arises in small group or family situations, forming a personality, and sometimes drawing on tradition. There is a reward in following values, and breaches can cut off friendships. Small group values produce private harmony with a partner and friends, but also responsibilities. A personal identity is formed through social rules, and includes creative and emotional dimensions. The world of business or work has its own values and laws. Supplementary or optional values can include those of the consumer society and lifestyle, and an overarching awareness expressed as religiousness or spirituality (for young people), as well as ecological and health consciousness. Old people see religiousness as tradition, while young people turn more to ecology and health. There can be social commitment, but politics has no appeal. In America, tradition and conformity are important, while Germans are cut off from their past. Values are usually stable in the short term, but not in the long term. In the last 30 years, there has been a decline in overarching conceptions and an increase in consumption values (with gender differences); social commitment is declining and tradition increasing.

Surveys of religiousness show a declining belief in God is western Germany and a continuing low belief in eastern Germany, with 40% each considering God important or unimportant. About a quarter each of the population believe in a personal Christian God, accept some supernatural force remote from the church, are religiously insecure and do not know, or are atheists with no form of God. Migrants are mostly believers.

The genesis of a value orientation depends on the group. For those with religiousness, a strong personal God leads to strong values, social commitment and a strong family. Those with a vague religion turn more to the environmental aspects. For other groups, religion has no effect. A good family life is important at all ages, while the importance of a good partner emerges at 18-20 years old. Friends and identity are important sources. For self-responsibility versus conformity, the importance of independence increases up to age 21, then decreases. There is a desire to develop imagination and creativity and to discover one's own feelings. For secondary virtues, the acceptance of social roles increases, while respect for law and order declines after 21. The importance of tradition shows a major decline from 12 to 25, as does a belief in a traditional God. There is a decline of religiousness, with only fragments of spirituality remaining. Belief in hard work has increased greatly, probably due to increasing competition for jobs, but with an instrumental concept of economically-competitive performance. The importance of a high standard of living declines with age. Tolerance of other opinions has decreased in the last decade, and there is a resistance to militant ideologies. Environmental awareness has collapsed; youth have lost interest in the topic, which is mostly defended today by those over 60. With respect to the conditions for religion to play a part in modern life, a release from superstition can permit spirituality to assume any form, with more free spirituality. Well-structured religious systems will come back. The intensifying social networking is creating more loyalty, and there is still a need to find a real value in life.

Martin Palmer, Secretary-General of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, noted that religions were by far the most sustainable organizations in the world, persisting for thousands of years. Yet today everything that is beautiful, moving or spiritual is replaced by data. Meaning is not communicated by numbers, but by narrative. We are a story-telling species, and need to develop the ability to relate our own story. Our values consciousness or subconsciousness is passed on in ethos. The ecological and climate change crisis with a linear time line to apocalypse simply paralyzes action. We discuss what to do and how to do it. The values questions are why? Why care? Why show charity, defend the weak? Why be committed? Why keep going?

He emphasized the importance of diversity, and the need to develop a sense of self-worth in a pluralist world. North-west Europe is the exception, not the norm, where faith values are seen as negative strait-jackets and GDP ignores values and faith. We never hear about values enhancement. The Chinese are reconnecting with religion, since community values have survived there only in faith. There is a hunger among the young (under 35) for change about spirituality (not religion), with an emphasis on values and morality. How do we help young people to find their way among many stories, religions, ideologies? Religion degenerates into discussions about ethics (a smoke-screen), when it is ethos that shapes people and defines values. Diversity moves the planet, not uniformity; we should celebrate diversity, being proud of our own tradition but open to others. We should draw on the powerful narrative forces of art, poetry, religion, and sport, with celebration, not a dirge, and bring romance into economics. There is no environmental psalm book or joke book; a sin book does not work.

