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The Sociology of Adolescent Religious and Spiritual Development


This article presents an overview of how sociologists study the religious and spiritual development of adolescents, focusing on approaches to data collection, conceptualization of measures, and theoretical framing. With regard to data collection, producing context-rich information from a number of sources, including surveys, interviews, and ethnographies, is foundational for research that aims to present a holistic picture of adolescent spirituality. Having strong concepts and measures is also inherent to recognizing the multifaceted nature of religion and spirituality. With a number of concepts and measures available, sophisticated measurement approaches – such as multidimensional or configurational models – can be employed that capture the range of diversity in how adolescents engage with religion and spirituality. Finally, context-rich data and nuanced measurement tools allow for precise theorizing about the specific factors that influence religious and spiritual development. In this regard, the theoretical contributions of a life course perspective have offered strong support that (1) adolescence is a sensitive time period for development, (2) adolescents’ lives are shaped by links to influential others and social institutions, (3) social locations create diversity in religious and spiritual outcomes, (4) adolescents exercise agency in their spiritual lives, and (5) the context of adolescent spiritual development is bounded by historical time and place.


One of the earliest and most prominent sociologists of religion, Émile Durkheim, famously said over 100 years ago that “religion must be an eminently collective thing” (1912/1995, p. 44). A century of research supports his contention across a range of cultures and contexts. The religious and spiritual development of adolescents is deeply social, too. That is, social influences beyond the individual, such as parents, peers, institutions, and cultures, set examples and provide feedback for how youth think about, practice, and experience religion and spirituality. From a developmental perspective, the time period of adolescence generally marks the point at which youth gain autonomy from their parents and take ownership of their spiritual lives (Pearce & Denton, 2011). The spirituality they develop – or lose – during this time period strongly predicts how their lives will look as young adults and beyond (Denton & Flory, 2020). Accordingly, religious and spiritual development during adolescence is of pivotal importance to sociologists and generates substantial research. This review highlights the main sociological approaches to the development of adolescent religion and spirituality, the contributions of such approaches, and the exemplary studies that have used sociology to advance the understanding of this topic. This is accomplished by focusing on three topical domains: (1) data, (2) concepts and measures, and (3) life course theory.

Sociological Data in the Study of Adolescent Religiosity and Spirituality

Sociologists studying youth and religion primarily use data from surveys, semi-structured interviews, or ethnographies. These data allow for rich examinations of individuals’ lives and the social contexts in which they live (e.g., families, schools, neighborhoods, youth groups, religious organizations, communities, cultures, and subcultures). With diverse types of data at various levels of aggregation, sociologists often mix methods to combine quantitative and qualitative data, leveraging the unique strengths of each (Pearce, 2015). The richness and variety of approaches sociologists use are important contributions to the study of adolescent religious and spiritual development.

Survey Data on Adolescent Religiosity and Spirituality

Sociologists who analyze survey data are often aiming to statistically represent a population. Accordingly, they are usually in need of large, probability-based samples. Surveys commonly used by sociologists include the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, and the National Study of Youth and Religion. These resource-heavy data collections generally aim for extensive, rather than intensive, coverage of topics. As a result, sociologists examining adolescent religion and spirituality are often faced with few measures. The measures most commonly available are (a) religious affiliation, which is often theorized to indicate how theologically or politically conservative one’s religious context is, and (b) religious service attendance, which is generally an indicator of religious involvement, embeddedness within a community, or exposure to religious teachings. Two other common measures are the importance of religion and the frequency of praying, both of which are meant to represent personal salience or devotion to religion and spirituality.

Some surveys go beyond these standard measures and incorporate more aspects of religion and spirituality into their designs. One of the few nationally representative survey projects to contain a wide array of religion measures is the National Study of Youth and Religion. This study’s baseline survey of youth in 2002–2003 incorporated questions to capture many different aspects of religious beliefs, attitudes, practice, engagement, and importance. Parents were also interviewed at the first wave, providing an unusually rich set of parent measures as well (Smith & Denton, 2005). Studies like this one, with expanded measures of religion and spirituality, present opportunities for exploring the shared and unique components of different measures.

In addition to the longitudinal surveys just discussed, which are excellent for documenting change over time among single cohorts, sociologists are also interested in change over time between cohorts. For this kind of analysis, they often draw upon repeated cross-sectional surveys, such as the Monitoring the Future Study. This study dates back to the 1970s and focuses on 8th, 10th, and 12th graders. It also contains many of the core measures of religion and spiritualty discussed above, such as religious preference, religious service attendance, and the importance of religion to one’s life, facilitating the examination of trends over time (Twenge et al., 2015).

