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Religious Pathways During the Transition to Adulthood: A Life Course Approach

posted on 2007-12-12, 00:00 authored by Jonathan Peter Hill
Empirical studies have identified late adolescence and early adulthood as a period of the life course marked by relatively high levels of change in religious belief, practice, and identity. Young people are most likely to decline in religious service attendance, but they are also likely to disaffiliate, convert, or change particular religious beliefs during this phase of the life course. Despite this, researchers have paid little attention to the social sources of these changes with the exception of the study of family formation and religious participation. This work in this dissertation begins to address this important arena of religious change by establishing a general life course framework which emphasizes the exogenous social forces that constrain and enable actors in their religious worlds. Primary focus is given to two substantive areas: (1) the influence from religious socialization and context in early adolescence on later pathways of religious participation, and (2) the influence from higher education on religious participation, beliefs, and affiliation. These research questions are primarily analyzed through panel data in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 surveys. Several key findings emerge. Religious participation in the form of religious service attendance follows multiple pathways in late adolescence and early adulthood. Decline in attendance is most common during adolescence, while the proportion declining in their early twenties is approximately equal to the proportion increasing in attendance. Further analysis reveals that religious traditions, household religious socialization, and peer church attendance in early adolescence influence the relative risk of decline versus stability during the transition to adulthood. Conversely, demographic characteristics such as gender and race, along with residing in the South, during early adolescence are key predictors of who increases religious attendance during late adolescence and early adulthood. Analysis of the influence of education attainment on religious practice, belief and affiliation finds no overall decline in belief and affiliation as a result of higher education. Further analysis reveals that college educated Catholics do not follow this general trend and are more likely to have lower salience of faith and disaffiliate. Educated African Americans, conversely show an increase in salience of faith and a lower likelihood of disaffiliation. College type also matters with students attending Catholic and mainline Protestant affiliated colleges declining in attendance more than students at other public and private colleges and universities. A comparison with the birth cohort that attended college during the late 1960s and early 1970s reveals that college had a stronger secularizing effect in the past.


Date Modified


Defense Date


Research Director(s)

David Sikkink

Committee Members

Rory McVeigh Kevin Christiano Norval D. Glenn


  • Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Level

  • Doctoral Dissertation


  • English

Alternate Identifier



University of Notre Dame

Program Name

  • Sociology

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