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In any human life, many factors help to determine the multiple contexts that influence one's religious affiliation and beliefs. Certainly, one's religious affiliation will impact one's religious beliefs, as will one's beliefs influence decisions made throughout life about religious affiliation. To better understand the impact of context on religious affiliation and beliefs in childhood and adolescence, it is important to also consider how contexts interact with individual developmental characteristics. A person's age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and family background all help to form all interact with a young person's context to define issues of religious development and identity.
It is also important to consider that adolescence can be a time of religious doubt, a time when young people pull away (often for just a short while) from affiliating themselves with the religious beliefs and tradition of their family, or indeed any religious tradition and/or beliefs at all. The experiences and interactions that one has with the contexts which influence religious affiliation and beliefs will have a significant impact on if and how doubt affects a young person's religiosity. A few of these contexts which can influence religious affiliation and belief are considered below.
Young people typically identify/affiliate with the context of those closest to them (e.g., the religion of their parents) and share their religious beliefs. Participating in the religious traditions and beliefs of one's parents involves young people growing up in religious communities and peer groups-all of which influence a young person's connection to that tradition. Some young people are brought up in families where religious beliefs are strong and where participation in religious worship and practice is part of family life. In other families, religious beliefs may be weak and attendance at a place of worship will be rare or nonexistent. Some young people may be part of families and religious traditions that present a positive image of God and others may be exposed to a more authoritarian and punishing image of God. These environmental or contextual experiences are just a few examples of the many that might impact a young person's religious affiliation and beliefs.
Contexts that impact religious affiliation are broader than one's immediate familial environment. Some young people are brought up in an environment where everyone around them belongs to a single religious community. Others are brought up in a society where there are a range of religious communities and beliefs: as a result they will likely meet people from different religious communities who hold different beliefs and attitudes to their own. Some young people grow up in a society or culture where religious belief is strong. In other societies and cultures belief in religion may be weak. Some young people are educated in schools where one single religion is taught. Some are educated in schools where a variety of religions are taught. Others attend schools where religion is not taught at all.
An example of the differences in religious belief and affiliation that can be found within a country is identified and explained in research that finds that young people living in Great Britain who are from families that originally came from the Indian subcontinent are likely to have a stronger religious affiliation than a Caucasian young person in Great Britain. Hence, it is not surprising that most young Muslim Asians in Great Britain seek out and become involved in religious practice and traditions (e.g., attending a religious school-a mosque school-where they learn Arabic, the Qur'an, and about Muslim religious traditions) more so than their white peers.
When looking at differences in religious belief and affiliation across countries, it is helpful to compare the experiences of young people in Great Britain with their same-aged peers in the United States and, as well, with their peers in Jordan, a predominantly Muslim country in the Middle East. A survey carried out in Great Britain in 2000 examined the strength of young people's religious beliefs. Twenty-nine percent of young people in state schools said that they believed that God existed. Forty-four percent said that they did not know whether God existed, while 28% said that they did not believe in God at all. Only 8% of those young people believed that it was good to follow a religion seriously, while 77% said that it might be good to follow some elements of a religion.
In the United States, religious belief among the population is stronger than in Great Britain, and this is reflected in a stronger religious belief and church attendance among young people. In 1999, 43% of American teenagers said that they thought that "having a deep religious faith" was very important to them; only 23% said that they thought it unimportant. In 1996, a survey showed that around 53% of American young people attended church at least once a month, while 38% attended at least weekly. There has been, over the past thirty years, a decline in the numbers of young people attending church in the United States, but the decline has not been as rapid as that seen in Great Britain. These differences in religiosity in young people in the two nations might be partly explained by the fact that churches in the United States are often more of a focus for the local community. They run activities for young people and have staff members whose role it is to work with them. As a result, in 1996 a survey showed that 56% of young people had been involved in a churchbased youth group.
Jordan, a country in the Middle East, presents us with a different picture. Here most families are practicing Muslims. In a survey carried out in 2000, 94% of young people at two schools in Jordan said that they believed in God. Only 2% said that God did not exist. More than 70% of the Jordanian students said that it was good to follow a religion seriously and the vast majority-over three quarters-said that they tried to follow some of the religious rules and practices of the Muslim religion.
There is a potentially endless list of contexts that influence an individual's religious affiliation and beliefs across one's life time. To better understand and support the healthy development of religious affiliation and belief in childhood and adolescence, it is critical that a contextual view of religious development is taken.