Interview Data on Adolescent Religiosity and Spirituality

Beyond surveys, sociologists have relied extensively on semi-structured interview data to examine the contours of adolescent religion and spirituality. Allowing youth to speak for themselves on these matters provides substantial advantages over survey research when it comes to understanding the meanings and processes inherent in spiritual development. An excellent source of data in this regard comes from the National Study of Youth and Religion; in addition to the longitudinal survey discussed above, this study also involved in-person, semi-structured interviews with a sub-set of survey participants at each wave. Analysis of these interviews has allowed for a deeper probing into what is meant by adolescents when they talk about religion or spirituality.

Two exemplary studies highlight the unique strengths of these qualitative data. First, one study finds that many of the survey indicators of religiosity showed decline between Waves 1 and 2, yet youth tended to describe themselves as having remained consistently religious or having become more religious during that time. These seemingly contradictory findings are elucidated within the qualitative data, which reveals that interviewees were assessing their religiosity by referencing how important it was to them, and they often defined an increase in religiosity as the experience of having their beliefs and practices understood as their own (Pearce & Denton, 2011). A second study finds that religious typologies are undergirded by moral frameworks that fall along two spectrums: (1) following the way versus making the way and (2) helping oneself versus helping others. In this case, by studying interviewees’ responses to questions about religion and morality, religiosity could be understood as a reflection of deeper moral frameworks, and changes of religiosity over time could be seen as a response to changes in these moral frameworks (Rotolo, 2020).

Ethnographic Data on Adolescent Religiosity and Spirituality

In order to more deeply examine social contexts affecting adolescent religion and spirituality, sociologists often enter into the spaces that adolescents inhabit, spend time with them, and listen to their stories. This ethnographic approach allows researchers to uncover aspects of religion and spirituality that neither surveys nor interviews can capture well on their own. One exemplary study with this approach illustrates how participant observation in two youth groups revealed small group dynamics, especially along the lines of who is classified as insiders versus outsiders, that would not have been observable with interview methods (Herzog & Wedow, 2012). The youth tell the researchers in interviews that they all get along and respect each other like family; the main distinctions they report are between those who are more active and those who are not. However, by observing social interactions, these authors uncover widespread evidence of social class-based exclusions that reproduce privilege for middle class youth and pose barriers to institutional support of religious development for youth from families with lower socioeconomic status. Ethnographies like this one are essential to revealing processes through which youth are unknowingly channeled into or out of spiritual communities and opportunities for supported development.

A second ethnographic example illuminates the Christian hardcore punk music scene. By attending and visiting music shows, concerts, bars, rock festivals, ministry conferences, and faith communities, one sociologist was able to understand how older adolescents and young adults maintain a Christian identity seemingly at odds with the hardcore punk world (McDowell, 2018). Specifically, many Christian hardcore youth identify as “Christian but not religious,” signifying their commitment to Christ and evangelism, but avoiding conventional religious spaces because of what they see as hypocrisy and a falsely enacted distinction between secular and sacred life (McDowell, 2018, p. 66). Ethnographies like this are important for richly delineating how the many identities adolescents hold, including religious and spiritual identities, are co-constructed in relation to other salient and sometimes conflictual identities.

Conceptualizing and Measuring Adolescent Religiosity and Spirituality

Moving beyond just data, the work of sociologists depends heavily on the strong conceptualization and measurement of adolescent religion and spirituality. To this end, sociologists almost always acknowledge that there are multiple ways to be religious or spiritual. This recognition manifests itself whenever researchers use multiple measures of each concept instead of reliance upon single measures. Sometimes these measures are examined individually or combined into scales, though the most promising and creative work in this area falls into two research camps: multidimensional and configural approaches. Additionally, regardless of the measures used, sociologists nearly always conceptualize religion and spirituality as dynamic across time, and thus the study of change within measures is equally as important as the study of measures themselves.

Religion and Spirituality as Multidimensional

Many multidimensional models of religiosity have been proposed over the years across a wide range of samples and religious groups (e.g., Glock, 1962). Psychologists and health researchers have been particularly active in this regard and have developed valuable scales for a variety of dimensions of religion and spirituality, some specifically for youth (Cotton et al., 2010; Harris et al., 2008; King et al., 2017). Recent research using the National Study of Youth and Religion has clearly indicated that youth are not generally “high” or “low” across all measures of religion and spirituality; rather, their various beliefs, religious affiliation, service attendance, frequency of prayer, closeness to God, and so on, are often uniquely combined (Pearce & Denton, 2011; Smith & Denton, 2005). In other words, these measures convey distinct information about adolescents’ spiritual lives, and their qualitative differences can be conceptualized as different “dimensions.”