There were short presentations by Stephanie Gysel, a Protestant theologian and parish priest, about values for children. Values are things that are part of a good life, that provide points of reference. We should find what we all have in common; justice does not belong to one tradition. Children should have examples of love, and practicing values, with the possibility to fail, stumble, and learn from it. Dr. Oskar Bänziger, who heads a medical service in Zurich, discussed psychological disorders in adolescence: hyperactivity, addictions, autism, depression, psychosis. Autism has increased fourfold in the last decade. While psychological disability often starts in youth, protected jobs do not lead to real jobs, and incentives are needed to move the disabled off pensions and into real work. Prof. Ulrike Ehlert, Institute of Psychology, University of Zurich, described the psychological and biological consequences of stress in pregnancy, which increases stress susceptibility later in life.

Prof. Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati, Head of the Centre for Religion, Economy and Politics at the University of Zurich, addressed the tough issue of religion between culture, society and politics. After defining the evolution of the concept of religion, she summarized religious theories in science, from the evolutionism of Frazer going from magic to religion to science, and Durkheim seeing the contribution of religion as a tool to create cohesion, a system of solidarity, and a moral community, to Rudolf Otto's focus on holiness and the inner soul (a largely Judeo-Christian perspective). Cultural history has also developed a scientific concept of religion. Religion is a part of culture, in interaction with other social systems, a process of communication using a system of symbols and world views with normative functions. It provides a connection between a community and its individual members, legitimizes the distribution of power relations, and provides an identity through affiliation or exclusion. There is a tension in religion between innovation and tradition. Religion is a complex system to communicate and integrate at multiple levels, based in a culture and society (not in some limbo outside). Today religion is rooted in democratic systems and regulated by the State to ensure religious freedom.

Ulrich Schnabel, a physicist, editor (Zeit) and author from Hamburg, took a scientific approach to how neurobiology explains faith. Why did religion evolve? While religions refer to revelations from God, a scientific/anthropological view notes that all cultures have constantly-evolving religious systems. Religion is a human phenomenon not observed in animals, and an expression of human needs. The symbolic expulsion from paradise and separation from God took millions of years, as man developed reason and evolved self-awareness, intentionality, and the ability to understand and to influence the state-of-mind of other people. Self-knowledge comes at a high price, as we become aware of the dangers and unavoidable death. We feel expelled from innocence and ignorance (Eden). This created the need for re-bonding (religion), thinking about a higher power that can read your mind, and thus the breeding ground for religious systems. A baby starts with full belonging, then forms a personality and separate identity, but isolation is the end of the world. Religion provides paths to transcend the self, as part of nature and life, with rituals, dance, music and worship services, to acknowledge that we belong to the community, to God. There are two forms of awareness: self-interest and belonging/connectedness. The neurobiology of religious experience shows brain regions that are activated by meditation, focusing on love or compassion. The brain can be trained to activate these regions. However controlled experiments are difficult as people are so sensitive to suggestion. In medicine, faith helps those who strongly believe it will help them, similar to the placebo effect, or a nocebo effect if you believe in a punishing God. What is the relationship of religion and reality? Reality is in the eye of the beholder, and we structure it to our expectations. Religion is part of our relationship to the world.

Sylvia Collins-Mayo of the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Kingston University (UK) reported on the worldview of generation Y in England. After the baby-boomers (born 1945-1960) with their counter-culture, freedom and authenticity, and Generation X (1961-1981) of pop culture and consumerism, Generation Y (1982-2001) has grown up with the information technology revolution, climate change, terrorism and the credit crisis. It shows a clear decline in the Christian worldview, as faith is not passed on by their parents. In one survey, 27% belonged to a Christian faith, and 54% belonged to no religion. In their benign worldview, their core value is relationships, and their goal is happiness (shallow or deep). What is important is being myself through individual effort, to grow to a happy ideal, which is meaningful as it is. Life is basically ok, and there is no need for searching, for spirituality. Secular ethics (relating to others, making the right choices) are important, but spirituality is formative rather than transformative. Bad things can happen, so you turn to popular culture to provide information, but it is difficult to admit failure or acknowledge problems. If you are unhappy you are excluded, so you keep it inside. In the faith of Generation Y, there is no room for God, but an immanent faith in family, friends and self, requiring authenticity and being true to oneself. There is occasional mild speculation on the “big questions”. There are still fragments of Christian culture. Prayer is culturally available, but God is not obligatory. It is used for petitions, confession, gratitude and dealing with shame. One first turns to family and friends, with prayer only a weak backstop.

