Religiosity and anti-social behavior

May 27, 2015

swrDoes religious engagement act as a deterrent for anti-social behavior in young people? If so, what are the implications for social work?

A growing body of literature suggests that religious engagement may protect youths from involvement in nonviolent and violent antisocial behavior. However, despite demographic evidence suggesting that religion may be particularly important among young African American women, research on religiosity as a candidate protective factor for this important subpopulation is sparse.

In a recent issue of the journal Social Work Research, Christopher P. Salas-Wright, PhD, MSW, MA, Taqi Tirmazi, PhD, MSW, Margaret Lombe, PhD, and Von E. Nebbitt, PhD, published their findings from a recent study of religiosity among young African American women. Using a sample of 138 young, female African Americans recruited from public housing developments in Baltimore, Maryland, the study reported in this article examined the relationship between religiosity and antisocial behavior among this vulnerable population.

As the authors note:

A deeper understanding of the role of religiosity in the lives of young African American women can potentially shed light on conceptual debates on the topic of religiosity and serve to promote youth development efforts aimed at integrating religious or spiritual themes into the prevention of antisocial behavior.

Antisocial behavior is typically understood as comportment reflecting a lack of concern for the basic rights of others and social norms or rules, such as property destruction, theft, and aggression toward others. The vast literature that has accumulated on the topic of antisociality among young people suggests that antisocial behavior can be best understood as having multiple dimensions. Two of the most commonly examined dimensions are violent and nonviolent antisocial behavior. Violent antisocial behavior is conceptualized as interpersonal behavior intended to threaten or inflict physical harm, such as hitting or physical fighting, violent attacks, or the instrumental use of violence, as with armed robbery. Nonviolent antisocial behavior, in contrast, can be conceptualized as behavior reflecting a lack of concern for the rights of others or social norms.

Three research questions guided the study:

  1. Does religiosity function as a protective factor against nonviolent and violent antisocial behavior among young African American women residing in communities of high psychosocial risk?
  2. If so, is the strength of this relationship moderated by age?
  3. Does religiosity serve to moderate the relationship between key psychosocial risk factors (that is, depressive symptomology and exposure to crime or violence) and antisocial behavior?

The authors used self-reporting questionnaires, and analyzed the data collected. The results indicated that religiosity is inversely associated with nonviolent antisocial behaviors across a wide spectrum of severity, including property damage, theft, and automobile theft. On the other hand, no significant associations were identified for any of the violent manifestations of antisocial behavior examined. The findings suggest that religiosity is an important protective factor against antisocial behavior in the lives of young African American women in urban public housing communities, but that the protective effect of religiosity varies in terms of the violent or nonviolent nature of the behavior in question.

The authors recognized limitations to the study, including variables due to co-factors (family strength, etc.), and call for more research into the effects of religiosity on social behaviors in young people. They also recognize that encouraging religiosity as a means of deterring anti-social behavior is a delicate proposition for social workers, who must give careful regard to the varieties of possible religious experiences and opportunities available to young people, among other factors.

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