One recent, illustrative study using this approach developed a multidimensional model of adolescent religiosity using confirmatory factor analysis (Pearce et al., 2017). Based on 21 different indicators from the National Study of Youth and Religion survey, the best fitting model for those indicators specified five interrelated dimensions of religiosity, including Beliefs, Exclusivity, External Practice, Private Practice, and Salience. The model performed well at two time points, three years apart. The authors argue that religious salience is the most central dimension in the model because it is the most highly and consistently associated with the other dimensions (Pearce et al., 2017). This key finding suggests that survey researchers should include measures of adolescents’ personal religious importance in their questionnaires. Additionally, since the five dimensions of religiosity in this study are not entirely overlapping, researchers should continue to use measures that represent different dimensions of religiosity, especially those that best fit the theory under examination.

Religion and Spirituality as Configurational

In understanding the role of religion and spirituality in adolescents’ lives, sociologists have grappled with how to best conceptualize and operationalize the combination of different dimensions. Often, when defining and analyzing what adolescent religiosity or spirituality is, especially in studies that use quantitative survey data, scholars combine all the dimensions available by either summing or averaging measures. This results in linear conceptualizations ranging from low to high. While this approach is efficient in some ways, it obscures interesting combinations in which dimensions of religion and spirituality are higher or lower for different youth.

Relying on composite scores also runs the risk of incorrectly assuming a dose–response, linear relationship between religious or spiritual engagement and other outcomes. For example, one study shows that religiosity is inversely but disproportionately related to sexual behaviors for those who score highest on measures of religious attendance, importance, prayer, and closeness to God (Hayward, 2019). This evidence supports the contention that “mere sporadic investments and involvements by teens in religion usually prove indistinguishable in outcomes from those of teens who are completely disengaged from religion” (Smith & Denton, 2005, p. 233). In other words, there is not a simple dose–response story to adolescent increases in religiosity; rather, something unique may be operating for those at the highest levels compared to everyone else.

One illustrative study of a configurational approach uses the quantitative and qualitative data from the National Study of Youth and Religion to theorize about how adolescents combine different dimensions of religiosity into “mosaics” or profiles (Pearce & Denton, 2011). Using latent class analysis and eight different indicators, the authors propose five unique profiles of adolescent religiosity: the Abiders, Adapters, Assenters, Avoiders, and Atheists. Youth from the first latent class, the Abiders, score at the highest level on almost every indicator and “abide” in the religious traditions with which they identify. Adapters and Assenters may appear similar in an averaging of their indicators, but Adapters are more personally religious and spiritual, placing higher importance on religion than Assenters. Assenters, on the other hand, are somewhat more likely to attend religious services regularly, but do not see religion as having much of an impact on their lives. Importantly, while Adapters attend at lower levels than the Assenters, it is usually not out of choice; Adapters are significantly more socioeconomically disadvantaged than Assenters, and analyses of their in-person, semi-structured interviews show that transportation, parent work schedules, and family instability often pose barriers to religious service attendance (Pearce & Denton, 2011). Finally, the distinction between Avoiders and Atheists is that – while both have low levels of religiosity overall – Avoiders are still likely to claim a religious affiliation and have some level of belief in God. Atheists, on the other hand, are unlikely to be religious or spiritual, do not believe in God, and largely have no religious affiliation.

Studying the person-centered configurations of different dimensions and levels of religiosity in adolescence is one way that sociologists have contributed to a richer theoretical understanding of religious and spiritual development in youth. It also recognizes the tremendous amount of diversity that exists among youth, rather than just assuming their spiritual lives exist on a linear continuum or are lived similarly regardless of broader social factors. This approach provides exciting new strategies for empirical measurement and data analysis.

Religion and Spirituality as Dynamic

Another way that sociologists of religion have contributed to understanding adolescent religious and spiritual development is through population-level analyses of change over time in beliefs and practices. Much of this research is focused on the transition from adolescence to adulthood. For example, studies tend to show that religious service attendance decreases throughout adolescence and the transition to adulthood, while the importance of religious faith is more stable, albeit still decreases, on average (Desmond et al., 2010). One study, though, shows that the general decline in attendance is actually composed of six trajectories that adolescents tend to follow (Petts, 2009). These are: frequent attenders (3 percent), late declining attenders (24 percent), gradual declining attenders (26 percent), occasional attenders (23 percent), early declining attenders (16 percent), and nonattenders (7 percent). This kind of trajectory analysis is emblematic of much sociological work; while general trends are important to document, sociologists are also keenly aware that many trends contain internal heterogeneity by social markers such as race, gender, or religious tradition.

