Adolescent Spirituality

Indicators of Positive Development Conference
March 12-13, 2003
Bureau of Labor Statistics Conference Center
Washington, DC


Peter L. Benson, Peter C. Scales, Arturo Sesma, Jr., and Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Search Institute

Interest in adolescent religious and spiritual development has risen sharply in recent years. Several major and recent reviews of positive youth development have moved this domain to center stage, positioning the spiritual religious domain as a developmental resource that lessens risk behavior and/or enhances positive outcomes (Bridges & Moore, 2002; Donahue & Benson, 1995; National Research Council, 2002; Scales & Leffert, 1999). At the same time, the domain also has political currency in its clear connection to White House interest in “faith-based initiatives.”

Though this dimension of adolescent development holds promise for inclusion in a pantheon of positive indicators, the selection and/or development of appropriate measures requires responses to several critical issues. One, of course, has to do with the definitional distinctions between the concepts of religion and spirituality. The research tradition—as incomplete as it is—strongly emphasizes the former. And in that regard, the dominant measures used in quantitative studies are the degree of importance respondents attach to religion and the frequency of participation in religious communities (i.e., worship attendance at a mosque, synagogue, parish, church, or other type of congregation).

These two measures are, one could argue, fairly superficial approaches to a domain that has a potentially rich array of belief, value, behavior, and communal dimensions. Any attempt to propose indicators worthy of serious attention must both begin with a thorough examination of the utility of these cursory measures and also look for potential measures that get deeper inside the spiritual/religious domain. In addition, there is the issue of inclusivity. Much of the extant research has utilized samples of Christians in fairly conventional (i.e., institutional) settings. Accordingly, many of the efforts to measure deeper themes and dimensions utilize items and scales tailored to these samples. If there is any trend that describes the American spiritual/religious landscape, it is the growth and spread of new religious beliefs, practices, forms, and movements (Eck, 2001). Hence, a critical measurement issue has to do with how to capture this rich diversity of spiritual and religious energy.

This paper has five purposes:

  • To review what is known about adolescent engagement in the religious/spiritual domain;
  • To synthesize literature on the predictive utility of religious/spiritual engagement for developmental success;
  • To report what is known about the generalizability of these relationships, with a particular eye to gender and race/ethnicity;
  • To review and critique efforts to measure themes and dimensions of religious/spiritual engagement; and
  • To recommend strategies for creating a psychometrically sound index of spiritual/religious engagement.