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May 7, 2003 -- No. 270

Religion linked to stronger family relationships, new research shows

By DAVID WILLIAMSON
UNC News Services

CHAPEL HILL -- Adolescents in families actively involved in religious activities tend to enjoy stronger family relationships than youths whose families have less or no religious involvement, a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study shows.

The research, part of the larger UNC-based National Study of Youth and Religion, revealed significant statistical links between religion and family ties, said study director Dr. Christian Smith.

"We found that of the 27 family relationship variables we examined for this report, all were significantly related to some dimension of family religious involvement, after controlling for the possible effects of other social and economic factors," said Smith, professor of sociology.

Written with doctoral student Phillip Kim, the UNC report relied on data gathered through

the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, nationally representative surveys of 8,984 children and adolescents and 7,942 parents, he said. The new analysis, released today (May 7), is among the most comprehensive looks yet on the link between religion and family ties.

"We examined associations between the quality of family relationships and three dimensions of family religious involvement -- the number of days per week families do something religious, parental attendance at worship services and parental prayer," said Smith, also associate chair of sociology.

He and Kim found that 11 percent of 12- to 14-year-olds belonged to families whose religious activities were frequent -- five to seven days a week. Those youth were much more likely to have good relations with their parents, according to multiple measures, to participate in family activities such as eating dinner together and not to run away from home.

Adolescents whose families were less religiously active -- 8 percent for three to four days a week and 45 percent for one to two days a week -- also enjoyed positive family ties, although not quite as often or as much.

The 37 percent of youth with a parent who attended worship services at least once a week, Smith said, were considerably more likely than those whose parents did not attend to have:

"For the youth whose parents were less frequent attenders -- 12 percent for twice a month and 21 percent for once a month or less -- the data also suggested evidence of stronger family relationships than those whose parents did not attend, but with more scattered positive results," he said.

The cross sectional data on which the analyses were based made it difficult for researchers to determine the exact effects of religion, Smith said.

"It might be that religion itself improves family relationships," he said. "It might also be that youth and families that already are committed to high-quality family relationships choose to become more religiously involved as one strategy to pursue them. A combination of these or other influences might operate to produce the results presented in our report."

Understanding that early adolescents living in religiously involved families tend to enjoy better family lives may help in determining ways to boost the quality of life of U.S. adolescents, he said.

An earlier report from the continuing project showed that religious teens were less likely to smoke, drink and use drugs and more likely to start later and use less if they started at all, he said. They went to bars less often, received fewer traffic tickets, wore seat belts more, took fewer risks and fought less frequently. Shoplifting, other thefts, trespassing and arson also were rarer.

Another part of the study reported that high school seniors who went to religious services at least once a week or who professed deeply held spiritual views, enjoyed significantly higher self-esteem and were more positive about life than others.

"Religious 12th-graders argued with parents less, skipped school less, exercised more, participated more in student government and faced fewer detentions, suspensions and expulsions," Smith said.

The Lilly Endowment Inc. funds the four-year UNC project, which began in 2001. Among goals are to identify effective practices in the religious, moral and social formation in young people’s lives and to foster informed national discussions about the influence of religion on adolescents.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics sponsored the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which was conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.


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Note: To reach Smith or for copies of the report, call Roxann Miller, director of communication for the National Study of Youth and Religion, at (919) 966-1559. More information is available at www.youthandreligion.org.

News Services Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596