Two recent studies illuminate the benefits of such an approach, examining adolescents’ trajectories of religiosity over time. They use slightly different methodologies, but each find significant heterogeneity in the religious pathways that adolescents’ take into adulthood. The first study uses latent classes based upon measures for affiliation, attendance, salience, and prayer and identifies seven distinct pathways from adolescence to young adulthood (Lee et al., 2018). These are: consistently high religiosity (19 percent), consistently low religiosity (15 percent), consistently affiliated but inactive (16 percent), late declining religiosity (15 percent), early declining religiosity (9 percent), increasing religiosity (10 percent), and returning religiosity (16 percent). The second study uses an index that combines measures of service attendance, personal prayer, and importance of religious faith and identifies six trajectories of religious pathways (Denton & Flory, 2020). These are: high stable (29 percent), steep incline (2 percent), moderate shallow incline (6 percent), shallow decline (25 percent), steep decline (13 percent), and low declining (25 percent). As these two examples show, religious change over the course of adolescence is multifaceted and is far more nuanced than simple decline or change.

Theorizing the Social Aspects of Religious and Spiritual Development in Adolescence

Sociologists draw from a multitude of theoretical approaches when studying the factors that affect adolescent religious and spiritual development. Of primary concern to sociologists are social factors, though biological factors are also relevant insofar as they interact with social ones. Additionally, when sociologists theorize about social influences, they recognize that there are multiple and overlapping social forces operating in individuals’ lives, including everything from micro-level social influences (e.g., dyads, families) to macro-level ones (e.g., cultural mores). One of the most influential frameworks for understanding social influence in the lives of adolescents is life course theory (Elder, 1998). There are several concepts and themes that define a life course approach, but the principles most central to the sociology of religious and spiritual development are: (1) timing in lives, (2) linked lives, (3) diversity in trajectories, (4) human agency, and (5) historical time and place.

Timing in Lives

The life course principle of timing in lives states that: “the developmental impact of a succession of life transitions or events is contingent on when they occur in a person’s life” (Elder, 1998, p. 3). Accordingly, when sociologists approach adolescent religious and spiritual development, it is with the understanding that beliefs, values, and identities constructed during this life stage – whether religious or not – are likely to have enduring effects on later-life religion, spirituality, and other outcomes. In this sense, adolescence may represent a sensitive period for spiritual development; the social and developmental changes experienced by adolescents, as compared to younger children, may create optimal conditions for the formation of – or reinforcement of – religiosity and spirituality (Good & Willoughby, 2008).

An application of this idea is found in recent work on religious rites of passage, which generally take place during adolescence. These include bar/bat mitzvahs, first communions, and baptisms, all of which signal important entries into religious communities and mark a transition toward increased religious and spiritual autonomy. While very little work has been done on the impacts of these initiation rites on adolescent religiosity, one recent study shows that they serve as important markers of social identity, such that youth who experience these rites of passage are less likely to defect from their religion in early adulthood (Perry & Longest, 2019).

A recent book on the religious and spiritual lives of young adults also highlights the importance of adolescence as a critical time period for religious and spiritual development (Denton & Flory, 2020). After examining dozens of characteristics that predict the religious trajectories between adolescence and young adulthood, the authors conclude that the most predictive factors of consistently high religiosity – or having only subtle declines – are those related to religious environments experienced during adolescence. Supportive contexts include growing up as either a conservative Protestant or black Protestant, having parents who talked about religion in the home and attended religious services, and having participated in youth groups or religious mission trips.

Regarding religious mission trips, some scholars argue that they are “transformative” religious experiences for youth because they solidify belief in God, increase feelings of closeness to God, and increase private religious practice (Trinitapoli & Vaisey, 2009). Another study finds that participating in a short-term mission trip increases religious volunteering (Beyerlein et al., 2011). Nevertheless, when youth find their religious communities to be hypocritical or unfriendly, they are more likely to leave them and disengage from the beliefs and practices that are taught there (Pearce & Denton, 2011). In sum, adolescence is a time in the life course when family influences and religious opportunities have the potential to engender strong commitments to religion and spirituality that could endure much later into life. However, the absence of those influences, or the negative experiences of them, could prompt adolescents to stay or become distant from religion and spirituality, perhaps never to begin or return.

Linked Lives

The life course principle of linked lives states: “lives are lived interdependently, and social and historical influences are expressed through this network of shared relationships” (Elder, 1998, p. 4). Accordingly, the sociological approach emphasizes key mechanisms through which individuals are shaped by the people with whom they interact and on whom they rely for support. For adolescent religious and spiritual development, links with parents, peers, and religious communities are the most pivotal.

Linked Lives with Parents and Families

Research shows that parents and parent-figures exert tremendous influence over their adolescent’s religious and spiritual development (Smith & Denton, 2005). Most adolescents identify with the same religious tradition as their parents, whether that tradition is evangelical Protestantism, mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, or even the absence of a religious tradition (Pew Research Center, 2020; Smith & Denton, 2005). Parents are generally the primary agents of socialization, and they may socialize their children into religion in many ways. Much of this socialization is direct, such as when parents teach their children about religion, pray with them, read scriptures with them, or model religious behaviors (Dollahite & Thatcher, 2008; Smith & Denton, 2005; Smith et al., 2019). Interestingly, one study finds that whether parents in the U.S. are Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim, or something else, they draw from the same cultural models of religious socialization with their children (Smith et al., 2019). This surprising finding of no-differences suggests that cultural forces in the United States, such as those toward freedom of choice and wanting one’s children to be happy, matter more for shaping parents’ religious socialization practices than do their specific traditions.

