To Conform or Not to Conform: Religio-Cultural Context and The Association Between Religious Engagement and Well-Being
In 2016, The Pew Research Center published an article: “How Religious is your state?” that generated much discussion among laypersons and scholars in the Sociology of Religion (SOR). The article relied on self-reported dichotomous measures of religiosity from residents in each state, such as: Important of religion (i.e., “Is religion important to you?”), worship attendance (i.e., “Do you attend a place of worship, weekly?”), prayer (i.e, “Do you pray daily?”), and belief in God (i.e., “Do you believe in God with absolute certainty?”). Subsequently, researchers constructed an interactive list that includes an overall combined index of religiosity, and ranks states from most-to-least religious. Results display Mississippi and Alabama are tied with being the most religious states, with Tennessee being a close third state. In contrast, Massachusetts and New Hampshire are tied with being the least religious states. The article is more descriptive than inferential however, is a notable starting point for generating further inquiries among those studying the social components and ramifications of religiosity in the US. Particularly, religious engagement appears to be strongest in certain regions in the US, and less so in others which may demonstrate a sort of “regional phenomenon” for religiosity. The preceding phenomenon appears to be most apparent among Southeastern states, in which many have informally referred to these states as the “Bible Belt.” The term has often been used in academic articles highlighting the religio-cultural influence that have been hypothesized to underlie interactions between residents and institutions within this region. Societies with a strong religio-cultural influence are thought to be those with a majority of residents identifying as religious, adhering to religious customs, beliefs, and practices and most importantly, consider religion and religiosity as a socially desirable personal and societal characteristic (Okulicz-Kozaryn, 2010; Stroope, 2011; Stavrova et al., 2013).
Within the SOR, many studies focus on the benefits of religious engagement in the preceding region, and similar contexts where religion is highly endorsed. These studies are often useful for inferences being made regarding religious individuals in religious settings. But, since religious engagement is not just practiced within congregations and religious circles, it is worth exploring whether the benefits of engagement hold constant across different contexts, particularly in non religio-cultural contexts. Studies have not sufficiently addressed the lived-experiences of religious individuals in non religio-cultural contexts, nor non-religious individuals in religio-cultural contexts. Doing so may posit nuanced findings that demonstrate benefits to religious engagement are more of a result of conforming in context where it is endorsed, and less of a direct relationship than previously hypothesized.
Reflecting on this possible unaddressed distinction, the proposed study seeks to broadly answer: To what extend does context and conformity matter for well-being? And, further address how context moderate/mediates the relationship between religious engagement and well-being. The proposed study will make use of the aforementioned Pew Research Center findings by conducting a comparative study analyzing religion and well-being in Tennessee and Massachusetts. The rationale for choosing these states will be discussed in subsequent sections of this proposal. A comparative analysis will allow the proposed study to address the gap within the existing literature that has largely ignored how context matters for well-being and religious engagement. This will also enhance empirical understanding of the religious social determinants of well-being. It is hypothesized context will moderate the relationship between religious engagement and well-being. Also, for those identifying as non-religious, will report more favorable well-being in contexts more accepting of non-religiosity.
