Religiosity and Health Related Risks in Adolescence

Religiosity, executive control functions, and health-related risks in adolescence

Principal Co-Investigators: Dr. Bob Neville and Dr. James Burns

Robert Neville, Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology, Boston University
James Burns, (Former) Assistant Professor of Religion, School of Theology (now at Boston College)

One of the greatest challenges presently facing churches and other religious communities is how to address the increasing number of adolescents and youths who engage in risky behavior, especially in regard to health.  Can congregations mitigate this risky behavior for their own youth, and for those in the neighborhood?

The study will gather interview and experimental data on the religious interests/practices, health-related behaviours, and selected cognitive functions of at least 100 adolescents and young college students. The central hypothesis tested will examine the protective effects of religiousness on adolescent health-related risky behaviours as moderated by a suite of executive cognitive functions (ECFs), including so-called ‘implementation intentions’. We propose that religiousness can enhance response- inhibition, resistance to interference, and ‘implementation intentions’ when adolescent children find themselves in risky situations. In addition to allowing us to test the above hypothesis, this project will also allow us to gather pilot data that can motivate a large-scale grant application to the National Institutes of Health on the same topic. The NIH application involves a longitudinal study of the ways in which religiosity and ECFs interact developmentally to protect children against risky health behaviors. An innovative aspect of our project is that we focus on health-related effects of specific ECFs and link them up with specific religious and spiritual practices, thereby allowing identification of the most effective (in terms of risk reduction) religious practices as well as the ECFs that interact with those religious practices to produce risk reduction. Another innovation is that we test a proposed mechanism as to how religiosity might reduce health-related risks in adolescents. We suggest that religious practices can enhance the generation of effective ‘implementation intentions’ so that the adolescent is better able to enact pre-planned safety strategies when faced with a risky situation or choice.  Finally, we will examine some theological issues raised by our work, among which are ways in which participation in a holistic pattern of religious life oriented to God (or the Ultimate signified in other ways for non-theistic traditions) can enhance personal autonomy and resistance to self-destructive behaviors.  In plainer terms, it has long been observed that youth who participate in religious activities have a lower rate of social and personal troubles than those who do not.  This proposal is to study some of the mechanisms that make it work out that way.  This is eminently practical for understanding the significance of cultivating the religious life and can have great significance for religious education.

There are several important theological dimensions to this scientifically sophisticated project: finding out, in one instance, how religious practices work to improve life, laying the groundwork to making them work better, advancing a new element in religious education, and bringing this kind of rigorous empirical science into the curriculum of theological education.

First, it contributes to the understanding of how religious practices “work” to cultivate religiously significant behaviors, in this instance, behaviors that minimize certain health risks to which adolescents are prone.  Second, this project is a part of a much larger empirical concern in practical theology, namely, how to improve practice.  If it can be shown, as this study proposes, that religiously based “implementation intentions” are significant executive control functions that mitigate risky behavior in adolescents, then future research can study how to improve implementation intentions, how congregations can establish practices that enhance implementation intentions, and how religious commitment can motivate enhanced implementation intentions.

Thirdly, this project lays some of the groundwork for the development of a theology of religious education that is based as solidly as possible on what we can learn with reliable science.  Whereas in the past, religious education in American has been based loosely on social science and educational theory, this project extends the critical appropriation of science in continuity with advanced empirical psychological, cognitive, and neurological science.  The Boston University School of Theology can be at the forefront of revitalizing religious education.  And finally, this project models an important involvement of rigorous experimental science within theological research and education more generally.  Previous generations have embraced literary, historical, and certain social scientific disciplines within theological education.  Our watch can make theological education and research vulnerable to learning from the empirical, cognitive, and neurological sciences that are at the forefront of so many issues in academic advancement.

Although the relationship during adolescence between increased involvement in religion and decreased engagement in risky behaviors has long been known, the specific mechanisms of action have remained a matter of speculation.  Knowledge gained from this research will help provide a basis for scientific understanding of how brain systems interact with religious cognitions and behaviors to improve health outcomes.