Religious transmission is not always successful, though, and research has shown that certain factors increase the likelihood of successful parent–child transmission. These factors include parental religiousness, parental religious homogamy, consistency between parental beliefs and behaviors, and close relationships between parent and child (Bader & Desmond, 2006; Hoge et al., 1982; Myers, 1996). In other words, when parents are religious themselves, share the same beliefs as each other, and maintain good relationships with their child, the context is favorable for youth to be receptive to their modeling and teaching.

Parents and other family members also shape adolescent religiosity through forms and functioning of family life. For example, when a married mother and father specialize in gender-typical care and provision roles, children are more likely to share their religious beliefs and practices (Myers, 1996). There is also evidence that family disruption affects adolescent religiosity. One study uses the latent class approach discussed earlier (with the Abiders, Adapters, Assenters, Avoiders, and Atheists) and finds that parental breakup is related to change in adolescents’ religious profiles over time (Denton, 2012). For youth in the Abider and Adapter profiles, for whom religion is very important, parental breakup is associated with transitioning to a profile with lower religious engagement and lower religious salience. This is theorized to reflect a “sacred loss and desecration” (Denton, 2012, pp. 60–61). That is, when religious youth see the breakdown of a relationship that they have been taught is sacred, it may promote distrust and doubts about their religious faith. Conversely, however, youth in the Assenter profiles, for whom religion is not particularly important even though they maintain a connection with it, parental breakup is associated with transition to one of the profiles with more salient religiosity: the Abiders and Adapters. This is theorized to reflect a “religious coping” strategy (Denton, 2012, pp. 60–61), whereby youth only loosely affiliated with religion seek out religious teachings, support, or communities to help them cope with the difficulties following divorce.

Parents may also “channel” or direct their youth toward peers, groups, or institutions that supplement their socialization in the home and reinforce religious beliefs, norms, and values (Martin et al., 2003). In this case, parental influence on adolescent spiritual development is indirect and mediated through other sources. Channeling occurs, for example, when parents take their children to religious services, encourage them to join religious groups, enroll them in religious schools, or nudge them toward religiously similar peers. As a Buddhist mother from Chicago quips in a recent book on religious parenting, “Partly our kids’ friends are handpicked [chuckling]…” (Smith et al., 2019, p. 48). This is a prime example of channeling. Also, parents tend to know their children’s friends, parents of their children’s friends, and their children’s teachers more than less religious parents (Smith, 2003). This concept is called “network closure” and illustrates the agency parents have in connecting the social networks in which their youth reside.

Linked Lives with Peers and Religious Communities

Peers are also linked to each other in ways that shape adolescent religiosity. Sociologists often draw upon reference group theory (Merton & Kitt, 1950) to argue that the beliefs and values of close associates, such as peers, may influence one’s behaviors. A recent study in this vein that examines how peers can influence teens’ religiosity uses stochastic actor-based models to assess whether the religious profiles of peers in an adolescent’s network affects their own religious profile, and whether adolescents choose certain peer networks based on their own religious profile (Adams et al., 2020). The authors only find evidence for the former: when adolescents have more peers in their network with a given religious profile, they are increasingly likely to adopt that profile themselves. However, adolescents do not appear to select friends based on their own religious profiles. This study provides evidence that religious socialization is happening at the peer level and that friendship networks matter for the development of adolescent religion and spirituality.

Religious communities, such as churches, mosques, and temples, including smaller divisions of those communities, such as youth groups, are also of great interest to sociologists studying adolescent development. Religious institutions are often where youth learn about their faith and are encouraged to practice it (Smith & Denton, 2005; Smith et al., 2019). In addition to providing religious reinforcement through means of social context and reference groups, religious institutions are also responsible for creating opportunities for adolescents to have religious and spiritual experiences – experiences themselves that may strengthen adolescent religiosity and spirituality. As discussed earlier, many religious communities offer rites of passage during adolescence that serve to solidify religious identity and mark formal entrance into the group (Perry & Longest, 2019). Religious communities are also the agents through which youth can participate in religious mission trips, which similarly have a promotive and reinforcing effect upon adolescent religious and spiritual development (Trinitapoli & Vaisey, 2009).

