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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Adams, J., Schaefer, D. R., & Ettekal, A. V. (2020). Crafting mosaics: Person-centered religious influence and selection in adolescent friendships. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 59(1), 39–61. https://doi.org/10.1111/jssr.12638
Bader, C. D., & Desmond, S. A. (2006). Do as I say and as I do: The effects of consistent parental beliefs and behaviors upon religious transmission. Sociology of Religion, 67(3), 313–329. https://doi.org/10.1093/socrel/67.3.313
Beyerlein, K. (2004). Specifying the impact of conservative Protestantism on educational attainment. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 43(4), 505–518. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-5906.2004.00252.x
Beyerlein, K., Trinitapoli, J., & Adler, G. (2011). The effect of religious short-term mission trips on youth civic engagement. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 50(4), 780–795. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01607.x
Bradshaw, M., & Ellison, C. G. (2009). The nature-nurture debate is over, and both sides lost! Implications for understanding gender differences in religiosity. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 48(2), 241–251. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01443.x
Christerson, B., Edwards, K. L., & Flory, R. (2010). Growing up in America: The power of race in the lives of teens. Stanford University Press.
Clydesdale, T. (2007). The first year out: Understanding American teens after high school. University of Chicago Press.
Clydesdale, T., & Garces-Foley, K. (2019). The twenty-something soul: Understanding the religious and secular lives of American young adults. Oxford University Press.
Collett, J. L., & Lizardo, O. (2009). A power-control theory of gender and religiosity. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 48(2), 213–231. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01441.x
Cotton, S., McGrady, M. E., & Rosenthal, S. L. (2010). Measurement of religiosity/spirituality in adolescent health outcomes research: Trends and recommendations. Journal of Religion and Health, 49(4), 414–444. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10943-010-9324-0
Denton, M. L. (2012). Family structure, family disruption, and profiles of adolescent religiosity. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 51(1), 42–64. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01619.x
Denton, M. L., & Flory, R. (2020). Back-pocket God: Religion and spirituality in the lives of emerging adults. Oxford University Press.
Desmond, S. A., Morgan, K. H., & Kikuchi, G. (2010). Religious development: How (and why) does religiosity change from adolescence to young adulthood? Sociological Perspectives, 53(2), 247–270. https://doi.org/10.1525/sop.2010.53.2.247
Dollahite, D. C., & Thatcher, J. Y. (2008). Talking about religion: How highly religious youth and parents discuss their faith. Journal of Adolescent Research, 23(5), 611–641. https://doi.org/10.1177/0743558408322141
Durkheim, E. (1995). The elementary forms of religious life (K. E. Fields, Trans.). Free Press. (Original work published 1912)
Ebaugh, H. R., & Curry, M. (2000). Fictive kin as social capital in new immigrant communities. Sociological Perspectives, 43(2), 189–209. https://doi.org/10.2307/1389793
Eck, D. L. (2001). A new religious America: How a “Christian country” has now become the world’s most religiously diverse nation. HarperOne.
Elder, G. H. (1974). Children of the Great Depression: Social change in life experience. University of Chicago Press.
Elder, G. H. (1998). The life course as developmental theory. Child Development, 69(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.1998.tb06128.x
Ellison, C. G., & Sherkat, D. E. (1995). The “semi-involuntary institution” revisited: Regional variations in church participation among black Americans. Social Forces, 73(4), 1415–1437. https://doi.org/10.2307/2580453
Eppsteiner, H. S., & Hagan, J. (2016). Religion as psychological, spiritual, and social support in the migration undertaking. In J. B. Saunders, E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, & S. Snyder (Eds.), Intersections of religion and migration: Issues at the global crossroads (pp. 49–70). Palgrave Macmillan.
Flory, R., & Miller, D. E. (2008). Finding faith: The spiritual quest of the post-boomer generation. Rutgers University Press.