Studies analyzing the religion-health connection have repeatedly demonstrated the positive association between religious engagement and well-being, both physical and mental (Ellison, 1991; Ellison and Levin, 1998; Pargament et al., 1998; Krause, 2005; Beck, 2006; Lim and Putnam, 2010; Koenig et al., 2012; Galek et al., 2014). Religious orientation (e.g., intrinsic religiousness) and private practices of religion have been associated with higher self-reported measures of subjective well-being and competency, in comparison to those less engaged (e.g., extrinsic religiousness) or identify as not religious (Allport and Ross, 1967; Ardelt, 2003; Barry and Nelson, 2008; Perez and Smith, 2014). Similarly, public practices of religious engagement such as worship attendance and volunteering on behalf of a religious institution or organization have been linked to higher self-reported measures of mastery and physical health, and self-esteem (Tix and Frazier, 1998; Schieman et al., 2003; Schieman, 2007; Spencer and Patrick, 2009). The multitude of studies analyzing the religion-health connection seem to have arrived at a consensus indicating religious individuals tend to uniquely benefit from religious engagement by reporting more favorable measures of health and well-being. What is it about being religiously engaged that seems to predict a favorable well-being status? Researchers have continued to answer this question throughout the SOR and have demonstrated specific mechanisms that positively affects well-being: less risk taking and, more health promoting behavior (Regnerus, 2007; Horton, 2015); the reliance on extensive support networks (Welch et al., 2007; Ammerman, 2009; Ignatow, 2009); adaptive coping mechanisms (Bush et al., 1999; Pargament, 1988); and, perceived attachment to a secure-base, divine being (Berger, 1967; Cicirelli, 2004). Despite the empirical evidence supporting a positive association between religion and well-being in congregations and among religious circles, few studies have analyzed religion as a culture and evaluated the how norms based on this culture are related to well-being outcomes. Similarly, more attention should be given towards how relative non-religious culture(s) may predict religious individuals benefiting less from religious engagement. This also begs the question, how does the well-being of individuals identifying as non-religious, in a religio-culture context fare compared to those more closely aligned with the respective culture? The proposed study assumes the respective religio-culture as an actor in predicting well-being among the religiously engage, less religiously engaged, and non-religious, across the two aforementioned states.
Religio-Cultural Context and Social Norms
Social norms are enforced and reinforced by rewarding conforming behavior through feelings of approval and acceptance, and disapproval for behavior that is counter to normative expectations (Fehr et al., 2002; Stavrova et al., 2013). Sanctions against not conforming to norms happen through the construction of boundaries that excludes certain individuals. These boundaries are often not physical, although certainly can be. Mainly, these boundaries take form through processes of stigmatization, and prohibiting non-conforming individuals from access to capital. In contrast, social sanctions can be positive if rewards are given towards those who conform (Stroope, 2011; Stavrova, 2013). This in turn may grant certain individuals a “higher status” within the relative culture or society, and pave way to greater access to many forms of capital. Obtaining a higher status through conforming likely cultivates greater feelings of approval and acceptance, which reinforces continued participation within a group and/or organization. High status conforming individuals may also benefit from public recognition amongst peers and like-minded individuals that tends to bode well for self-esteem especially, and overall well-being (Fehr et al., 2002; Okulicz-Kozaryn, 2010; Power and McKinney, 2014; Gebauer et al, 2015). In a handful of studies, researchers have found the preceding intersection of culture, social norms, and health, operating in religious contexts as well. For instance, Stroope (2011) sought to investigate how culture shapes the sense of belonging among congregants in religious settings. Stroope found that congregants were more likely to continue participating religiously (e.g., religious service attendance and classes) if they were among like-minded individuals and received positive reinforcement for their behavior. In contrast, the less religiously engaged seemed to hold less favorable views of their respective congregations, leading to a drop in participation overall and a weaker sense of belonging within that community. The less religiously engaged also reported having a smaller social network to confide in and fewer resources to rely on as needed. Although difficult to make inferences without a supplemental qualitative analysis, Stroope’s findings may indicate capital within certain religious communities is extended only to those that conform to expected beliefs and behavior. Therefore, the “disapproval” to not conforming is through blocked access to social capital. Focusing more broadly on the association between religio-culture and well-being, Stavrova et al. (2013) rely on large survey data (N = 101,682; across 64 countries) to assess whether the “happiness effect” that religion seems to cultivate is more so a byproduct of social sanctions encouraging a particular religion. The happiness effect in this sense refers to religious individuals whose religious affiliation matches the dominant religious identity within that society, leading to being more satisfied with their lives. Findings demonstrate the effect was strongest (i.e., happier) when respondent’s religious affiliation matched the dominant religion of their respective country. Inversely, respondents that identified as non-religious or less religiously engaged reported feeling less happy. Even among individuals that are religiously engaged to the highest extent reported feeling less happy if their religious affiliation did not match the dominant religion. Stavrova et al. provide evidence that not conforming to social norms can be detrimental. For instance, respondents also reported stronger feelings of fairness and respect being given to them by social institutions compared to their less religious and non-religious counterparts. In other words, it appears to have been socially acceptable to prohibit access to capital as a result of not conforming to social norms. Similar studies have found the benefits to religiosity