How Does Religion Affect the Lives of Adolescents?

Around the world, matters of faith vary greatly, with no one thing sacred to everyone on earth. Because religion deals with ideas that transcend everyday experience, neither common sense nor any scientific discipline can verify or disprove religious doctrine. Religion is a matter of faith. Religion encourages people to look hopefully to a better world to come, minimizing the social problems of their world. A link exists between religious beliefs and societal benefit. But is there a link between religion and adolescent behavior, such as sex, delinquency, and the media’s effect on adolescents? Several decades of social scientific studies have shown that religion is often a factor in the lives of American adolescents, influencing their attitudes and behaviors in ways that are commonly viewed as positive and constructive (Smith, 2003).

Emile Durkheim (1965) contended that, in religious life, people celebrate the awesome power of their own society. Karl Marx (1964) claimed that religion served ruling elites by legitimizing the status quo and diverting people’s attention from the social inequities of society. Peter Berger (1967) viewed religion as a social construction, placing everyday life under a “sacred canopy” of meaning. These sociologists agree that religion has a major importance for the operation of society.

According to Santrock (2005), adolescence is the period between the ages of about 10 and 13 to the ages of about 18 and 22. During this time, there are various social and personality developments. The adolescent experiences increased interactions with opposite-sex peers. Attention is devoted to identity formation with questions such as, “Who am I?” and “What do I want out of life?” An adolescent also has realistic considerations about abilities and training requirements become more influential in thoughts about vocations and jobs. Adolescence is a time of cognitive development as well. Deductive reasoning improves. Problem-solving becomes more systematic. Thought becomes more abstract and reflective. The long-term memory continues to improve as elaboration is added to encoding strategies.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1969), who pioneered moral developmental theory, found that moral reasoning develops in three phases: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional. Adolescents typically reason at the conventional level. During adolescence, humans begin to see rules as necessary for maintaining social order (Kohlberg, 1969). They accept these rules as their own. Rules are viewed as absolute guidelines that should be enforced rigidly. Some youngsters move on to working out a personal code of ethics. Acceptance of rules is less rigid, and moral thinking shows some flexibility.

Consider the ambivalence our society displays toward young people on the brink of adulthood: Eighteen-year olds can vote and they may face the adult responsibility of going to war, yet they are denied the privilege of drinking alcohol. Similarly, our way of life also presents mixed messages when it comes to adolescent sexuality. The mass media often encourage sexual activity, while parents urge restraint. For their part, schools try to discourage casual sex even as they hand out condoms to students (Gibbs, 1993).

Sexual behavior in many societies is a subject fraught with moral codes, taboos, norm expectations, religious injunctions, myths, and unscientific conclusions. On matters related to human sexuality, Americans tend to be polarized between social and religious conservatives and liberals. Topics on human sexuality form a large part of the moral code for some Christian denominations and individuals. For many, sex also forms the most important segment of morality. Morals and values are important parts of the discussion about teen sex. Adolescent sexuality frequently catches the interest of researchers, policy makers, and health practitioners (Hardy & Raffaelli, 2003). Degeneration of values is often cited as the source of the trend toward earlier sexual behavior (Meier, 2003). Political and moralistic arguments implicate detachment from religion as fundamental to a downward shift in age at first time of intercourse. Meier’s (2003) study finds that lower levels of religiosity influence teens’ decision to have sex for the first time. Teens with strong religious views are less likely to have sex than are less religious teens, largely because their religious views lead them to view the consequences of having sex negatively. Religion reduces the likelihood of adolescents engaging in early sex by shaping their attitudes and beliefs about sexual activity (National Institutes of Health, 2003).

A study conducted at FordhamUniversity established a relationship between the strength of a college freshman’s religious faith and sexual experimentation (Zaleski & Schiaffino, 2000). The study found that students “who strongly identify with religious teachings and traditions” were “less likely to engage in âÂ?¦ sexual activity” (Zaleski & Schiaffino, 2000). Major religious belief systems contain prohibitions against substance use, promiscuity, violence, and stealing. Youth who internalize these values are less likely to engage in risk behaviors even when circumstances motivate them to do so (Donahue & Benson, 1995).