Prof. Robert Ernst, Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on nuclear magnetic resonance, discussed the search for meaning in free will or complacency. After describing his own life as a rebel thinking out of the box, he launched a frontal attack on the consumer society, with a globalized and commercialized world of brutal and erotic advertising, with profits for the few, and many losers. Naive inexperienced children cannot resist these pressures and suffer badly. They become passive consumers, dependent financially and with their motivation undermined. The omnipresent pressure to consume is reflected in the screens everywhere forcing us to consume visually. Radio, TV, computers are saturated with advertising. Morality is gone, with everyone fighting everyone. We are victims of attention theft, forced to watch, leading to hyperactivity and pathological multitasking. He advised not to play this game, which undermines society financially and morally. The remedy is to communicate creativity to young people, how to do things themselves without instructions or manuals. Give them space to win the self-confidence of having done things themselves. Create independence, free will and responsibility.

Prof. Jürgen Oelkers, former Head of Institute for Educational Sciences, University of Zurich, described how primary schools react to the conference theme. With the separation of Church and State, religious interest is vanishing. In modern secular life, there is no instruction of children in religion, certainly in northern and eastern Europe, less so in Catholic countries. Yet the cultural significance of religious traditions is part of general education. Peaceful coexistence and tolerance are threatened by ignorance of religions. Today there is no right belief, and for some any belief is fundamentalist. Theological intolerance has gone, although sects require isolation to uphold their truths.

The Canton of Zurich has instituted compulsory instruction in religion and culture, with one hour a week over 9 years by specialized teachers, covering 5 world religions: Christianity (Catholic and Protestant), Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. The presentation is neutral and informative, not a call to belief. There is no religious indoctrination, and teachers do not have to be believers. Children are not educated to a faith, and are not penalized for not believing in God. There is no clash of cultures. Godlessness is not important in a non-believing society, but immigrants bring in their faiths, so they must be included in education. Spirituality has not disappeared; the questions remain, and religious experience is part of education.

In developing the curriculum, they used American Academy of Religion guidelines for teaching in schools: basic tenets; other expressions and variety; role of religion in culture and politics; variety and diversity of faiths; multiple voices. The six religious communities prepared a consensus paper on the essentials in a contact group for teaching materials, with a meticulous development of content. Confidence was built over 10 years, and the approach was accepted by parents. The aim was neutral instruction across religions, about religion, including the possibility of life without religion, with a commitment to plurality and acceptance of students of all origins.

In the final presentation on spirituality and health, Dr. René Hefti of the Research Institute for Spirituality and Health, and Medical Director, Clinic SGM Langenthal, said that values and spirituality were important for children. He cited Victor Frankl that existence is filled with meaning through practicing values. The bio-psycho-social model of development can be extended by adding a religious/spiritual dimension. There is now a Handbook of Religion and Health, and a rising number of publications. A meta-analysis on physical health shows that religiosity/spirituality reduces mortality by 20%, even 30% for women and those with more organizational activity. An Austrian study of youth lifestyles and spirituality showed less smoking and other risky behaviour. With those suffering anxiety and depression, a value orientation and self-sufficiency are protective, while a loss of faith predicted less improvement. The effect can go both ways, with a negative vision of God being harmful. This is a field that needs more interdisciplinary dialogue.

[Notes by Arthur Dahl from the English translations of German lectures in most cases, so accuracy is not guaranteed.]