are often context-dependent with religious individuals reporting being more satisfied in religious countries (Okulicz-Kozaryn, 2010); strong associations between religious embeddedness into congregational networks and well-being (Krause et al., 2016); religious individuals report stronger sense of religiosity in countries were a respective religion is encouraged (Stavrova and Siegers, 2013; Gebauer, et al., 2015); and identifying with a subgroup that is counter to a religious social norm may have consequences to psychological and physical well-being (Doane and Elliot, 2015; Galen, 2015; Stewart, 2016). The aforementioned research suggests religious beliefs and engagement may be a byproduct of religio-culture and social norms, highlighting its widespread influence. Accounting for the variations in overall religiosity across countries and cities, it is plausible to suggest religiosity can become normative in certain societies, and less so in others (Hayward and Elliot, 2009; Okulicz-Kozaryn, 2010; Stroope, 2011). These studies are among a handful that have focused on how religio-culture and the norms that accompany this culture are an actor in itself helping explain the association between religious engagement and well-being. The existing literature up to this point seems to suggest religiosity is certainly beneficial, but mostly within a context that encourages participation. This also challenges notions that religion tends to be largely beneficial for each of its participants, and re-conceptualizes the religion-health connection paradigm by extending inquiries to the quantitatively and qualitatively different lived-experiences of those not conforming. To reiterate, though improving, studies within the SOR have not sufficiently addressed how religio-culture helps explain the association between religion and well-being, and how well-being outcomes vary contingent upon the context in which religion is encouraged and practiced. The proposed study will attempt to address this gap in the literature by relying on a comparative analysis between two states believed to contrast in the degree of religio-culture influence. To the best of my knowledge, the proposed study will be the first of its kind to conduct a comparative analysis across two states within the US context while assuming the cultures as an actor in predicting well-being. Reflecting on existing research within the religion-health connection, and rewards for conformity, and disapproval for non-conformity, leads to the following hypothesized outcomes:
H1: Consistent with much literature, religious engagement will be positively associated with well-being regardless of the degree in religio-culture.
H2: Well-being will vary by religious engagement and the context in which it is practiced.
H3: There will be stronger associations between religious engagement and well-being for individuals whose religious affiliation matches the dominant religion within the religio-cultural context.
H4: Non-religious individuals will not differ considerably in their well-being outcomes in non religio-culture context compared to the religiously engaged.
Data & Sample
The National Study of Youth and Religion’s (NSYR) longitudinal survey began as a nationally representative telephone survey of 3,290 English and Spanish speaking teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17. The baseline survey was conducted with respondents and one of their parents, between July 2002 and April 2003 by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A random-digit dial telephone method was employed to generate numbers representative of all household telephones in the 50 United States. The total number of completed cases in the first wave of the NSYR is 3,370. Fewer cases were obtained in Wave 3 (N = 2,532). In Wave 3 every attempt was made to re-interview all English-speaking Wave 1 youth survey respondents. At the time of this third survey the respondents were between the ages of 18-24. The survey was conducted from September 24, 2007 through April 21, 2008 using a Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing (CATI) system programmed using Blaise software. Every effort was made to re-contact and re-survey all original NSYR respondents (whether they completed the Wave 2 telephone survey or not), including those out of the country, in the military, and on religious missions. The Wave 3 Survey instrument replicated many of the questions asked in Waves 1 and 2 with some changes made to better capture the respondents’ lives as they grew older. For example, there were fewer questions on parental monitoring and more on post-high school educational aspirations.
Diagnostic analyses comparing NSYR data with U.S. Census data on comparable households and with comparable adolescent surveys—such as Monitoring the Future, the National Household Education Survey, and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health—confirm that the NSYR provides a nationally representative sample without identifiable sampling and non-response biases of U.S. teenagers ages 13-17 and their parents living in households.  Emerging adults in Wave 3 vary in age, race-ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, educational attainment, living arrangements, religious traditions (and includes those who identify as not religious), and live in different regions of the US. Among datasets in the SOR, the NSYR is arguably the most detailed in terms of measurements of religiosity and religious attitudes, while also including measurements of well-being and health, both physical and mental. The NSYR is also one of the few datasets to supplement survey data with qualitative interviews. Qualitative data is particularly useful for unpacking the nuance that accompanies studying religious attitudes associated with religious engagement. For the purposes of the proposed study, qualitative interviews will not be included however, a worthwhile pursuit for researchers interested in exploring in further detail the findings of the current study. There are strengths and weaknesses in relying on secondary analysis from the NSYR. First, the main strength is in regards to feasibility. Data on a nationally representative sample of adults has already been collected and with proper survey weights included. This saves a considerable amount of time and effort for the proposed study to be completed. The weakness however, is that variables included in the dataset may not best capture the phenomenon of interest to the current proposed study. This may introduce additional limitations in the analysis in which justifications have to be made regarding measurement reliability and validity.
