Carrolyn McMurdie and Dr. Sam Hardy, Department of Psychology
For decades, research has shown religious involvement and religious belief to predict positive outcomes for adolescents and adults, including better physical and mental health, fewer risk-taking behaviors, and greater involvement in moral or pro-social and helping behaviors (Hood, Hill, & Spilka, 2009). However, the current body of research literature is unclear about how individuals perceive religion to influence their lives. Research has not shown if people identify the same positive outcomes from their religiousness that scholars do. This is important to consider because people may perceive outcomes that are unrecognized by scholars. These additional outcomes may have a significant impact on the lives of individuals, and thus they deserve to be identified and studied. Additionally, if people do identify the same positive outcomes as scholars, these perceptions would help to verify the accuracy of the scholars’ research. Thus, this study on people’s perceptions of religious influence was designed to address two questions: How do people perceive that religion influences their lives? Do these outcomes match the ones identified by scholars of religiousness?
Another purpose of this study was to identify possible processes that link religious involvement to positive outcomes (i.e. improved health, better mental well-being, etc.). Currently, there is limited research on specific processes by which religious involvement is linked to such positive outcomes (Barret, 2010; Benson, Scales, Sesma, & Roehlkepartain, 2006; Smith, 2003). Thus, the present study used grounded theory qualitative methods to identify what adolescents and their parents perceived to be the most salient outcomes of religious involvement and belief. Additionally, to enhance knowledge of the individual factors that link religious involvement to positive outcomes, the present study examined individual characteristics in relation to perceptions of religious influence. Specifically, we examined links between parent and adolescent perceptions in the same family, the role of characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and level of religious involvement. Overall, this study was designed to help guide future research on the positive outcomes of religious involvement and on individual characteristics that contribute to those positive outcomes.
The data for this study was collected by Dr. Sam Hardy using online survey methods. The study included a sample of 419 adolescents between the ages of fifteen and eighteen and 282 of their parents. These participants were recruited from across the United States. Once they agreed to participate, each participant in the survey was asked the same open-ended question: “Describe three ways your religion has influenced your life, if at all?” We chose to use such an open-ended question so that we could get people’s answers without restraining their response options. We did not want to provide the participants with answers that they could select from, since doing so would limit how they could answer.
After the data was collected, a three-person research team analyzed the data using grounded-theory coding methods. In grounded theory coding, a research team first reads through the responses and identifies repeated words, phrases, and themes across the responses. The responses are then categorized based on these similarities. These initial categorizations are then further grouped based on the similarities across categories. This two-step categorization of responses was done independently for the adolescent and the parent responses. Once completed, we had six main categories for the adolescents: Interpersonal Relationships, Religious Values and Practices, Character Development, Perspective, Spirituality, and Peace of Mind. The parents had the same six categories emerge, with an additional category for Family.
Once the coding was completed, we analyzed the pattern of responses across the different categories. Our results showed that a person’s gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and religious involvement were not related to the type of response that they gave. This suggests that the influence of religion does not influence people differently based on those factors. Another interesting finding from our study was that both parents and adolescents most frequently cited “Interpersonal Relationships” as the perceived outcome of religion. Adolescents referenced his category 34% of the time and parents referenced Interpersonal Relationships 21% of the time. Most of these responses suggested that religion helped people to improve their relationships with others and religion helped them to view other people more kindly. Based on the sub-categories included within “Interpersonal Relationships,” our study seems to suggest that religion helps people to value family, it helps people to appreciate the value of other people, and it helps people to feel more charitable and understanding towards others. Overall, our findings suggest areas for future research to better understand how religion positively impacts people’s relationships.
Because of the similarities in the response categories that emerged from the adult and adolescent responses, we also analyzed the correlations between parent and adolescent responses. Our results showed that parent and adolescent responses were significantly correlated in four areas: Interpersonal Relationships, Character Development, Religious Values and Practices, and Spirituality. These correlations show that if a parent gave a response that fell into one of those four categories, that parent’s child was also likely to give a response in the same category. This suggests that family influences are related to the outcomes of religiousness that people perceive. Future research should investigate what familial factors impact the perceptions of the influence of religion in people’s lives.
In summary, our study found support for existing research on the outcomes of religiousness. Participant responses did indicate that people perceive religion to bring increased charitable behaviors, better coping mechanisms and mental health, as well as increased abstinence and fewer risk taking behaviors. Additionally, we found that people most frequently cite religion’s impact on their interpersonal relationships with others. We further found that factors such as gender, ethnicity, and religious affiliation were unrelated to a person’s responses. However, the type of response that a parent gave was correlated with the category of an adolescent’s response. This suggests that family factors have a greater impact on perceptions of religious influence than do those other characteristics. This study, which is currently being prepared for publication, was presented at the Association for Moral Education in San Antonio, Texas on November 9, 2012. The poster presentation was given an Honorable Mention for its quality of scholarship and its contribution to the research literature. We hope that once this research is published, it will foster future research on this important topic.
I would like to thank Dr. Sam Hardy and Dr. David Dollahite for their mentoring on this project. I would also like to thank my colleagues Justin Christensen and Alison Holdaway for their contributions to the research on this project.
- Hood, R.W., Jr., Hill, P.C., & Spilka, B. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach (4th ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
- Barrett, B. (2010). Religion and habitus: Exploring the relationship between religious involvement and educational outcomes a nd orientations among urban african american students.UrbanEducation,45(4),448-479.doi:10.1177/0042085910372349
- Benson, P. L., Scales, P. C., Sesma, A., Jr., & Roehlkepartain, E. C. (2006). Adolescent spirituality. Adolescent & Family Health, 4(1), 41-51.
- Smith, C. (2003). Theorizing religious effects among american adolescents. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 42(1), 17-30. doi:10.1111/1468-5906.t01-1-00158