Increasing media attention has highlighted both the promise and the risk of religions role in promoting health and well-being, fostering morality and values, and influencing the lives of the poor. A recent cover story in TIME magazine, for example, looked at Faith and Healing; and books and articles expressing diverse viewpoints on the effects of religiosity appear monthlyranging from journalistic accounts of the global spread of modern American religion that can bring together isolated people and communities and contribute to positive outcomes (Micklethwait & Wooldridge, 2009), to medical research on the role of religiousness in patients end-of-life treatment decisions published in top-tier academic journals (Phelps et al., 2009).
Not only are faith and religion the focus of a flurry of recent media and academic research, these topics are routinely discussed in policy circles. Interdisciplinary research and policy conferences have been convened recently to share collective knowledge about the potential for religiosity to influence positive health outcomes and the effectiveness of faith-based social services. The sheer volume of publications, public forums, and dissemination outlets is increasingly diverse, prestigious, and, taken together, difficult to ignore. Clearly, religiosity and spirituality, and their connections to improving lives, are of interest
to the American public as well as policymakers.
While the consideration of religiosity and spirituality in solving social problems may be
intuitively appealing, the charge of the newly reconstituted White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships reinforces a focus on better understanding how religion can affect outcomes, based on the available research. Part of the White House Offices charge is
- ... to promote the better use of program evaluation and research, in order to ensure that organizations deliver services as specified in grant agreements, contracts, memoranda of understanding, and other arrangements, and
- Through rigorous evaluation, and by offering technical assistance, the Federal Government must ensure that organizations receiving Federal funds achieve measurable results in furtherance of valid public purposes." (White House, 2009).
If religiosity has the potential to increase positive outcomes, whether directly or indirectly, its effects can be encouraged through government partnerships that address a variety of outcomes for low-income and underserved populations (Dionne & Rogers, 2008; Fagan, 2006). If greater religiosity or spirituality helps build coping strategies that buffer negative experiences or if they are associated with better outcomes, it is possible that programs that consider or address religiosity or spirituality could be more effective than those that do not (Monsma & Soper, 2006). Understanding the differences that exist in religiosity between socioeconomic groups will enhance the ability of policymakers and practitioners to design and deliver programs that best serve the needs of low-income groups.
This report highlights several reviews of empirical research studies that document the association religiosity has with positive behaviors, such as better mental health (Koenig, 2008), less crime (Baier & Wright, 2001) lower rates of substance use (Chitwood, Weiss, & Leukefeld , 2008), and healthy family relationships (Mahoney, Paragament, Tarakeshwar, & Swank, 2001). While the overall body of research that demonstrates a positive association between religion and positive behavior is promising, the empirical literature is still in its early stages of development. New research studies using methodologically rigorous designs can pave the way for developing more evidence-based programs and practices that could help improve outcomes among economically vulnerable families.
Existing Research Points to Differences in Religious Involvement by Income
While religion plays a significant role in the lives of Americansover 90% believe in God, over 50% attend church once or twice a month, 75% pray at least once weekly, and 62% reject the idea that religion causes more problems than it solves (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2008)there are considerable differences in the religious affiliations, activities, and beliefs of lower-income Americans compared with higher-income Americans, including the following:
- Religious affiliation is stratified by socioeconomic status (SES, which includes education, income, and occupation). Lower-income groups are affiliated with more theologically conservative institutions of worship, whereas higher-income groups are affiliated with more liberal institutions (Smith & Faris, 2005). These patterns have remained stable over time.
- Lower-income adults, as well as youths, have higher levels of religious beliefs and adherence to doctrine but lower participation in organizational religiosity (McCloud, 2007; Schwadel, 2008; Sullivan, 2006.) Lower SES is associated with more personal devotionalism, higher rates of adherence to doctrinal beliefs, and more religious experiences (Nelson, 2009). Lower-income teenagers are generally less likely to participate in organized religious activities, but they are more likely to engage in conventional religious practices, such as prayer and reading scriptures.
- Higher-income is associated with greater church attendance, higher levels of religious knowledge, and more participation in religious leadership positions among adults (Nelson, 2009).
- Several studies suggest that the lower-income individuals hold stronger religious beliefs than their higher-income counterparts; however, there is variation in these findings. Some studies do not show significant differences in the nature of religious beliefs or participation by income, suggesting that the differences in the findings could be caused by the lack of consistent measurement of income groups as well as of religiosity (Cnaan, Gelles, & Sinha, 2003).
While these questions cannot be answered directly in this literature review, it is important to consider how these differences in beliefs and participation could affect outcomes in the low-income population when assessing this literature. For example, do stronger religious beliefs among the low-income population translate into better or worse outcomes? Does affiliation with a more theologically conservative religion increase the probability of positive behavioral outcomes or does it foster rebellion among low-income youths? Do these effects differ depending on different demographic characteristics or levels of economic and social resources?
Although there is evidence of the potential for religiosity and spirituality to affect positive behaviors, there are also findings about more complex associations across family outcomes (Lippman, Michelsen, & Roehlekepartain, 2005). These findings suggest meaningful variation in the role that religion can play in different populations. For example, lower-income Americans have high levels of religious and spiritual beliefs that, in some cases, are greater than those of higher-income Americans (Ludwig & Mayer, 2006). Because poverty is correlated with several negative behavioral outcomes, and because the low-income population has high levels of religious beliefs, it has been suggested that religiosity and spirituality could help to buffer the negative consequences of living in poverty and provide a pathway out of the multi-problem patterns that can accompany limited resources (Dehija, Deleire, Luttmer, & Mitchell, 2007; Fagan, 2006).