The proposed study is a variable oriented quantitative study, as opposed to being case oriented. The variables included in the study best capture a range of religious engagement, and necessary controls thought to be associated with well-being for emerging adults in their early twenties. As previously mentioned, the proposed study will only make use of Wave 3 of the NSYR. This implies a cross sectional design. Although a cross sectional design is inherently limited in predictability, the social phenomenon of interest to the current study can still be observed in one wave of data. Studies aspiring to follow the proposed study can enhance findings by conducting a longitudinal study linking Wave 3 with Wave 4 of the NSYR, upon the fourth wave being made publicly available. The initial design for the proposed study was to conduct a comparative analysis between states inside the Bible Belt, to states outside. However, concerns remained regarding the religio-cultural heterogeneity among states outside of the Bible Belt that may have presented limitations that cannot be resolved. This also presents concerns for religious heterogeneity among states in the Bible Belt. Although it is widely assumed most states in the Bible Belt are protestant, the Religious Landscape Study demonstrates a growing presence of Muslims and other religious minorities. Essentially, the intent underlying a comparative analysis is to assess whether individuals benefit or fare worse in certain context that encourage or discourage religious engagement. Subsequently, it was decided to narrow the scope of analysis to two states that can best serve as a habitus for analyzing the association of interest for the proposed study: Massachusetts and Tennessee. The Gallup and Pew Research Center have analyzed the religiosity of states in the US for years. Results seem to consistently demonstrate Massachusetts is among the least religious states, while also having among the highest percentage of self-identified atheist. In contrast, The Gallup and Pew Research Center have demonstrated Tennessee is among the most religious states, and is often referred to by laypersons as the “Protestant Vatican” given the state has the most Protestant churches per capita. A limitation of the NSYR is its oversampling of respondents identifying with a Protestant religious tradition which limits the generalizability of outcomes for other religious traditions. However, for the proposed study this limitation in the data operates as a strength when considering Tennessee as a unit of analysis. Tennessee is therefore an ideal state to analyze the influence of religio-culture and the norms that accompany it. Massachusetts being the least religious states is also ideal for analyzing the influence of a non religo-culture context. Massachusetts and Tennessee were also selected for the proposed study since they are the most populated states in their respective category for the most and least religious states. This may allow the analysis to select more respondents into the sample. The sample of emerging adults will be constructed into three categories: Most religiously engaged, least religiously engaged, and non-religious. The categories of adults will be separated by state. For instance, most and least religiously engaged adults, and non-religious adults will be analyzed in Massachusetts. Subsequently, this step will be repeated for Tennessee separately. The following section will discuss in detail the measurements of religious engagement and well-being, and the rationale underlying the selection of control variables.
