Within the social sciences the study of religion among adolescents has increased significantly in the past 10 years. One of the areas of research that has grown the most is the study of how religion impacts the lives of youth-or how religion impacts adolescent development. Specifically, scholars have looked at how religion is associated with the presence of positive outcomes in adolescents. Secondly, researchers have also examined how religion is related to the lack of risk taking or dangerous or delinquent behaviors in young people. Findings to date suggest that religious involvement often acts as a source of support, resiliency, encouragement, coping, meaning, satisfaction, values, moral development, and behavioral prescriptives. Religious affiliation not only seems to protect adolescents from problem behavior and maintain youth in times of stress, but it also enables them to thrive by fostering positive developmental outcomes and prosocial behavior. This entry summarizes the research on religion and adolescent well-being and risk-taking behaviors. In addition, it provides an overview of theoretical explanations describing these positive associations.
RELIGION AND WELL-BEING AND THRIVING
A growing body of research documents a positive relationship between religion and adolescent wellbeing or thriving (see Roehlkepartain, King, Wagener, & Benson, 2005). In these studies religiousness is measured in many ways. Most researchers ask youth how frequently they attend religious services or activities. They also frequently ask how important being religious or spiritual is in their lives. In addition, sometimes they ask about religious commitment, religious values, and what religious beliefs they might have. When scholars have examined the relationships between religion, spirituality, and thriving, they find a complex pattern of associations. In one case analysis of the Search Institute's Youth and Their Parents dataset (N = 8,165 youth and 10,467 parents), researchers found that spirituality (defined as experiencing transcendence and defining self in relationship to others and having genuine concern for others) and religion (defined as institutional affiliation and participation with a religious tradition and doctrine) both had direct effects on thriving (defined as a concept incorporating the absence of problem behaviors and the presence of healthy development). In addition, religion mediated the effects of spirituality on thriving. These findings suggest that spirituality and religiousness may both play unique roles in the development of thriving. Although most existing research confirms the positive role of religion, this study demonstrated that spirituality may have an influence on youth thriving beyond that of religion.
A number of studies suggest that religion is a constructive resource for enabling youth, who are either physically ill or healthy, to cope with problems. For example, when examining children, early adolescence, and late adolescents, attending church seems to help young people cope with academic achievement. In addition, at-risk youth who attend church are less likely to drop out of school. Church attendance has been found to be a key factor in promoting healthenhancing behaviors, such as exercise, diet, dental hygiene, and seatbelt use. Another study demonstrated that religious youth are more likely to take care of themselves and less likely to engage in health-compromising behaviors-even after controlling for other relevant factors (Wallace & Forman, 1998).
Several studies indicate a positive relationship with religion and such indicators as community service and altruism (see Roehlkepartain et al., 2005). At Catholic University, James Youniss and his colleagues have been studying the relationship between religion and different forms of civic engagement in the past 10 years. They have found that religious youth were more involved in community service compared to those adolescents reporting little religious activity. In fact, when looking at a nationally representative database called Monitoring the Future, Youniss and his colleagues reported that students who believe that religion is important in their lives were almost three times more likely to participate in service than those who do not believe that religion is important. Other researchers have shown that believing that religion is important in your life and having religious values have both shown to be associated with various forms of civic engagement. A team at Fuller Theological Seminary has shown that youth who view themselves as being religious also report an elevated concern for others, and religious youth report higher levels of altruism and empathy than their less religious peers.
Studies of individuals nominated for moral excellence also note religious themes as distinctive among many nominees. Colby and Damon (1992) found that most of the moral exemplars in their study of 23 adults who were nominated for their extraordinary moral commitments claimed that faith commitments played a significant role as a foundation for their moral action. The authors suggested that religion acts as a unifying construct in the lives of those with a salient moral identity, promoting the integration of personal goals and moral concerns. Hart and Fegley (1995) made a similar observation noting the positive role of religion in the lives of youth recognized for their remarkable commitment to caring and contributions to others. An important finding in these studies is the unique relationships between identity, religion, and prosocial commitments. For many, caring values, attitudes, and behaviors were not independent of their spirituality; rather all aspects of their morality were governed by their religious beliefs and experience, which informed their goals of service and care and closely related to their identity.
Having a sense of meaning and purpose in life is an important part of thriving or well-being. Religion has been recognized to provide a set of beliefs and values that can give purpose to a young person. For example, young people often explain that it is their religious beliefs that motivate them to care for those in need. In addition, religious congregations provide communities of people who can help interpret life events and help give meaning to everyday and extraordinary occurrences. Several studies have shown that religion has been shown to have a positive impact on personal meaning. Another study found that youth participating in religious communities are more likely to report having a sense of purpose indicative of a commitment to a personal philosophy.
REDUCTION OF RISK
In addition to being associated with factors that contribute to adolescent well-being and thriving, religion is consistently negatively related to a wide range of risk-taking behaviors [see Smith & Faris (2003) for review]. Several studies have found various religious measures (in particular religious attendance and religious salience) to be inversely related to juvenile drug, alcohol, and tobacco use. After reviewing the existing research on substance use and abuse and religious values, one team of researchers concluded that religious commitment may be a powerful component of abstinence decisions among religious youth, particularly minority youth.