Other institutions in which youth are linked to influential peers and adults, and exposed to religious ideas, are religious schools and youth groups. Youth are often “channeled” into these groups by parents, and there has been some mixed evidence on the relative influence of these groups as opposed to direct parental influence on adolescent religious development. However, variation between religious traditions helps explain why (Vaidyanathan, 2011). One study finds that attending a private Christian school tends to matter more, in terms of religious development, for Protestants than Catholics, and attending a youth group matters more for mainline Protestants than Catholics. This is referred to as the “differential returns” hypothesis, which states that some agents of socialization (e.g., religious schooling, youth group) will matter more in some traditions as compared to others (Vaidyanathan, 2011).

Diversity of Life Course Trajectories

Life course theory has long recognized a variety of reasons for which individual pathways through the life course, or trajectories, might vary (Hutchinson, 2011; Shanahan, 2000). This is quite applicable to understanding the different trajectories of adolescent religious and spiritual development. Identification with a subgroup (by an adolescent or those around them) will uniquely shape exposure to and salience of different cultural ideas and material resources, which in turn will shape development. Arguably the three most salient and sociologically relevant sources of diversity for adolescent religiosity and spirituality are those related to gender, social class, and race/ethnicity.

Diversity by Gender

Gender is a socially constructed identity through which religious and spiritual development is likely experienced differently. Research has long shown that, on average, in most societies, women are more religious than men, and this is true for adolescents, too (Smith & Denton, 2005). The main sociological explanation for this, historically, has been differential sex-role socialization (Miller & Hoffmann, 1995). That is, parents socialize their male and female children differently, such that females are socialized to develop the characteristics (e.g., submissiveness, obedience) that are promotive of religious development more so than males.

A few seminal studies have offered a compelling addition to the understanding of gender differences: risk preference theory. According to this theory, gender differences in risk preferences can explain differences in religiosity (Miller & Hoffmann, 1995). Specifically, to be irreligious represents a risky behavior since it could lead to divine punishment or eternal damnation. Other scholars have added that there is increased social risk to women who are not religious or spiritual, given gendered expectations that women, as opposed to men, should be religious or spiritual for themselves or others (Walter & Davie, 1998). Because women are generally more averse to taking risks than men, it follows that they would be more religious. This theory first gained support on an adolescent sample, though follow-up studies also supported risk preference theory on adult samples and across cultures (Miller & Stark, 2002; Stark, 2002). Nevertheless, other scholars have advanced a power-control theory of gendered religious differences, suggesting that differences in risk preference may actually be socialized. That is, youth raised within patriarchal households are more likely to develop traditional differences in risk preference, while those raised in more egalitarian households – such as those in which the mother has a higher-status job and income – are more likely to be socialized in ways that equalize taste for risk and thus reduce religious differences (Collett & Lizardo, 2009).

A recent study uses both social and biological data to revisit risk preference theory, this time with far more advanced measures than most prior studies (Li et al., 2020). These authors use multiple measures of religiosity as outcomes, multiple dimensions of risk preference as predictors, and a measure of genetic risk predisposition. Ultimately, the authors find almost no support for the biological explanation of risk preferences (Li et al., 2020); even though women in their sample are more religious and risk-averse than men, the addition of risk-aversion variables to their models does not generally attenuate any of the gender differences in religiosity. Nevertheless, because of the complexities of measuring risk-taking, both socially and biologically, the authors note that this question is still a long way from being answered. As it stands now, sociologists recognize that neither biological nor social explanations of gender differences in religiosity are fully satisfactory, and the choice between them need not be constrained to one or the other (Bradshaw & Ellison, 2009).

Diversity by Social Class

Another feature of identity and social context likely to produce variation in trajectories of religious development is the social class of one’s family. The occupational structure is profoundly stratified by religion (Sherkat, 2012). Sectarian Protestants tend to occupy the bottom levels of the occupational hierarchy, while Jews and non-religious individuals inhabit the top levels. Mainline Protestants and Catholics fall somewhere in between. Additionally, upward mobility is lowest for the children of sectarian Protestants, meaning that they might not have any more of a prestigious or high-earning job than their parents. One explanation for this is that some sectarian groups, such as fundamentalist Protestants and Pentecostals, limit their children’s exposure to secularizing influences of culture, such as college (Beyerlein, 2004).

Of course, the causal arrow between religion and social class points both ways. On the one hand, religion has long been theorized to affect one’s motivations for work, work ethic, and vocational aspirations, as proposed in the seminal sociological work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Weber, 1905/2002). More recently, religion has been shown to motivate adolescents’ choices for college (Uecker & Pearce, 2017), which will surely have implications for their future careers. On the other side of the causal arrow, though, higher-prestige and higher-earning jobs may affect religion and theology; people often adapt their religious beliefs and affiliation to match those around them, and their theology may change to either justify their worldly good fortune or to offer hope for a better afterlife (Niebuhr, 1929).