Method and Measurement
The proposed study will rely on an OLS regression analysis to test the association between religions engagement and well-being as it varies by state. The empirical models will include a variation of religious engagement and control variables, well-being indices, and the religio-culture variable distinguishing between Massachusetts and Tennessee. The independent variable of interest is religiosity. Religious variables from the NSYR will be limited to four variables and subsequently constructed into a composite variable. These religious variables are: religious service attendance (“How often do you attend religious services at your place of worship?”); prayer alone (“How often do you pray alone?”); importance of faith (“How important or unimportant is your faith to you, daily?”); and, religious class attendance (“How often do you attend religious classes/groups outside of regular service attendance?”). Responses to these questions range from 1-to-7 with 1 indicating the least religiously engaged, and 7 most religiously engaged. Responses will be reverse coded as necessary to ensure each question is in the same conceptual direction. These questions will be constructed into a composite variable to assess overall religiosity. A Cronbach’s alpha test will follow the construction of the composite variable to analyze the validity of the new variable. It is anticipated the Cronbach’s alpha will demonstrate strong internal consistency (α ≥ 0.7). Respondents will then be separated by their level of religiosity contingent upon the new religiosity variable. Respondents scoring between 1 and 4 will be labeled as least religiously engaged. Respondents scoring between 5 and 7 will be labeled as most religiously engaged. Respondents who identify as atheist, non-religious, and/or agnostic will be placed into a separate group of “non-religious”. This now presents three groups for comparison: most religious, least religious, and non-religious. The religious variables included in the proposed study are frequently used in many studies within the SOR (Koenig et al., 2012). However, concerns still remain for construct validity. For instance, religious measures tend to be high in reliability. Respondents can generally assess well how often they attend religious services. But, quantitative religious variables often do not unpack the nuance in religious attitudes and orientation attached to participation (Allport and Ross, 1967; Ellison and Levin, 1998). In other words, religious participation may not be the best indicator of genuine religious adherence and/or interest. Rather, participation may be out of sheer obligation via peer and family pressure. Researchers attempt to address validity concerns within the SOR quantitatively by allowing respondents to report engagement and attitudes on a spectrum rather than dichotomously or with few responses. The dependent variable for the proposed study represents well-being and is constructed into three separate indices: life satisfaction, life purpose, and personal mastery. For the life satisfaction index, 3 survey questions from the NSYR will be used to construct the index: In most ways your life is close to ideal; the conditions of your life are excellent; and, you are satisfied with your life. Responses for these questions range from strongly agree to strongly disagree. For this index, emerging adults must have answered at least 2 of the 3 questions in order to be included in the analysis. The minimum response for the life satisfaction index is “1” which suggests the respondent is less satisfied with their life to the maximum “4” which suggests the respondent is more satisfied with their life. For the life purpose index, 3 survey questions from the NSYR are used to construct an index: Your life often seems to lack any clear goals or sense of direction; you don’t have a good sense of what it is you’re trying to accomplish in life and; some people wander aimlessly through life, but you are not one of them. Responses for these questions range from strongly agree to strongly disagree. Emerging adults must have answered as least 2 of the 3 survey questions in order to be included in the analysis. The average score from all available variables was calculated. The value of the index measure represents an individual’s average response across all available variables. The minimum response for the life purpose index is “1” which suggests the respondent has a low sense of purpose in life to the maximum “4” which suggests a high sense of purpose in life. For the personal mastery index, 4 survey questions from the NSYR are included in the index: You have little control over the things that happen to you; there is really no way you can solve some of the problems you have; there is little you can do to change many of the important things in your life; and, you often feel helpless in dealing with the problems of life. Responses for these questions range from strongly agree to strongly disagree. For this index, emerging adults must have answered at least 3 of the 4 questions in order to be included in the analysis. The value of the index measure represents the respondents’ average response across all available variables. The minimum response for the personal mastery index is “1” which suggests the respondent has a low sense of mastery to the maximum response “4” which suggests high sense of mastery. The average score from all available variables will be calculated to ensure the value of the index measures represents the respondents’ average response across all variables.
For the proposed study analyzing the association between religious engagement and well-being as it varies by state, control variables are included in the analysis that are believed to affect the outcomes of the study. Each of the models in the analysis control for a set of demographic control variables thought to be related to the variables of interest: sex (i.e., male, female), sexual orientation (i.e., bisexual, homosexual, asexual/other, with heterosexual as the reference), race (i.e., Black, Hispanic, American Indian, Asian, other race, with Whites as the reference), marital status (i.e., never married, previously married, with currently married as the reference), has children, and living arrangement (i.e., lives on own, another living arrangement, with living with family as the reference). Age will be left as a continuous variable ranging from 18-to-24 years old. Studies have demonstrated socioeconomic status (SES) is strongly liked to well-being (Crimmins et al., 2004; Koenig et al., 2012; Childers and Chiou, 2016). To account for this association, all models will include measures of workhours (continuous variable), and educational attainment as proxy for SES. Also included in the analysis is self-reported health (poor, fair, good, with excellent health as the reference). In addition to these control variables, the models will include a contextual measure to account for the religio and non religio-cultural influence in each state. The NSYR asks respondents to list where they currently live and treats this as a continuous variable (e.g., AL =1, AK = 2, AZ = 3…). This allows for narrowing of the sample to respondents in Massachusetts and Tennessee. The two variables will be coded dichotomously, separately: 1 = lives in TN, 0 = outside of TN; 1 = lives in MA, 0 = outside of MA. It is also important to assess how long respondents have lived in their respective state. In doing so may account for how ingrained one is in the religio and non religio-culture. The NSYR asks how long respondents have lived in their current residence and is arranged in a continuous variable by years.
