This section addresses shortfalls in existing measures that limit our ability to portray the religiosity and spirituality of the American family.
Existing measures define religiosity narrowly. The most common measure of religiosity in surveys, the frequency of attending religious services, captures only a limited aspect of religiosity. The NSYR is the only survey that probes the many religious observances and spiritual practices that take place in the home and are less public, such as Jewish observation of the Sabbath and religious holidays such as Passover in the home, and Hindu and Buddhist use of shrines for prayer in their homes. Other examples include the frequency with which families pray together informally, read a sacred text, or say grace before dinner in a Christian home or the blessings after meals in a Jewish home. These activities are important for the transmission of religion, yet only the NSFR captures them. Other religious or spiritual activities, besides prayer, such as meditation, yoga, or spiritual singing that families can either engage in together or individually are not even captured with specificity in the NSYR.
In addition, Dollahite, Marks, & Goodman (2004) argue that religiosity (and family religiosity) is a multi-dimensional construct involving religious beliefs, religious practices, and religious community. Yet most studies overlook the interactions among these dimensions by focusing on one at a time. Understanding each dimension both individually and in interaction with the others is vital for accurately assessing the role of religion in family life.
Current measures do not clarify the relationship between religion and spirituality. Virtually all the available research on families focuses on traditional religious variables. A growing network of scholars is suggesting that spirituality is a related, but distinct, domain that merits careful measurement, including a range of spiritual experiences and practices that may or may not be embedded within religious traditions. These measures would explore domains of meaning, purpose, connectedness, and transcendence, which are generally believed to be elements of the spiritual life (see Benson, Roehlkepartain, & Rude, 2003; Hill & Pargament, 2003). Making this distinction may be vital for gaining widespread acceptance of these measures in national studies.
Measures need to include a wider diversity of practices and beliefs. Most of the existing surveys, particularly the Add Health and the NLSY, ask specific questions about beliefs and practices that are only relevant to Christians. As non-Christian religions continue to be more broadly represented in the general population of the United States, it is important that large-scale surveys take into account the practices and traditions of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religious groups, as the NSYR has done. Additionally, current measures focus on public religious practices. Informal and personal religious practices that take place outside the confines of conventional religious activity, such as those surrounding one's own personal relationship with a deity or deities, are currently lacking in surveys.
Measures of family practices in the home are lacking. The extent to which both formal and informal religious practices occur in the context of family is critical to the measurement of family religiosity and spirituality. Examining the prevalence of praying together as a family in the home, or as individual members engaging in prayer, praying at meals, meditation, engaging in discussions about religion, the nature of specific communication about religion and spirituality, family attitudes toward religion, religious observance in the home (e.g., Sabbath), celebration of religious holidays and rites of passage, the presence of religious or sacred artifacts or places within the home, reading from sacred texts, religious story-telling, family pilgrimages to sacred places, participating in prayer circles, or volunteering through religious groups with one's family, for example, may underlie the development of religiosity and spirituality among family members.
Measures are needed that reflect the complexity of the formation of religious and spiritual identity. Many current measures of religiosity and spirituality in the family presume that religion is primarily transmitted through formal education and in one-way communication from parent to child. In addition, most measures focus only on the religious beliefs or practices of one person rather than religious compatibility and interaction within the family unit (Mahoney, Pargament, Tarakeshwar, & Swank, 2001). In reality, the process is much more complex, involving informal modeling, indirect influences, and a dynamic relationship between the parent(s), child, siblings, extended family, and other socializing influences.
Longitudinal measures are needed. One of the foremost weaknesses of the existing data is the absence of detailed, longitudinal data on the spirituality and religious practices and beliefs of youth and their parents. Some data sources, such as the NLSY97 and the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH), do have some of these measures, but there are limitations in the questions asked and the populations surveyed. This detailed, long term trend data is a prerequisite for both achieving a better sense of the relationships between religiosity and various outcomes, as well as creating a more accurate description of the changes in religious attitudes and practices across the life course of families, from the first birth through the transition of children into adulthood.
It is also important to look at the effect of life course events (e.g., birth, marriage, health crises, death) on individual and family religiosity and spirituality.
Religion and spirituality as resources for coping. A growing body of research highlights the role of religion and spirituality in parental coping with sick or emotionally or behaviorally disturbed children (Pargament, 1997). Spirituality is also associated with coping with illness, crisis, or trauma for children and adolescents (e.g. Pendleton, Cavalli, Pargament, & Nasr, 2002). Additional work is needed to understand the relationships between serious family or personal problems and religiosity and spirituality. Little has been done to examine the role of family religiousness in coping with the daily stressors of parenting and family life. This area would likely include measures of spiritual support from God or a higher power, spiritual support within the family, support from religious or spiritual community, religious rituals as sources of hope and healing, and related issues for both parents and children (see Mahoney, Pargament, Tarakeshwar, & Swank, 2001).
Religion through media. Another area where measurement could be expanded is in the use of media to gather information about religion or to meet with others and discuss religion and/or spirituality. For instance, to what extent are people increasingly using the Internet or web-based chatrooms to explore their religion? To what extent do they watch religious programming on television or listen to it on their radio with their families, and how do those who do differ or not from those who only attend services? Are social connections lost from not participating with a congregation?
Measures for young children. While there are numerous measures for adolescents, there are no measures in national surveys on the religiosity or spirituality of younger children. Clearly, there are methodological obstacles to creating and fielding such measures, but they could be overcome with parent reports, and creative strategies such as drawing or choosing pictures, etc.