There are several implications of family social class for adolescent spiritual development. First, particularly for parents in poverty, socioeconomic status affects their ability to integrate themselves into a religious community and maintain consistent ties to that community (Sullivan, 2011). Accordingly, youth involvement in those same communities may be impossible or highly constrained. Second, youth may have to adapt their religion and spirituality to reflect the realities of their family’s resources. For example, poor youth tend to have higher levels of private religiosity – that is, they pray more, read scripture more, and say religion is more important – than their more affluent peers, but they are less likely to participate in organized religious activities (Schwadel, 2008). This illuminates the practical realities that poor youth may not have the transportation, work schedules, or home life that facilitate participation in a religious community (Pearce & Denton, 2011). Theologically, poor adolescents are also more likely to believe in a coming judgment day in which God will reward some and punish others (Schwadel, 2008). This supports the earlier contention that social class influences theology; those adolescents experiencing misfortune in this life may hold on to hope that things will get better in the afterlife (Niebuhr, 1929).

Diversity by Race and Ethnicity

Social class and racial/ethnic identity are correlated, given longstanding racial/ethnic discrimination and oppression in the U.S.; however, there is evidence that over and above socioeconomic inequality, racial/ethnic identity relates to differences in religious development in other ways (Christerson et al., 2010). Black youth tend to be more religious than white youth (Smith & Denton, 2005), and this can partially be explained by the central role of the Black church throughout American history. Sometimes called a “semi-involuntary institution,” the Black church has been an invaluable source of social support for African Americans, providing community, resources, role models, and leadership opportunities (Ellison & Sherkat, 1995; Lincoln & Mamiya, 1990). Additionally, the historical focus of the Black church on social justice helps explain why Black evangelicals are theologically similar to white evangelicals but socially and politically distinct (Steensland et al., 2000). For Hispanic, Asian, or immigrant youth and their families in the United States, religious institutions often serve as a bridge to a new culture; they provide social support and resources while also serving as a connection to their homeland (Ebaugh & Curry, 2000; Eppsteiner & Hagan, 2016). Finally, White (Protestant) evangelical youth tend to be more religiously engaged than both their mainline Protestant and Catholic counterparts. Their higher engagement can partially be explained by a subcultural identity theory. That is, their group identity as both embattled and engaged with the culture promotes and sustains religious commitment (Smith et al., 1998).

These are just a few examples of how broader identities and subcultures shape adolescent religious and spiritual development. Accordingly, it is important for sociologists to contextualize adolescent development as partially determined by cultural and structural differences in ideologies as well as resources. There are undoubtedly other forms of identity, or realms of social context, that shape adolescent trajectories of religiosity or spirituality, such as LGBTQ identity, geographic area of residence, or behavioral/physical abilities. These, too, are critical to consider within sociological theories and sociological approaches to adolescent development.

Human Agency

The life course principle of human agency states that “individuals construct their own life course through the choices and actions they take within the opportunities and constraints of history and social circumstances” (Elder, 1998, p. 4). Accordingly, even though adolescent religiosity and spirituality are in many ways constrained by the factors discussed above, such as family life, social class, race/ethnicity, gender, or religious institutions, it must also be clearly emphasized that youth play an active role in their own religious and spiritual development. They construct and contest this identity along with others, such as those of a being a son, daughter, teenager, peer, student, or member of a particular racial, ethnic, or religious group (O’Brien, 2017). For example, recent work on American Muslim teens illuminates how they navigate the seemingly conflictual identities of being an American teenager and devout Muslim. These young men find ways to express their teenage autonomy – such as arriving to mosque prayers at the very last second – while still engaging with their religion and maintaining its central role in their lives (O’Brien, 2017).

Several major sociological works have documented a shift over time toward increased agency in how individuals pursue religion and spirituality. For example, "Post-Boomer" generations, in adolescence and beyond, have sought spiritual experiences in a different way than their parents and prior generations. Out of frustration with conventional religious authorities or institutions, and in a search for meaning, they have often reinvigorated ancient symbols or rituals within their own traditions or borrowed from others to create embodied spiritualities, both publicly and privately (Flory & Miller, 2008). One scholar has described this shift as a movement away from “dwelling” in sacred spaces to “seeking” spirituality in new ways that often defy tradition (Wuthnow, 1998). Modern adolescents and young adults, for example, generally agree that it is acceptable to pick and choose religious beliefs, and many exert this agency – choosing an amalgam of beliefs and practices that are idiosyncratic and unorthodox but that fit their particular values, needs, and lifestyles (Denton & Flory, 2020; Smith & Denton, 2005).