Tentatively, the proposed study will include 9 empirical models. Models 1 through 3 will test the first hypothesis while not controlling for whether respondents live in either Massachusetts or Tennessee. To reiterate, the first hypothesis assumes religious engagement will be positively associated with well-being regardless of state, or the degree in religio-culture. Model 1 includes the three groups (most and least religiously engaged, and non-religious), with controls variables. The dependent variable for this Model is life satisfaction. Models 2 and 3 will include the same variables as Model 1 but with life purpose and personal mastery as the dependent variable instead. Models 4 through 6 will test hypotheses two through four while narrowing the analysis to the sample in Tennessee. The hypotheses assume an interaction between religious engagement, well-being, and state (i.e., religio-culture). Model 4 will include the three groups and controls, with life satisfaction as the dependent variable. Model 5 and 6 will include the same variables as Model 4 but with life purpose and personal mastery as the dependent variable. These Models will analyze how a religio-culture acts upon the sample to predict well-being. Models 7 through 9 will also test hypotheses two through four but instead, narrowing the analysis to the sample in Massachusetts. Model 7 will include the three groups and controls, with life satisfaction as the dependent variable. Models 8 and 9 will include the same variables as Model 7 but with life purpose and personal mastery as the dependent variable. These Models will analyze how a non religio-culture acts upon the sample to predict well-being. Particularly of interests in these Models will be how non-religious individuals fare in states where religion seems to be less a part of the cultural narrative.
Despite the innovation in how the proposed study is designed, and the novel contribution to the existing literature it intends to make, there are potential limitations worth addressing prior to conducting the analyses. First, respondents must satisfy two main conditions (i.e., respondents must live in either Massachusetts or Tennessee) in order to be included into the analyses with the exception of Models 1 through 3. The more conditions respondents must satisfy may lead to a “small N problem” thus limiting predictability and generalizability. Should the sample size considerably dwindle, this study may instead serve as a methodological contribution to the subfield of religion and culture and challenge researchers to re-conceptualize the relationship between religion and well-being. The second notable limitation is in regards to the validity of religious engagement measures specifically as it pertains to the unique sample in the NSYR. Researchers have documented the religious trajectories of emerging adults indicating their experiences are qualitatively different than middle-age and older adults. Emerging adulthood is critical for the exploration of personal identity and the formation of social and romantic relationships. Religious engagement during this time period tends to decline as many are navigating through changes in their lives such as enrollment into college, marriage, and entrance into the workforce (Beck, 2006; Regnerus, 2007; Barry and Nelson, 2008). The preceding can posit weak associations between religious engagement well-being for the proposed study, as many emerging adults in the current sample may not consider religion a salient component to their lives. Lastly, religiosity is multifaceted and complex to analyze. The proposed study may therefore benefit immensely from relying on a mixed-methods design instead to assess how underlying attitudes predicts well-being and possibly resilience in contexts that discourages religious participation. Despite these identified limitations prior to conducting the analysis, the study has the potential to contribute meaningfully to the SOR by providing insight to an often ignored component in the religion-health connection.
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 Some of the variables included in the current proposal are constructed similarly to what is found in Culver, J. (2015). Religious Engagement and Positive Mental Well-Being among Emerging Adults. (Master’s Thesis). Retrieved from Proquest. (1598500). http://search.proquest.com/docview/1728065616?pq-origsite=gscholar. The thesis focuses on emerging adult religiosity and does not distinguish well-being outcomes by religio-cultural context.
 Information on the data set was gathered from: http://youthandreligion.nd.edu/research-design and http://www.thearda.com/Archive/NSYR.asp. Other studies using NSYR data appear to use the same or similar script.