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Higher levels of religiousness are related to lower levels of crime, violence, and delinquency. In addition, research demonstrates inverse associations between adolescent religiousness and youth having had sex, the number of sexual partners, recent occurrence of intercourse, and teenage pregnancy. Religion is associated with less frequent thought of suicide, attempted suicide, and actual suicide. Studies confirm that religiousness is associated with lower levels of depression and hopelessness.
Although research demonstrates the relationship between religion and positive developmental outcomes, scholars have just begun to explore why this relationship might be the case. Researchers are beginning to ask many questions. Do religious youth have access to more developmental resources that make a positive difference in their lives? Does religion help nurture a strong identity in young people? Do the religious beliefs and moral codes of religions influence the decisions that young people make?
One explanation that has been proposed is that religion provides access to a developmental infrastructure rich in social and values-oriented resources. From this perspective positive benefits of religion result from an increased access and exposure to components of a network of family and community resources that support healthy development. It is reasoned that an adolescent's religious participation embeds the youth in a community that surrounds and exposes him or her to multiple social support resources including supportive parents, adults, and peers. Studies have shown that religious youth report higher levels of developmental assets (such things as supportive adults outside the family, boundaries, and expectations from parents) than their less religious peers. Additionally, youth who are more active participants in religious institutions or who value being religious or spiritual report lower levels of risk behaviors, such as substance abuse and violence (Wagener, Furrow, King, Leffert, & Benson, 2003). Research findings explain that these developmental resources mediate the effects of religion on risk outcomes. Another study showed that religion alone did not explain the relationship between adolescent moral outcomes, but it was the relationships to which religious youth had access (i.e., having parents, peers, and adults who youth interacted with, trusted, and shared values) that made the majority of difference predicting the moral outcomes (King & Furrow, 2004). In other words for the youth in this study, it was not just being religious or going to a religious congregation that made a difference in their moral lives, but rather it was the presence of trusting, interactive, and mutual relationships that made a significant difference.
Another potential explanation for religion making a difference in the life of youth is that religion and spirituality also directly influence identity development, which is crucial for developmental success. Religion creates a potentially rich context in which identity can take shape by offering unique ideological, social, and spiritual environments. Religious institutions intentionally offer beliefs, moral codes, and values from which a young person can build a personal belief system. In addition, they provide an intergenerational body of believers to embody and exemplify these beliefs and values. In addition, congregations provide spiritual environments where young people can transcend their everyday concerns and experience connectedness with the divine and human others.
Several studies [see King (2003)] provide support for the argument that religion and spirituality can function as resources in positive identity development among youth. One found that religious youth reported higher levels of commitment and purpose when compared with nonreligious youth. Another noted that intrinsic forms of religiousness were more likely linked to identity achievement. The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic religiousness was used to differentiate a more utilitarian religiosity from an intrinsic or internalized response. Another study examined the relationship of religious participation to Marcia's identity commitments. Although they found that identity commitments of foreclosure and achievement were related to church attendance, later studies have not always replicated these findings. Other researchers found only weak associations between identity achievement and religious commitment. In turn, identity diffusion has also been associated with lower levels of importance of church or temple participation, orthodoxy of Christian beliefs, and intrinsic religious commitment.
Research suggests that religion offers youth unique developmental assets as well as a rich environment for identity development. Having access to an explicit worldview, a community of support, and experiences of transcendence provide many youth with resources that enable them to develop in positive ways and to protect them from getting involved in dangerous behaviors. Although this is not always the case and at times religion when taken to extremes can cause deleterious effects for young people, it is often a positive resource for development. The review of existing theoretical and empirical literature suggests that there are places of developmental leverage within congregations and faith-based organizations. That being the case, parents, youth practitioners, therapists, and community leaders can turn to religious communities as resources of positive development for their youth.