Religiosity is an area of interest in the mental health field. How this domain influences behaviors of young people is a question that has been researched quite extensively over the past several years. However, understanding how external religious attitudes and internal religious attitudes affect behavior has yet to be explored. It has been well established that positive religious beliefs can increase empathy and understanding in youth. Additionally, religious commitment and religious beliefs have been linked to lower rates of violence, sexual risk taking, and drug and alcohol use. It has even been determined that religiosity can help improve the academic performance of students.
Sam A. Hardy of the Department of Psychology at Brigham Young University was curious to examine this dynamic further. In a recent study, Hardy and his colleagues looked at what mechanisms of religiosity influenced the attitudes and behaviors of teens most significantly. For the study, Hardy interviewed over 500 young people ranging in age from 10 to 18 years old. He asked them about their religious commitment and level of religious involvement. He also assessed their behaviors and feelings regarding peer and family relationships using empathy and aggression as measures. In sum, Hardy examined how religiosity affected the overall moral identity of the participants.
After reviewing the online surveys, Hardy discovered that religious commitment was the primary indicator of empathy in the participants. Although many of them reported levels of religious involvement, those with the lowest levels of aggression and highest levels of empathy cited the highest levels of religious commitment. Not surprisingly, these young people were also the most likely to be involved in their religious communities, either as a consequence of or catalyst for their religious commitment. Regardless of the specific pathway by which these youths found their internal faith, it was this internal, not external factor, that led them to have higher moral standards and exhibit more productive external behaviors. Hardy added, “This adds to existing evidence that suggests that religiosity may facilitate identity formation and moral development processes, which might, in turn, yield positive social and behavioral outcomes for youth.”
Hardy, S. A., Walker, L. J., Rackham, D. D., Olsen, J. A. (2012). Religiosity and adolescent empathy and aggression: The mediating role of moral identity. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027566
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