Is adolescent sexuality so bad? Consequences of sex are not just limited to teenagers, but it has a more profound effect. Adolescents who are sexually active find their world plagued with teen pregnancy and various forms of STDs. According to Edgar (2004), young people who are sexually active are at a great risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. Most teenage mothers are unmarried and lack the resources to give their children adequate care (Edgar, 2004). A clearer picture of the relations between religiosity and sexual behavior may one day provide valuable insight into how to promote responsible and healthy sexuality among all teens (Hardy & Raffaelli, 2003).

The most important of Durkheim’s many contributions to contemporary sociology was his concept of “anomie,” a breakdown of social order as a result of a loss of standards and values (Durkheim, 1966). According to the study by Pearce and Haynie (2004), interest in the relationship between religion and crime has a long history. In a study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it is suggested that parental religiosity – including the frequency of religious service attendance, the importance of religion in parents’ lives and conservative Protestant affiliation – appears to protect against serious delinquency (Regnerus, 2003).

According to Silberman (1980), one of the major problems with programs designed to control juvenile delinquency is that they place too much emphasis on methods of policing, more efficient courts, and improved correctional programs, and too little emphasis on community programs that give families the support they need to deal with delinquency. Do religious beliefs and behaviors discourage criminal behavior? Evidence surrounding the effect of religion on crime is varied, contested, and inconclusive (Baier & Wright, 2001).

Hirschi and Stark’s (1969) landmark study failed to find religious effects on delinquency. Ethical principles, respects of conventional authority, belief in the existence of the Devil, and belief in life after death are all unrelated to the commission of delinquent acts (Hirschi & Stark, 1969). But subsequent research has revealed an inverse relationship between religiosity and various forms of delinquency.

Baier and Wright (2001) collected and examined data from sixty previous studies about the effect of religion on crime. Their findings give confidence that religion does indeed have some deterrent effect (2001). In one study (Evans, Cullen, Dunaway, & Burton, 1995), the findings showed the efficacy of religion as an insulator against crime and delinquency.

Why might adolescents choose to engage in delinquent behavior? There are various theories that have been active to explain adolescent delinquency. But what about those teenagers who choose not to engage in delinquent behavior? There are even more theories and explanations as to why their lives are buffered from delinquent involvement. Religiosity is just one of those theories.

In the second half of the twentieth century, there was a communications revolution. The advent of television after World War II made far more news more immediately available to people in the than ever before. In subsequent decades we have seen the advent of cable television, TV magazine shows, the Internet, and specialized magazines catering to a wide variety of interests. The rapid availability of information can help people avoid certain kinds of problems, like STDs or violence. But just as the media can accelerate the rise of social problems, it can also educate the public about how to help solve problems such as crime, delinquency, and drug abuse. Can religion portrayed in media affect or influence adolescents?

In the past few years books like Chicken Soup for the Soul and jewelry baring the letters “WWJD,” What Would Jesus Do?, has proven that teens are becoming more exposed to religion as a part of pop culture. Also, religious themes have been incorporated into Hollywood, making faith, religion and spirituality more appealing to youngsters. With the popularity of movies like The Passion of the Christ, Constantine, The Exorcist, The Indiana Jones Trilogy; books like The DaVinci Code, The Purpose Driven Life; and TV series like “Joan of Arcadia,” “Charmed,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “7th Heaven,” religion as a form of entertainment is apparent. Even some trendy magazines have jumped on the bandwagon. In August 2004, Seventeen (a fashion magazine for teenage girls) debuted a faith section in its pages. The new section includes inspirational messages, personal stories of spiritual struggle and testimonials on issues ranging from prayer to gay teens who attend church (Zoll, 2004). Zoll’s (2004) article reports that experts on religion and youth trends theorize that teens are rebelling against the broad, undefined spirituality of their parents, and are seeking out environments with clearer rules that help them cope with day-to-day problems.

Clark’s (2002) article analyzes several cases in which stories of the afterlife, supernatural, and paranormal in the media become an important context through which teens understand religious beliefs. The article asked what the media’s role was in religious identity construction, especially when the media’s tales of the supernatural may seem to be convincing and in direct contrast with stories from the historic conventions of religion (Clark, 2002). The conclusion was that there were five patterns in which teens either affirmed or blurred the boundaries between beliefs about the realm beyond from religion and beliefs popularized in the media. Traditionalists (able to separate religion from stories of entertainment media), Intrigued teens (had more difficulty with separation), Mystical teens (had ties to traditional religion, but were interested in supernatural realm), Experimenters (actively sought resources on the supernatural realm from the media), and Resisters (challenged organized religion while embracing unorthodox views of the supernatural realm) (Clark, 2002).