Welcome and introduction Rolf Zehnder, Hospital Director, Cantonal Hospital, Winterthur, Switzerland
Dr. med. Kurt Albermann, Chief Physician at the Centre for Social Paediatrics (SPZ), Vice Medical Director, Department of Paediatrics and Adolescence Medicine, Cantonal Hospital, Winterthur. Switzerland
Ian Johnson, Secretary General, Club of Rome, Winterthur, Switzerland

Meaning and values in the spiritual horizons of children and young people
Prof. Dr. Friedrich Schweitzer, Chair for Religious Education/Practical Theology Evangelist Theology Faculty at the University of Tübingen, Germany

Can faith damage a child’s soul?
Prof. em. Dr. med. Gunther Klosinski, Former Medical Director, Clinic for Children’s and Adolescent Psychiatry, University of Tübingen, Germany

Statements from children and young people
Pupils, students, Winterthur/Fribourg

Value orientation and identity markers in children and young people
Dr. Thomas Gensicke, Senior Project Leader, Field of Family, Education, Civil Society, TNS Infratest Social Research, Munich, Germany

Meaning, values and spirituality in the development of children and teenagers in a globalised world
Martin Palmer, Director Int. Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture (ICOREC); Secretary-General, Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) Bath, United Kingdom

Which values should we communicate to children?
Stephanie Gysel, M Th UZH, Preschool Centre, Reformed Church, canton of Zurich, Switzerland

Psychological disorders in adolescence – what then?
Prof. Dr. med. Oskar Bänziger, Head of Regional Medical Service, SVA, Zürich, Switzerland

Stress in pregnancy: psycho-biological consequences for further development conditions
Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Ulrike Ehlert, University of Zurich, Institute of Psychology, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Zurich, Switzerland

The tough issue of religion: a challenging phenomenon between culture, society and politics
Prof. Dr. Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati, Religious Studies, Head of the Centre for Religion, Economy and Politics, University of Zurich, Switzerland

How biology attempts to explain faith
Ulrich Schnabel, Physicist, ZEIT editor and author, Hamburg, Germany

The worldview of Generation Y in England
Dr. Sylvia Collins-Mayo, PhD, Principal Lecturer, Department of Sociology and Criminology, Kingston University, Kingston upon Thames, United Kingdom

Free Will or Compliancy: Searching for Meaning in Youth and later
Prof. Dr. Richard Ernst, Prof. em. for Physical Chemistry, ETH Zurich, and Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Winterthur, Switzerland

Culture and religion: how do primary schools react to the conference theme?
Prof. em. Jürgen Oelkers, Chair in General Pedagogy, University of Zurich, Former Head of Institute for Educational Sciences, Zurich, Switzerland

Spirituality and health – is there a connection?
Dr. med. René Hefti, Chief Physician and Medical Director, Research Institute for Spirituality and Health, Clinic SGM, Langenthal, Switzerland


The Club of Rome and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation have launched a project on "ValuesQuest: the search for values which will make a world of difference" (see After addressing the root causes of world problems for over 40 years at a broad systemic, holistic and long-term level, the Club of Rome has recognized that values are the main drivers behind societal instruments like economy, education and governance, and that present values are guiding the course of society in the wrong direction. ValuesQuest aims to explore the values needed for a more humane and just society, attuned to the needs of others and to the needs of the planet. It will address the origins of values, and the role of narrative and of stories in transmitting values, providing a philosophical and historical underpinning to the current debate on values. It has opened to the creative arts world and the worlds of spirituality and faith, and has created a partnership with the World Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.


The Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), with which the Bahá'í International Community has collaborated since its founding, has also just been requested by the United Nations to take the lead in developing a values dimension to the post-2015 agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. The UN hopes that such partnerships will ensure some continuity in action regardless of the decisions that governments may (or may not) take at the UN in 2015. Martin Palmer, Secretary-General of ARC, was one of the speakers at the symposium.

Last updated 14 December 2013