High school seniors who consider themselves religious have significantly higher self-esteem and hold more positive attitudes about life than do their less religious peers, a new study shows. The research, part of the larger National Study of Youth and Religion, revealed a statistical association between religion and higher self-esteem among 12th-graders who went to religious services at least once a week or who professed deeply held spiritual views. “This was contrary to the belief held by some people that religion is associated with psychological neurosis or dysfunction,” said the study’s lead author. “These findings seem to suggest the opposite — that religion is associated with a constructive outlook.”From the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:Religious 12th graders hold more positive attitudes about life, new UNC study shows
CHAPEL HILL — High school seniors who consider themselves religious have significantly higher self-esteem and hold more positive attitudes about life than do their less religious peers, a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study shows.
The research, part of the larger UNC-based National Study of Youth and Religion, revealed a statistical association between religion and higher self-esteem among 12th-graders who went to religious services at least once a week or who professed deeply held spiritual views, said study director Dr. Christian Smith.
“We found that of the 13 variables we examined about attitudes, only one was not significantly related to some dimension of religion in a positive way after controlling for the effects of age, race, sex, family structure, region of the country and other characteristics,” said Smith, professor of sociology at UNC. “This was contrary to the belief held by some people that religion is associated with psychological neurosis or dysfunction. These findings seem to suggest the opposite — that religion is associated with a constructive outlook.”
Conducted with doctoral student Robert Faris, the UNC study relied on data gathered through
Monitoring the Future, a nationally representative University of Michigan survey of 2,478 high school seniors, he said. The new analysis, being released in a report today (Dec. 4), is among the most comprehensive looks yet on the link between religion and positive attitudes among teens.
“The factors most commonly related to the outcomes we saw were religious service attendance and the stated importance of religion, although religious affiliation and youth group participation also were important in many cases,” said Smith, associate chair of sociology.
Researchers found that the 31 percent of all 12th-graders who attended services weekly and the additional 30 percent who said religion was very important to them were significantly more likely than non-religious students to
? enjoy life as much as anyone
? think their lives were useful
? feel hopeful about their futures
? be satisfied with their lives and
? enjoy being in school
Smith said he and Faris could not say for certain what caused the link between religion and positive attitudes because their study was not designed to answer that question.
“We always like to say that correlation is not causality,” he said. “Just because things are statistically associated doesn’t mean one necessarily causes the other. It could be that people who are more positive about life are more interested in going to church. It might be that the more you go to church, the more you develop positive attitudes about life.”
Other possibilities, Smith said, are that at least for some adolescents, religious involvement gives them greater sense of their place in the world and their destiny in life and that there may be a God who cares about them. Another possibility is that social involvement in religious institutions such as youth groups provides teens with more exposure to caring adults and resources that can help them cope with difficulties or uncertainties.
Despite the good news about religious participation, between 10 percent and 20 percent of such adolescents still struggle with feelings of hopelessness and meaninglessness, and so religion is not a cure-all for every young person, he said.
An earlier report from the study showed that religious youth were less likely to smoke, drink and use drugs and more likely to start later and use less if they started at all, he said. They went to bars less often, received fewer traffic tickets, wore seat belts more, took fewer risks and fought less frequently. Shoplifting, other thefts, trespassing and arson also were more rare.
“Religious 12th-graders argued with parents less, skipped school less, exercised more, participated more in student government and faced fewer detentions, suspensions and expulsions,” Smith said.
“It could also be that kids who are initially religious and start getting into trouble drop out of religion because it feels uncomfortable for them,” he said. “Then when someone takes a survey, those teens show up as being not very religious, and so there is an apparent association.”
Lilly Endowment Inc. is funding the four-year UNC project, which began in 2001. Among goals are to identify effective practices in the religious, moral and social formation in young people’s lives and to foster informed national discussions about the influence of religion on adolescents.
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