Glock, C. Y. (1962). On the study of religious commitment. Religious Education, 57(4), 98–110. https://doi.org/10.1080/003440862057S407
Good, M., & Willoughby, T. (2008). Adolescence as a sensitive period for spiritual development. Child Development Perspectives, 2(1), 32–37. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1750-8606.2008.00038.x
Harris, S. K., Sherritt, L. R., Holder, D. W., Kulig, J., Shrier, L. A., & Knight, J. R. (2008). Reliability and validity of the brief multidimensional measure of religiousness/spirituality among adolescents. Journal of Religion and Health, 47(4), 438–457. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10943-007-9154-x
Hayward, G. M. (2019). Religiosity and premarital sexual behaviors among adolescents: An analysis of functional form. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 58(2), 439–458. https://doi.org/10.1111/jssr.12588
Herzog, P. S., & Wedow, R. (2012). Youth group cliques: How religious goals can disguise discriminatory group dynamics. Review of Religious Research, 54(2), 217–238. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-012-0050-9
Hoge, D. R., Petrillo, G. H., & Smith, E. I. (1982). Transmission of religious and social values from parents to teenage children. Journal of Marriage and Family, 44(3), 569–580. https://doi.org/10.2307/351580
Hutchinson, E. D. (2011). Life course theory. In R. J. R. Levesque (Ed.), Encyclopedia of adolescence. (pp. 1586–1594). Springer.
King, P. E., Kim, S.-H., Furrow, J. L., & Clardy, C. E. (2017). Preliminary exploration of the measurement of diverse adolescent spirituality (MDAS) among Mexican youth. Applied Developmental Science, 21(4), 235–250. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888691.2016.1203789
Lee, B. H. J., Pearce, L. D., & Schorpp, K. M. (2018). Religious pathways from adolescence to adulthood. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 56(3), 678–689. https://doi.org/10.1111/jssr.12367
Li, Y., Woodberry, R., Liu, H., & Guo, G. (2020). Why are women more religious than men? Do risk preferences and genetic risk predispositions explain the gender gap? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. https://doi.org/10.1111/jssr.12657
Lincoln, C. E., & Mamiya, L. H. (1990). The black church in the African American experience. Duke University Press.
Lytch, C. E. (2004). Choosing church: What makes a difference for teens. Westminster John Knox Press.
Martin, T. F., White, J. M., & Perlman, D. (2003). Religious socialization: A test of the channeling hypothesis of parental influence on adolescent faith maturity. Journal of Adolescent Research, 18(2), 169–187. https://doi.org/10.1177/0743558402250349
McDowell, A. D. (2018). “Christian but not religious”: Being church as Christian hardcore punk. Sociology of Religion, 79(1), 58–77. https://doi.org/10.1093/socrel/srx033
McPhail, B. L., & Yang, F. (2020). Religious heterogamy and the intergenerational transmission of religion in China. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 59(3), 439–454. https://doi.org/10.1111/jssr.12667
Merton, R. K., & Kitt, A. S. (1950). Contributions to the theory of reference group behavior. In R. K. Merton & P. F. Lazarfield (Eds.), Continuities in social research: Studies in the scope and method of "The American Soldier" (pp. 40–105). Free Press.
Miller, A. S., & Hoffmann, J. P. (1995). Risk and religion: An explanation of gender differences in religiosity. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 34(1), 63–75. https://doi.org/10.2307/1386523
Miller, A. S., & Stark, R. (2002). Gender and religiousness: Can socialization explanations be saved? American Journal of Sociology, 107(6), 1399–1423. https://doi.org/10.1086/342557
Mintz, S., & Kellog, S. (1988). Domestic revolutions: A social history of American family life. The Free Press.
Myers, S. M. (1996). An interactive model of religiosity inheritance: The importance of family context. American Sociological Review, 61(5), 858–866. https://doi.org/10.2307/2096457
Niebuhr, H. R. (1929). The social sources of denominationalism. Henry Holt and Company.
O’Brien, J. (2017). Keeping it halal: The everyday lives of Muslim American teenage boys. Princeton University Press.
Pearce, L. D. (2015). Thinking outside the Q boxes: Further motivating a mixed research perspective. In S. N. Hesse-Biber & R. B. Johnson (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of multimethod and mixed methods research inquiry (pp. 42–57). Oxford University Press.
Pearce, L. D., & Denton, M. L. (2011). A faith of their own: Stability and change in the religiosity of America’s adolescents. Oxford University Press.
