The scientific study of religious development during childhood and adolescence has helped to sharpen the understanding of religion as a multidimensional concept. The attitudinal dimension of religion has emerged from such research as a particularly powerful and important key to understanding the influence of religion and spirituality on the development and formation of young people.
Since the late 1920s, attitudes have been of central concern to several streams within social psychology. Although there is no unanimity among social scientists regarding the way in which attitude should be defined, the main consensus is to regard attitudes as concerned with affect rather than with cognition or behavior. Attitudes are concerned with how people feel about things, rather than with what they believe about things or with what they actually do in relation to things.
Furthermore, attitudes are understood to be fundamental, deep-seated, and covert predispositions.
Attitudes are hidden below the surface. In that sense they cannot be seen with the naked eye but have to be inferred from the stable patterns of behaviors and opinions that they help to shape.
Attitudes are often shaped and formed below the level of the young person's consciousness. Attitudes are shaped by experience, beliefs, and actions. As covert predispositions, once shaped, attitudes may be quite difficult to reformulate. Unless consciously and critically examined, attitudes shaped during childhood and adolescence may persist for much of adult life. It is wise, therefore, for those concerned with the religious and spiritual development of children and adolescents to take attitude development seriously.
In understanding the attitudinal dimension of religion, it is helpful to distinguish this dimension from three other dimensions generally referred to in discussion of religious development during childhood and adolescence: affiliation, belief, and practice. The dimension of religious affiliation refers to the religious group with which the young person identifies either at the level of faith group (say, Hindu or Sikh) or at the level of denomination within a faith group (say, Baptist or Catholic). The dimension of religious belief refers to what the young person believes, either in terms of content (say, life after death), or in terms of style (say, conservative or liberal). The dimension of religious practice refers to what the young person does, either publicly (say, attend church or synagogue) or privately (say, perform prayers or read the scriptures).
In comparison with these other three dimensions (affiliation, belief, practice), the attitudinal dimension is able to get to the heart of the young person's religion and spirituality. Affiliation is to some extent socially shaped by family of origin and may say little about the young person's personal choice. Beliefs are shaped by different traditions and live in the mind rather than in the heart. Religious groups may be divided by beliefs, but united by attitudes. Practices (especially public practices) are shaped by many external pressures: One young person may attend church in response to parental pressure, while another may stay away from church in response to peer group pressure. Attitudes (an affective response for or against religion) are personal and special to the individual young person).