Self-esteem and self-concept have been important ideas in the psychology of adolescence since the 1960s. Particularly important at that stage were the writings of S. Coopersmith and M. Rosenberg. Both of these psychologists devised ways of measuring self-esteem or self-concept, and both began to demonstrate the key part played by these constructs in the development of healthy life styles, positive attitudes, and educational attainment. Some research traditions have established a clear link between religious beliefs and self-concept or self-esteem.
According to Coopersmith, young people with a positive self-concept and good self-esteem are likely to feel that they can make up their mind without too much trouble, that they are popular with others of their own age, that things usually do not bother them, and that, when they have something to say, they usually say it. Young people with a poor self-concept and low self-esteem are likely to feel that there are lots of things about themselves they would change if only they could, that they are not as nice looking as most people, that they get upset easily, and that most people are better liked than they are.
Empirical research into the relationship between religious and spiritual development during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood and self-esteem has produced a mixed set of results. Some studies demonstrated a positive relationship between religion and self-esteem, while other studies demonstrated a negative relationship between religion and self-esteem. Put simply, the issue seems to be concerned not so much with whether young people believe in God but with the kind of God in whom they believe. The research tradition that has made the most significant contribution to this issue is concerned with God images.
The research evidence suggests, on the one hand, a link between affirming God images and positive selfesteem and, on the other hand, a link between rejecting God images and poor self-esteem. According to this tradition, those who hold a positive God image construe God as saving, accepting, loving, freeing, forgiving, approving, and lenient. Those who hold a negative God image construe God as damning, rejecting, demanding, restricting, unforgiving, disapproving, and strict. Two very different psychological theories have been advanced to account for the linkage between God image and self-esteem. The first theory sees God images influencing self-image. This theory argues that individual self-evaluation is, at least partly, derived from the individual's view of how he or she is evaluated by others. Parents and parent figures play a particularly important part in such formation. By extension, if the primary emphasis in religion is thought to be a God who views individuals as unconditionally acceptable and accepted, it is reasonable to hypothesize a positive effect on selfesteem. However, if the primary emphasis in religion is thought to be a God who views individuals as unworthy and miserable sinners, it is reasonable to hypothesize a negative effect on self-esteem.
The second theory sees self-concept influencing God images and was advanced by P. L. Benson and B. P. Spilka in the 1970s drawing on cognitive consistency theory. According to their account, consistency theory suggests that information that implies the reverse of one's usual level of self-regard tends to create dissonance. To avoid the discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance, techniques like selective perception and denial can be used to keep information consonant with one's self-image. This theory suggests that individuals with low self-esteem will be disinclined to believe in a loving God who accepts them, while individuals with high self-esteem will be disinclined to believe in a strict God who rejects and judges them. In conclusion, the empirical evidence demonstrates a clear link between theological beliefs about the nature of God and the development of self-esteem in youth and human development.