Programs and films that have religious content might give teenagers something to think about, but they don’t always have to influence their choice of religion, if any. In the media, some religions can be reflected badly, just listen to the feuds between Northern and Southern Ireland or between Palestinians and Afghans or news regarding the Catholic Church scandals. Another point of view is the debate over “One nation, under God.” This may be the reason a lot of teenagers avoid the question of religion and write it off as an inconsequential part of life. When the Harry Potter books and movies became popular, a lot of people were very disgruntled and tried to ban the series because they believed the books and movies influenced their children to go into witchcraft. It is up to the media and to humanity to make available the information about both religion and politics and those who are not making fully informed decisions have the choice to seek the information or remain ignorant.

Adolescence is a time when everything is questioned, including culture and religion. There are so many influences on adolescents today, television, music, movies, the internet, that it is hard to believe that religion can make that much of a difference. Teens are often seen as challenging society. They are frequently perceived to take on activities considered to be immoral, including sexual behavior, delinquent activities, and low-level forms of violence. The expectations that others have on the adolescent makes for a life of constant measuring of oneself and trying on different images. This is to say nothing of the expectations that adolescents may have upon themselves.

During this tiresome period, adolescents encounter social, cognitive and personal woes. The need to fit in and belong is a difficult period. This is the time that teens may fall in with the “bad crowd.” They may feel the need to impress their peers and act in a certain way that is not natural to them. An adolescent is constantly being plagued with the “coolness” factor. They must wear the right clothes, listen to the right music, say the right things, and act the right way. The shelves at a drugstore are loaded with products that prevent acne, one of the most terrible situations in a teen’s life. Magazines and movies are filled with beautiful, fit, and flawless people. No wonder adolescents are stressed about their appearance.

The thought process changes as well. An adolescent may think that they are in this world alone and no one else can understand what they are going through. Personally, the adolescent can be his or her own worst critic. They can be the first to notice their own flaws and deliver the worst punishments. On the other hand, they can also see only perfection in their lives. They make the best decisions and do not need or hear criticisms.

What is it about religion that makes a difference in the lives of youth? Religion reinforces messages about working hard and staying out of trouble, and orient teens toward a positive future. It has been able to adapt to modern times by accepting the diversity of present-day culture. Conservative Christianity and other alternative religions have experienced a rebirth. New religions offer a large number of options, addressing nearly every possible type of spiritual need. The world has come a long way since Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Jews. Now there are numerous religions to practice: Wicca, Pentecostalism, Scientology, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, Atheism, Paganism, Unitarian Universalism, and Theosophy-the list goes on. No one person can say whether any of these religions are right or wrong. They can only say whether it is right or wrong for them. People believe in their chosen religion because it is their own truth, faith and personal opinion. If a teen decides he or she will practice Christianity, they will live their life defending their beliefs. The same goes for any other religion. Belief in a higher power calls for confrontation with those who do not share the same beliefs. There have been several holy wars in history that prove this.

Religion is a global phenomenon that has taken part in all human culture. It is an aspect of experience that can traverse, include, or exceed other parts of life and society. How society is structured has a profound impact on the decisions that adolescents make. How the parents raised the child is crucial to their decision-making. The extent of the teen’s religiosity is important. Not only is it a part of a person’s life, but also of group development. Religion can be organized and expressive and include patterns of behavior, as well as patterns of language and thought.

Religion has become more marketable in the past few years. After the events on 9-11, teens have realized that the fruits of labor can be easily lost with one moment in life. Religion is finding a way back into teenagers’ lives. It seems as if they are more open to talking about religion and its seriousness. Adolescents have learned to be strong in their beliefs and hold to them because of the impact on their lives. In bookstores, the Religion section grows larger. Publishing companies are producing brightly-colored bibles as opposed to the traditional black leather. As long as religion and its purpose are not misrepresented, the popularity of religiosity will continue to grow. It is my own belief that religion will play an eternal part in adolescents’ lives. As teens are burdened with the choices of right or wrong, good or bad, yes or no, we must believe that their basis for decision-making comes from somewhere. Whether it is from societal standards, parental guidance, or spiritual upbringing, the teen will do what is right for them in any specific situation.

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