In 2006 Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker published an important article on sudden changes in the religiosity of youth. They were interested in what happens when youth are converted or lose their faith. From a relativistic perspective these can be argued to be the same phenomenon viewed from different perspectives. They wanted to know what were sociologically contributing factors to this process. What they found was that the two phenomenon were not the same and that different factors contributed to the different processes:
Thus it may be helpful to think of positive religious transformation and conversions (involving sharp growth in religiosity) and religious apostasy (i.e., losing religion) as two separate entities, each with its own set of mechanisms and patterns. The presence of the one has little in common with the absence of the other.
(Mark D. Regnerus and Jeremy E. Uecker, "Finding Faith, Losing Faith: The Prevalence and Context of Religious Transformations during Adolescence," Review of Religious Research 47/3 (2006): 232.)
Using the data from the first two waves of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) they were able to say the following about sudden religious conversions. In the first place:
There is no clear religious "hot spot" during adolescence, although age 18 appears to be the most active or unstable age for both directions of considerable religious change. A larger percentage of these oldest respondents exhibited both considerable growth and decline when compared with other youth of younger ages.
(Regnerus and Uecker, "Finding Faith, Losing Faith," 226-27.)Apparently, how religious one's peers or parents were does not impact religious conversion. Behavior also does not seem to play much of a role:
Family and behavioral effects tend to receive considerable attention. yet their effects here are largely absent, save for an association with greater family satisfaction.
(Regnerus and Uecker, "Finding Faith, Losing Faith," 227.)In this age group, demographic factors play a more important role than behavioral factors in conversion. In losing faith behavioral factors play a more important role than demographic ones.
Sexual status and behavior do matter for rapid and significant religious decline. Youth who reported already having had sex (i.e., being a non-virgin) are more likely to report a large decrease in both attendance and personal religious salience. The act of first sex (i.e., virginity loss between study waves) does not appear to alter attendance habits but did correspond significantly with a large decrease in the importance that adolescents accord to religion. Thus one's sexual status and behavior appear unrelated to whether or not adolescents increase their religiosity, but they correspond to their likelihood of considerable religious decline (especially that of personal religious salience). Sex is, however, the only behavioral association noted in this study. Alcohol and drug use display no such patterns of association in either regression table.
(Regnerus and Uecker, "Finding Faith, Losing Faith," 229.)The data that Regnerus and Uecker were using are fairly blunt instruments. It was not gathered with this sort of study in mind. They warn that "these data do not capture all aspects of adolescent religious transformation" (Regnerus and Uecker, "Finding Faith, Losing Faith," 233).
Where do families come into this?
Families where parents are high in religiosity seem to foster in adolescent children a rapid growth in religious salience and (especially) attendance, as well as to prevent rapid loss of either form of religiosity. . . . Family structure plays a more powerful role in rapid religious decline in growth: youth in single-parent families appear much more likely to exhibit considerable decline in either type of religiosity when compared with adolescents in biologically intact, two-parent households. Adolescents in alternate family structures . . . are similarly more likely to display a considerable decline in church attendance.
(Regnerus and Uecker, "Finding Faith, Losing Faith," 230-31.)Two points for families come out of this research:
Intact, two-parent families as well as step-families tend to provide religious stability for adolescents. [Other researchers] previously identified parental divorce as a predictor of apostasy or switching. . . . Adolescents living in a single parent family or in another family structure . . . appear to be at a higher risk of experiencing considerable religious decline.
Finally, parents influence adolescent religious change through the quality of the parent-child relationship. Higher levels of family satisfaction boost the odds of a sharp increase in attendance and salience.
(Regnerus and Uecker, "Finding Faith, Losing Faith," 233.)These studies predict general trends of the masses. They do not dictate the particular path of individuals. Finding faith and losing faith are complex individual processes and these studies simply highlight important factors contributing to the decisions of individual souls.