Most researchers studying religious trends among young people tend to focus on what’s making younger Americans walk away from religion. Some have emphasized life course transitions such as leaving home, going to college, or becoming sexually active. Others have examined frustration with politics. And still others have rightly pointed out that younger Americans are increasingly raised him homes where they’re no longer exposed to religious faith in the first place.
In a recent study, we decided to explore one factor that might contribute to young people staying in their faith: undergoing a traditional religious “initiation rite” like believer’s baptism, first communion, or bar mitzvah.
Scholars of religion have always been fascinated with rites of passage and particularly what they accomplish for the group itself. The collective benefits are obvious. When we celebrate the entrance of new members into our community of faith, we’re collectively reminded about our common heritage, our core doctrines, and our eternal bond with one another.
The possibility that these rites of passage might have a long-term impact on the individuals themselves can seem so self-evident that it often goes unquestioned. We decided to test how powerful that impact might actually be.
Using data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, a nationally representative panel study of young Americans, our study looked at participants at two points in time: when they were ages 13–17 and one decade later when they were ages 23–28. Depending on their religious affiliation as teens, the survey asked if they had been confirmed or baptized, not including infant baptism (if Protestant); had a bar/bat mitzvah (if Jewish); had taken First Communion (if Catholic); or if they had undergone another religious rite of passage or public affirmation of their religious faith.
We compared American teenagers who had undergone any of these religious rites of passage with those who had not in order to see whether those who had undergone a rite of passage were (1) more or less religious and (2) more or less likely to remain affiliated with their religious faith by the time they were in their mid-twenties.
Our study showed that participants who had undergone any religious rite of passage during or before their teenage years did not necessarily turn out more religious than those who had not undergone a rite of passage. However, they were 30 percent more likely to stay in their religious faith.
Though the pattern was the same across all religious rites and groups, the figure below shows the trend when we focus on believer’s baptism and disaffiliation among Protestant youth.
Source: Christianity Today