At the institutional level, adolescents are not just passive agents that participate in congregations at the behest of their parents. Many adolescents willing choose to participate in church, for example, and they are particularly attracted to those congregations that offer a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning, and opportunities to develop competencies (Lytch, 2004). This agency of adolescents persists into young adulthood, too. As recent work shows, young adults know what they are looking for when joining congregations – whether a particular theology, sense of community, spiritual experiences, commitment to social justice, or something else – and will choose congregations that match those preferences (Clydesdale & Garces-Foley, 2019).

On the other hand, though, many adolescents enact their agency and make conscious decisions to forgo religious involvement altogether. For example, research has documented how youth often use agency in their first year after high school to put all things spiritual into a lockbox of sorts while they manage the flurry of “daily life management” thrust upon them, such as personal relationships and paying the bills (Clydesdale, 2007, p. 2). Most teens also subscribe to a societal narrative that religious and spiritual development should not be a major focus of adolescent or young adult years; instead, they plan to focus on religion and spirituality when they begin to form families (Pearce & Denton, 2011). In sum, regardless of how agency is enacted, it is critical to the sociological approach to consider adolescents as agents in their own development, alongside the classical focus on how social contexts shape their lives.

Historical Time and Place

The life course principle of historical time and place states: “the life course of individuals is embedded in and shaped by the historical times and places they experience over their lifetime” (Elder, 1998, p. 3). In other words, all of the social influences discussed thus far can be understood as located within a particular period of history, and those same influences at different times in history – or within different cultural locations at the same time point – may have radically different effects on adolescent spirituality. This idea is exemplified by a classical sociological study, Children of the Great Depression (Elder, 1974), which shows that living through the Great Depression had different effects on youth depending on their age at the time it occurred.

As an illustration of how historical time matters for adolescents, it can be noted that the United States has changed dramatically since the 1950s. Religious diversity has increased greatly during that time span, as the nation is now home to more Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and adherents of other religions than ever before (Eck, 2001). Culturally, baby boomers and successive generations have explored these new religions and increasingly pursued spirituality on their own terms, often outside of institutional walls (Flory & Miller, 2008; Roof, 1999; Wuthnow, 1998). Norms that are less-directly related to religion, such as those regarding dating, sexual behaviors, and childrearing, have also loosened tremendously (Mintz & Kellog, 1988). Taken together, these changes mean that the adolescents of today inhabit a social world in which diversity, exploration, and tolerance of differences are not just accepted, but expected, including for religion and spirituality (Smith & Snell, 2009). In fact, modern parents often encourage their children to explore religions to find one that makes them happy, even if it means leaving the religion they grew up with (Smith et al., 2019). It is unlikely that the adolescents of a different historical era – perhaps the 1950s – would have been encouraged in like fashion by their parents.

As opposed to historical time, historical place matters for adolescent religious and spiritual development, too. For example, research on U.S. samples has often shown that religious transmission is strongest when parents agree about religion (Hoge et al., 1982; Myers, 1996). Accordingly, having religiously dissimilar parents is often considered a risk to effective religious socialization and could even portend macro-level secularization as new cohorts become less religious (Voas & Chaves, 2016). Nevertheless, recent research on China – a highly-secular context – presents a counterexample to this intergenerational process. Specifically, this study shows that growing up with one religious parent is highly promotive of religiosity compared to having two non-religious parents (McPhail & Yang, 2020). In the case of China, then, the growth of religiously heterogamous marriages may predict future growth of religion – not decline – with successive generations of youth benefitting from increased religious socialization as opposed to none.


Sociological approaches to studying adolescent religious and spiritual development offer unique contributions through data, measurement, and theory. With regard to data, sociologists use a combination of sources, particularly surveys, interviews, and ethnographies, to obtain rich measures of religion and spirituality, to understand the social worlds of adolescents, and to triangulate findings between sources. On the topic of measurement, sociologists recognize the multifaceted nature of spirituality and thus conceptualize it with multidimensional models or configurational approaches, also recognizing that the relative importance of dimensions and the arrangement of configurations are liable to change over time. Finally, when it comes to the factors affecting religious and spiritual development, sociologists often use a life course perspective to recognize that (1) adolescence is a sensitive time period for development, (2) adolescents’ lives are shaped by links to influential others and social institutions, (3) social locations create diversity in outcomes, (4) adolescents exercise agency in their religious and spiritual lives, and (5) the context of adolescent spiritual development is bounded by historical time and place. In sum, the sociological perspective has a wide array of tools for studying adolescent religious and spiritual development, many of which have greatly enhanced scholarly research on the topic. Most importantly, the data, concepts, and theoretical approaches of sociologists are readily adaptable to researchers in other fields, too, which would be a welcome application of them going forward.


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The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback.

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Hayward, G.M., Pearce, L.D. The Sociology of Adolescent Religious and Spiritual Development. Adolescent Res Rev 6, 265–276 (2021).

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  • Religion
  • Spirituality
  • Measurement
  • Life course
  • Sociology