«Emily Layton1, David C. Dollahite1, and Sam A. Hardy1 Abstract This study explores adolescent religious commitment using qualitative data from a ...»
Journal of Adolescent Research
Anchors of Religious 26(3) 381–413
© The Author(s) 2011
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Emily Layton1, David C. Dollahite1,
and Sam A. Hardy1
Abstract This study explores adolescent religious commitment using qualitative data from a religiously diverse (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) sample of 80 adolescents.
A new construct, anchors of religious commitment, grounded in interview data, is proposed to describe what adolescents commit to as a part of their religious identity. Seven anchors of religious commitment are discussed: (a) religious traditions, rituals, and laws; (b) God; (c) faith traditions or denominations;
(d) faith community members; (e) parents; (f) scriptures or sacred texts; and (g) religious leaders. The findings broaden the conceptual understanding of commitment as a relational construct and not just a behavioral or attitudinal construct. Implications for future research on adolescent religious commitment are discussed along with practical implications for parents and religious leaders.
Keywords religion, commitment, adolescence, spirituality, identity The majority of the world’s youth are religious (Smith & Denton, 2005).
Religiousness has consistently been linked to higher positive outcomes (e.g., prosocial behavior) and lower negative outcomes (e.g., risk taking and Brigham Young University, Provo, UT
David C. Dollahite, School of Family Life, 2054 JFSB, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org 382 Journal of Adolescent Research 26(3) psychological disorders) for youth (Koenig, 2008; Smith & Denton, 2005;
Wagener, Furrow, King, Leffert, & Benson, 2003). In addition, for many adolescents, religious commitments are foundational to their moral development (Walker & Reimer, 2006), identity formation (King, 2003), and family relationships (Loser, Klein, Hill, & Dollahite, 2008). Nevertheless, it remains unclear how adolescents make, experience, and maintain their commitments to religion and thus become more likely to experience these adaptive outcomes. Furthermore, there seems to be little agreement on how to conceptualize and measure religious commitment in adolescence. Therefore, the present study sought to expand our view of how religious commitments are experienced by adolescents. More specifically, this study examined the following research questions using a grounded theory qualitative methodology: (a) Are there different ways that adolescents experience their religious and spiritual commitments? (b) What is it about religion that adolescents commit to? (c) How do adolescents express their religious commitments?
Importance of Religious Commitment Much research has examined links between religious commitment and various positive and negative outcomes for youth. Generally, youth who are more religious exhibit higher levels of positive outcomes and lower levels of negative outcomes than their less religious peers. For example, religious commitment is predictive of greater prosocial behavior (Hardy & Carlo, 2005), less depression (Pearce, Little, & Perez, 2003), less substance use (Wills, Yaeger, & Sandy, 2003), and postponed sexual intercourse (Hardy & Raffaelli, 2003).
There are a number of possible reasons for these associations; for example, religion teaches prosocial values (Hardy & Carlo, 2005), and provides social controls (Hardy & Raffaelli, 2003) and social capital (King & Roeser, 2009).
Religious commitment is also relevant to moral development. Compelling evidence suggests that religious and moral development are interconnected for many (if not most) people (Walker & Reimer, 2006). For example, Colby and Damon (1992) conducted an in-depth qualitative study of moral exemplars (i.e., individuals identified for their high levels of moral commitment).
Interestingly, although the criteria for moral exemplar nomination did not include anything regarding religious commitment, religious commitment was central to how moral exemplars viewed the world and integrated their goals and concerns. Similarly, for individuals working in a residential community for developmentally disabled individuals, religious commitments helped frame their moral commitments and order their goals (Walker & Reimer, 2006).
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Furthermore, Walker, Pitts, Hennig, and Matsuba (1995) found that many people ground their moral judgments in their religious commitments.
Religious commitment also provides a context and grounds for identity formation for many youth (Good & Willoughby, 2007; King, 2003). Erikson (1968) argued that the making of religious commitments was an important part of identity formation for most people, because religion provides salient ideologies for youth to adopt. In fact, many common measures of identity formation (e.g., the Objective Measure of Ego Identity Status, Adams, 1998) tap religious commitments as one of the key domains of more general identity formation. Evidence also suggests that religious involvement and identity formation are linked developmentally (Hardy, Pratt, Pancer, Olsen, & Lawford, IN PRESS).
Finally, religious commitment can impact family relationships and dynamics. For example, Loser et al. (2008) showed that highly religious families experience the religious and spiritual dimensions of their lives differently than those who are less religious. The individuals in highly religious families reported that their religion was central to their life and the processes and structures within the family. The centrality of religion is reflected in the routines, rituals, relationships, and choices that create the identity of the family.
Conceptualizing and Measuring Religious Commitment Although religious commitment has consistently been linked to positive and negative behaviors, moral development, identity formation, and family relationships, researchers have not yet developed a consistent, thorough way to conceptualize and measure commitment. Prior studies have generally assessed
religious commitment in one or more of the following ways (Gartner, 1996):
(a) religious affiliation (e.g., member of a faith community); (b) frequency of participation in religious activities (e.g., church attendance); (c) attitudes about or salience of religious experiences in life (e.g., the degree to which religion influences other areas of life); (d) belief in traditional religious creeds (e.g., orthodoxy); and (e) typologies of religious orientations (e.g., intrinsic vs. extrinsic).