Limited Research on Religiosity in the Low-Income Population
While there is a growing body of literature highlighting the positive, albeit modest, association between religiosity and spirituality and better life experiences in the general population (McCullough & Willoughby, 2009), little research focuses specifically on the low-income population. The limited available information on the role of religiosity in the lives of the low-income population suggests that the existing knowledge base is insufficient to fully inform policymakers about how best to incorporate religiosity in social policy approaches targeting lower-income Americans.
Closing the Knowledge Gap for the Low-Income Population
Policy-Relevant Topic Areas Covered in this Report
- Healthy Marriage and Family Relationships
- Parental Involvement and Child Development
- Mental and Physical Health
- Substance Abuse
To help close the knowledge gap about how religiosity and spirituality affect outcomes in low-income families, this report provides a comprehensive review of published and unpublished empirical research literature in several areas of current policy and program interest, including healthy marriage and family relationships, parental involvement and child development, mental and physical health, substance abuse, and crime.
This review targeted articles published in peer-reviewed journals during the past 20 years that focused on the U.S. population. Because there are a very limited number of empirical studies that focus on religiosity effects solely for the low-income population, the search strategy was widened to include working papers, conference papers, and policy research studies. While this strategy is intentionally broad, the study inclusion criteria for this review are narrowly targeted to include religiosity, the low-income population, and behavioral or attitudinal outcomes that are relevant to current public policy goals and program objectives.
The narrowly defined inclusion criteria eliminated several groups of studies. For example, evaluations of faith-based social services that do not include measures of low-income program participants religiosity are excluded from this report. Also excluded are studies on general populations that do not focus on comparisons of how religiosity effects differ between high- and low-income populations. Studies that focus on the determinants of religiosity, rather than the effects of religiosity on behavioral outcomes, are also not included. And there are a host of studies conducted on populations outside of the United States that are beyond the scope of this report.
In sum, this report provides one of the first assessments of the state of the research on the effects of religiosity and spirituality on behavioral outcomes for the economically disadvantaged population in the United States.
Definitions Used in this Report
Before considering how conceptual models propose that religiosity and spirituality affect positive behaviors, it is important to define these two concepts as well as several other terms that will be used consistently throughout the report:
- Religion is characterized by a set of particular beliefs, shared by a group, about God or a higher power and by the practices that define how those beliefs are expressed (Miller, 1998).
- Religious denomination or affiliation refers to a specific religion, such as Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Mormon, or Muslim, to name a few.
- Spirituality is characterized by a deeply personal and individualized response to God or a higher power (NIAAA & the Fetzer Institute, 1999).
The concepts of religion and spirituality differ in that one does not have to be religious to be spiritual.
Researchers generally measure any involvement in religious activities, religious beliefs, and the importance of religion using the general term religiosity. Some scholars further distinguish two components of religiosity:
- Organizational religiosity, also termed public or extrinsic religiosity, refers to participation or involvement with religious institutions. Examples of organizational religiosity measures include frequency of attendance of services at churches, mosques or temples, and participation in youth activities or bible study at a religious organization.
- Nonorganizational religiosity, also termed private, individual, or internal religiosity, refers to individual practices or religious beliefs practiced. Examples of nonorganizational religiosity measures include the importance of God in a persons daily life or how often an individual engages in prayer.
These five general definitions are used throughout this report. However, because the definitions of religiosity and spirituality vary across research studies, religiosity will be defined by the specific language used in a research study when it differs from these general definitions.
Potential Pathways of the Effect of Religiosity
Within the sociology and psychology of religion, there is a long history of theorizing about how organizational and nonorganizational religiosity can foster normative behaviors. The basic logic is that religiosity can have direct or indirect effects on behavior, and sometimes both. Several scholars hypothesize that individual and organizational religiosity can provide indirect benefits that in turn affect positive behaviors. The hypothesized pathways through which religiosity influences behaviors can operate positively or negatively at the individual, family and/or community levels.
The major pathways described in the research literature include the following:
- Direct effect of organizational religiosity on outcomes
- Direct effect of individual religiosity on outcomes
- Indirect (or mediating) effect of individual religiosity on outcomes
- Indirect (or mediating) effect of organizational religiosity on outcomes
- Effect of family-level and community-level religiosity on outcomes
- Moderating effect of religiosity on outcomes
These pathways comprise the dominant theories about how religiosity can foster normative behaviors. The conceptual model for each outcome area will be described specifically in later sections, which also will show that the vast majority of the empirically tested pathways are general in nature, rather than religiously specific.
Organization of this Report
Each of the following six sections focuses on one of the policy-relevant topic/outcome areas covered in this report, including (in the following order) marriage and relationships, parenting, youth, religiosity and mental and physical health, substance use, and crime and violence. Each section is organized in a similar fashion, starting with a brief orientation to the literature on religiosity, a discussion of the specific hypothesized pathways through which religiosity influences the outcomes of interest, and a discussion of the key data types, research methods, and measures used in this line of research.
Next, the findings on how religiosity influences the focal topic for the general population are discussed, before turning to results specific to the low-income population. Key data sources and measures are first outlined for the low-income-focused studies before the results are presented. The results for low-income studies are organized around the research questions guiding the empirical research in the given topic area and are presented in a Question and Answer format.
Research gaps and implications for next steps are then discussed. Each section concludes with an overview of new, promising research in the given topic area that can help move the respective field forward.
The report concludes with a summary of the methods and data sources used in religiosity research, key themes across outcome areas, identified research gaps, and possible next steps in research.
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