New Research Finds That Religious Participation by Adolescents Promotes Positive Character Development

 A group of professors at Grove City College have found that there is a clear relationship between religious participation and the development of positive character traits, particularly self-control.A interesting aspect of the research, conducted by professors of psychology Drs. Joseph J. Horton, Kevin S. Seybold, and Gary L. Welton, was the discovery that personal faith combined with belonging to a religious community (that is, an organized church) was vastly more beneficial in the development of attributes which help in dealing with stressful life events than either isolated personal belief or simply being part of a close knit community.

The professors preface their report by noting that the questioning of the value of religion, spearheaded by such authors as Richard Dawkins, who has argued that people who participate in religious activities are less moral than those who do not, is a relatively recent development.

The report quotes Paul Johnson, who wrote that, “Until the second half of the 20th century, religion was held by virtually all Americans, irrespective of their beliefs, or non-belief, to be not only desirable but an essential part of the national fabric.”

The research explored two primary theses. The first is that “based on established psychological theory, religious participation should promote character development.” The second is that the “best empirical evidence suggests that religious participation does promote character development.”

The research focused on the potential benefits of religious participation as manifested by behavior, rather than looking simply at generalized religiosity.

“Many people today report that they are spiritual or religious without demonstrating a commitment to a religious community or a belief system,” the report states.

“The benefits of religion for character development, however, seem most likely to come from participation in a community and commitment to a belief system rather than a generalized spirituality. This is because a belief system and community result in expectations for, and demands upon, behavior that spirituality, or general religiosity, does not.”

Horton, Seybold, and Welton studied multiple behavioral aspects of people’s lives, such as the role of religious beliefs when making decisions, rather than single behavioral items, such as frequency of church attendance.

In defining “character”, the professors simplified the complicated components usually attributed to “good character” – such as humility, engagement in healthful behaviors, academic honesty, and work ethic – stating that “there is a common cornerstone to these facets-self-control.”

“It is impossible to have character without self-control, or the ability to delay gratification. Making moral choices requires that one be able to choose what is right even when it is difficult or disadvantageous to oneself. Whether one defines character as humility, work ethic, or making healthful choices, self-control is required.”

The professors observe that, “when adolescents choose risky behaviors such as accepting a ride from an intoxicated friend or engaging in sexual activity, they are failing to delay gratification.”

The research also took into account parental influence, neural development in adolescence related to self-control, social capital – that is, the resources made available to people who are in social relationships – and cognitive dissonance, which is the motivation to behave according to one’s beliefs to avoid the conflict of inconsistent thoughts or attitudes.

The report concludes with a reference to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he notes that many of the Christians in Corinth once lived evil lives, but that their lives were transformed by acceptance of the faith within the structure of the Church.

“Religious participation had a profound impact on people’s ability to delay gratification in the first century. Theory and empirical research point to religious participation continuing to be important for character development in the lives of Americans in the 21st century.”

Link to the full text of the report:

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