What Matters Most
A new study illuminates the motivations behind religious sacrifice among a very devout population — adolescents.
The moment before Abraham could plunge a dagger into his beloved son Isaac and sacrifice him in devotion to Yahweh, an angel’s voice rang out, steadied his hand — and saved the boy. Shaken, but immensely relieved, Abraham untied the boy, hugged him and wept.
If this sequence from Genesis 22 in the Old Testament seems archaic, well, it is. Religious sacrifice, the giving up of temporary gratification in return (perhaps) for future blessings, has existed in rituals since before the dawn of history. And while the notion of human sacrifice has faded, modern sacrifices can still be incredibly profound.
While the practice of sacrifice is not unknown among secular individuals, it’s still most visibly demonstrated among the devoutly religious — especially in youth. These adolescents (13-17 years old) are, on average , more likely than young adults to attend religious services, more certain in their belief in God, and slightly more likely to believe that God is personally involved in their day-to-day lives. For them, sacrifice translates into giving up tangible comforts, pleasures and relations. While this may distance these youth from popular culture, it displays a substantial devotion and solidarity with a religious community and (often) closely watching parents.
The study sample consisted of 55 married couples and their 77 adolescent children in New England and Northern California. Broad swaths of faiths were represented including Orthodox Christians, Hasidic Jews, Mormons, mainline Protestants and Muslims. Researchers did not stack the religions against each other in terms of who was sacrificing “more” but rather discovered common strands in all faiths.
Their findings, compiled from copious amounts of interviews with the youths and their parents, categorized recurring themes that motivated adolescents to sacrifice for their faith. While some themes that emerged from respondents seem given, including the motivation to “fulfill expectations” (of parents or religious leaders) or “connect to a faith tradition or community,” other themes discovered weren’t as immediately apparent.
Researchers found that these tangible sacrifices (such as setting aside time for the Sabbath, abstaining from alcohol or peer pressure) are made in order to avoid problems (like the repercussions of illicit drug use or the fallout from a failed romantic relationship) that are perceived to be prevalent in popular culture. In these situations, sacrifices are a relief and a practical solution to avoiding the results of some potentially destructive actions.
Some adolescents took the practice even further, perceiving that they weren’t simply offering a sacrifice, but they were being a sacrifice. They were able to conceive that — in contrast to the prevailing emphasis on independence and self-gratification — submitting fully to a higher power can make one feel, at least temporarily, whole.
These sacrificial acts reinforced a purpose and meaning in the lives of the young respondents-giving them much-needed hope to hold on to. Religious youth, as is commonly documented, seem to be satisfied with their lives and have much more success in avoiding depression, hopelessness and delinquency than their secular peers.
Perhaps this is because, as the study notes, they have developed the ability to look past present concerns and tend to focus on what matters most “in the end” or “in the long run.”
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