A few scholars have proposed schemas for organizing the various facets of religious commitment. For example, Dudley (1993) defined three components of commitment: a cognitive or belief component, an activity or involvement component, and an experiential component. More recently, Smith and Snell (2009) used five components in their conceptualization of religious 384 Journal of Adolescent Research 26(3) commitment in the National Study of Youth and Religion. Those five components included the following: (a) church attendance, (b) personal prayer, (c) scripture reading, (d) importance of faith in everyday life, and (e) closeness to God. They cite these five components as “specific characteristics” that describe “common cultural understandings of specific religious types of people” (p. 259).
Worthington et al. (2003) created a two-factor, ten-item scale to measure religious commitments for research and clinical use that includes interpersonal and intrapersonal dimensions. Interpersonal commitment captures the individual’s commitment to values and beliefs, time spent in studying the religion, salience of faith, and the influence of faith on other areas of life, while intrapersonal commitment captures the individual’s affective, behavioral, and relational commitments within the religious group or organization. The relationships between the individual and the members of a religious congregation are emerging as a potentially important factor in adolescent religious commitment. Referencing a term used by Garbarino (1995), King (2003) asserted that religious congregations are “spiritual anchors” that provide youth with a context “in which to grapple with the spiritual issues... critical for commitment to identity” (p. 201).
Consistent with the demonstration that religious commitment has both interpersonal and intrapersonal factors (Worthington et al., 2003), Mahoney’s (2010) review proposed the construct “relational spirituality” to describe the “multidimensional interface between the search for relationships with the search for the sacred” (p. 8). While Mahoney did not address issues of religious commitment, our understanding is that the pathways connecting religion with individuals and families are highly relational, as we hoped to demonstrate in this study.
The Present Study The study of religious commitment is still in a nascent stage, particularly as it pertains to the period of adolescence. Hence, this is an ideal time to further explore religious commitment in depth using qualitative research methodology. A key strength of qualitative methods is that they are positioned to uncover the ways in which adolescents themselves experience, understand, and describe their religious commitments, and the functions and meanings these commitments have for them in their lives. Therefore, the present study will complement this developing body of literature by revealing the landscape of religious commitment by exploring (a) how adolescents talk about their religious commitments, (b) the different dimensions and expressions of these commitments, and (c) how their families and faith communities impact how they experience their religious commitments. It was hoped that this study would broaden and enrich the conceptual understanding of adolescent religious commitment and point to more adequate measurement strategies.
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Method Sample The sample for this qualitative study included 80 adolescents (41 female, 39 male; age range 10-21 years; M age = 15.1) from 49 families in the northern California and New England areas of the United States. The distribution across religious affiliations is as follows: 6 Baptist, 10 Catholic, 1 Christian and Missionary Alliance, 3 Christian Scientist, 2 Congregationalist, 3 Episcopal, 2 Jehovah’s Witness, 16 Jewish, 11 Latter-day Saint, 3 Lutheran, 2 Methodist, 7 Muslim, 5 Orthodox Christian, 1 Pentecostal, 3 Presbyterian, and 5 Seventh-day Adventist. The ethnic distribution for the parents, which reflects the ethnic distribution for the adolescents, was 82% White and 18% ethnic minorities (4 African American, 4 Latino, 2 Puerto Rican, 4 East Indian, 1 Asian, 1 Native American). On average, the parents were in their mid-forties and had been married 21 years.
Participants were selected using a criterion-based purposive sampling strategy. Lofland, Snow, Anderson, and Lofland (2006) explain, “purposive sampling is appropriate when the population parameters are not known and/ or when you want to learn about select cases or variation across a set of cases” (p. 91). Since the phenomenon of interest is the religious and spiritual identity of adolescents, and since it is hypothesized that exposure to spiritual and religious contexts promotes spiritual identity development, the cases that will be most helpful in illuminating this phenomenon are adolescents who are involved in those religious and spiritual contexts. Thus, the criterion used to select the sample was that adolescents need to be actively involved in a faith community. This increases the likelihood that “all individuals studied represent people who have experienced the phenomenon” (Cresswell, 2007, p. 128).
To recruit the participants, we contacted religious leaders of different Christian (Baptist, Catholic, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Christian Science, Congregationalist, Episcopalian, Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witness, Latter-day Saint, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Seventh-day Adventist); Muslim (Shiite and Sunni); and Jewish (Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reform, and Ultra Orthodox) faith communities in New England and northern California and asked them to recommend families in their faith community who had adolescents and who they felt were representative of the activity level, beliefs, and practices of the faith tradition. These families were contacted and asked to participate in the study.
Of the families that agreed to participate in the larger research project, 49 families had youth between ages 10 and 21 and were included in the sample for the present study. The adolescents were interviewed in a family group 386 Journal of Adolescent Research 26(3) setting including the parents and any adolescents in the family between ages 10 and 21 who were available and consented to be interviewed. In any given family, the number of interviewed adolescents ranged from 1 to 5, with the mean number of siblings per family group being 1.6.
Interviews The adolescents were interviewed by the second author in the home, with other members of the family present, in an effort to gather the richest data possible about the adolescents’ lives. While some adolescents may have felt inhibited by the presence of parents or other siblings, this setting allowed the interviewer to “triangulate or obtain various types of data on the same problem, such as combining interview with observation” (Corbin & Strauss, 2008, p. 27). Both the adolescents and the parents were given the opportunity to respond to the questions, which provided multirespondent perspectives. The adolescents interviewed often expressed views different from their parents or siblings, indicating that while some may have felt inhibited, others clearly did not.