Adolescent Religiosity and School Contexts

Author(s): Jennifer B. Barrett, Jennifer Pearson, Chandra Muller, and Kenneth A. Frank

Source: Barrett, Jennifer B., Jennifer Pearson, Chandra Muller, and Kenneth A. Frank. 2007. “Adolescent Religiosity and School Contexts.” Social Science Quarterly 88:1024-1037.


Schools are often the primary social organizations in an adolescent’s life, conveying norms and values that can influence student choices and behavior. Does school context play a role in shaping adolescent religiosity? A study using nationally representative data finds evidence that the religious climate of schools, both public and private, can influence students’ religious behaviors.

About the Study
The authors consider school context as social context and assess whether informal school norms can influence external as well as internal behaviors related to religiosity. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative school-based study of 7th to 12th graders, the authors employ sophisticated statistical methods to determine whether school religious norms, measured by the average level of student religiosity in the school, and social status of religiosity, measured by the correlation between student popularity and religiosity, have an effect on religious service attendance (public religiosity) and a combined measure of frequency of prayer and importance of religion (private religiosity).                        

The study shows that attending school with religious peers is strongly and positively associated with less of a decline in both public and private religiosity compared with attendance at schools with fewer religious peers. Similarly, when the social status of religiosity is high, students experience less of a decline in public but not private religiosity. The authors also find that when adolescents attend school with a greater number of students of the same religious affiliation, they also experience less of a decline in both measures of religiosity. These findings point to conformity toward norms and pursuit of social status as important social influences on religiosity in adolescents.

While controls for religious school types—Catholic and other religious—had significant effects on religiosity in initial models, once the school-level variables for average student religiosity and social status of religiosity were introduced, the school type variables became insignificant, suggesting that the impact of religious schools on religiosity is due to differences in peer context rather than the schools themselves. We would suggest, however, that a school effect may still exist, particularly for religious schools. Although peer context may be the direct mechanism influencing religious behavior, it seems likely that religious schools influence individual religious behavior, the status of religion within the school, and students’ social networks and thereby play an indirect role in this relationship that may not be captured in this study.   

Due to data limitations, the authors were not able to distinguish between the religious groups, churches, or denominations to which students belonged. It is likely that this effect may not be uniform across religious groups, depending on the nature and frequency of public expressions of religious practice. In addition, while the authors were able to control for earlier levels of religiosity, the two time points for which they have data are only one year apart, suggesting that these findings represent only short-term effects of peers on religiosity.  

These findings suggest that attending a religious school, particularly one where a majority of students share the same practices and beliefs, should have positive effects on adolescent religiosity, increasing the likelihood that the average religiosity and the social status of religiosity within a school will be high. Interestingly, the study also suggests that these peer influences work similarly in public schools. Religiosity, particularly public expressions such as religious service attendance, and, to a lesser extent, private expressions such as prayer, appears to be strongly influenced by social context and relationships. While this study was not able to consider differences between religious groups, it does point to the importance of finding common religious ground among peers for maintaining adolescent religiosity.


Keywords: religiosity, adolescents, peers, school context, secondary

Sector: Catholic,  Charter,  Evangelical Protestant,  Jewish,  Muslim,  Other Protestant,  Private,  Public

Outcomes: Religious and Spiritual

Date Posted: 2015-01-16