Pearce, L. D., Hayward, G. M., & Pearlman, J. A. (2017). Measuring five dimensions of religiosity across adolescence. Review of Religious Research, 59(3), 367–393. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-017-0291-8
Perry, S. L., & Longest, K. C. (2019). Examining the impact of religious initiation rites on religiosity and disaffiliation over time. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 58(4), 891–904. https://doi.org/10.1111/jssr.12632
Petts, R. J. (2009). Trajectories of religious participation from adolescence to young adulthood. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 48(3), 552–571
Pew Research Center. (2020). U.S. teens take after their parents religiously, attend services together and enjoy family rituals.
Roof, W. C. (1999). Spiritual marketplace: Baby boomers and the remaking of American religion. Princeton University Press.
Rotolo, M. (2020). Moral religiosities: How morality structures religious understandings during the transition to adulthood. Sociology of Religion. https://doi.org/10.1093/socrel/sraa025
Schwadel, P. (2008). Poor teenagers’ religion. Sociology of Religion, 69(2), 125–149. https://doi.org/10.1093/socrel/69.2.125
Shanahan, M. J. (2000). Pathways to adulthood in changing societies: Variability and mechanisms in life course perspective. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 667–692. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.soc.26.1.667
Sherkat, D. E. (2012). Religion and the American occupational structure. In L. A. Keister, J. McCarthy, & R. Finke (Eds.), Religion, work, and inequality (pp. 75–102). Emerald.
Smith, C. (2003). Religious participation and network closure among American adolescents. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 42(2), 259–267. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-5906.00177
Smith, C., & Denton, M. L. (2005). Soul searching: The religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. Oxford University Press.
Smith, C., Emerson, M., Gallagher, S., Kennedy, P., & Sikkink, D. (1998). American evangelicalism: Embattled and thriving. University of Chicago Press.
Smith, C., Ritz, B., & Rotolo, M. (2019). Religious parenting: Transmitting faith and values in contemporary America. Princeton University Press.
Smith, C., & Snell, P. (2009). Souls in transition: The religious and spiritual lives of emerging adults. Oxford University Press.
Stark, R. (2002). Physiology and faith: Addressing the “universal” gender difference in religious commitment. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41(3), 495–507. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-5906.00133
Steensland, B., Park, J. Z., Regnerus, M. D., Robinson, L. D., Wilcox, W. B., & Woodberry, R. D. (2000). The measure of American religion: Toward improving the state of the art. Social Forces, 79(1), 291–318. https://doi.org/10.2307/2675572
Sullivan, S. C. (2011). Living faith: Everyday religion and mothers in poverty. University of Chicago Press.
Trinitapoli, J., & Vaisey, S. (2009). The transformative role of religious experience: The case of short-term missions. Social Forces, 88(1), 121–146. https://doi.org/10.1353/sof.0.0223
Twenge, J. M., Exline, J. J., Grubbs, J. B., Sastry, R., & Campbell, W. K. (2015). Generational and time period differences in American adolescents’ religious orientation, 1966–2014. PLoS ONE, 10(5), e0121454. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0121454
Uecker, J. E., & Pearce, L. D. (2017). Conservative Protestantism and horizontal stratification in education: The case of college selectivity. Social Forces, 96(2), 661–690. https://doi.org/10.1093/sf/sox053
Vaidyanathan, B. (2011). Religious resources or differential returns? Early religious socialization and declining attendance in emerging adulthood. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 50(2), 366–387. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01573.x
Voas, D., & Chaves, M. (2016). Is the United States a counterexample to the secularization thesis? American Journal of Sociology, 121(5), 1517–1556. https://doi.org/10.1086/684202
Walter, T., & Davie, G. (1998). The religiosity of women in the modern west. The British Journal of Sociology, 49(4), 640–660. https://doi.org/10.2307/591293
Weber, M. (2002). The Protestant ethic and the “spirit” of capitalism. In P. Baehr & G. C. Wells (Eds. & Trans.), The Protestant ethic and the “spirit” of capitalism and other writings (pp. 1–202). Penguin Books. (Original work published 1905)
Wuthnow, R. (1998). After heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s. University of California Press.
The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback.
Conflict of interest
The authors report no conflicts of interests.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Hayward, G.M., Pearce, L.D. The Sociology of Adolescent Religious and Spiritual Development. Adolescent Res Rev 6, 265–276 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40894-021-00157-2
- Life course