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Angels on Their Shoulders

T'was grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved,
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed. - "Amazing Grace"

Many people claim that their religious faith keeps them going in the face of life's trials and temptations. Religious organizations and twelve-step groups talk about turning things over to a higher power. Research substantiates the positive influence that these beliefs can have in a person's life. Assistant Professor Lisa Miller is one of the researchers currently investigating the affects of religious beliefs on adolescents and the protective influence against substance use and abuse and depression these beliefs may have. She recently received a five-year Faculty Scholars Award from the W.T. Grant Foundation to undertake the project.

"The Faculty Scholars Award is for any social science or human science," Miller said. "Their concern is that your work serves to better the lives of children."

In studies of adults, personal devotion can effectively offset depression in the face of negative events. Some research shows that religious belief is also connected to a sense of well-being in adolescents, and that teenagers who attend religious services are less likely to drink alcohol. Statistics also show that, despite a higher risk for potential substance abuse faced by African-American young people, when compared to white American teenagers, the rates of substance use are actually lower. Some researchers say this is due to a higher prevalence of religious beliefs among African Americans than among white Americans. Miller's study will focus on how effective those religious beliefs are in keeping children of substance abusers from becoming substance abusers themselves.

"I am excited because there is so little systematic empirical study on spirituality in adolescents," Miller said. "A lot of adolescents are quite spiritual, yet there is so little examination of what spirituality means to them and how it works to improve their lives."

Miller's research will also explore how religion protects depressed adolescents, since teenagers who are depressed are also more susceptible to abusing drugs or alcohol than teenagers who are not depressed. She will use information from a 15-year study done on a group of depressed, anxious and normal children originally studied by the late Dr. Joaquim Puig-Antich.

"The study basically looked at the kids 15 years ago and looked at them again a year or two ago to find patterns of substance abuse," Miller said. "The benefit of that data is that it's longitudinal." She will be looking to see how religion is transmitted in family life in the presence or absence of substance abuse, or if it is transmitted at all in the face of substance abuse. "If both a parent and the teenager are religious, it is a protective influence," Miller said. "In our samples, it really comes through the mother, if she is religious."

The third part of Miller's research will be to collect data over a 30-month period to determine what specific aspects of religious belief are protective and under what conditions. A heterogeneous sample of adolescents in the New York area will be the focus of the project.

Miller began her observations at The Christian Love Tabernacle in Yonkers, a predominantly African-American church with a minister who was once a member of a street gang. She is interested in understanding how religious development is passed on to children and adolescents in religious communities.

So far, the findings indicate three things about religion that determine its protective influence in a teenager's life. They are a personal sense of spirituality as opposed to a literal and tight adherence to a dogmatic belief. In Christian faiths, the denomination is also important. The fundamentalist factions are more protective than others. Yet, rigid adherence to a denomination, which she refers to as personal conservatism, is not found to be protective.

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