Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


What Matters Most

• November 09, 2009 • 1:55 PM

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.

A new qualitative study, headed by Brigham Young University’s David C. Dollahite, explores reasoning and motivations for these religious sacrifices in devout youth.

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.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Erik Hayden
Former Miller-McCune Fellow Erik Hayden recently graduated from Pepperdine University with a B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Religion. He regularly contributes for a variety of publications including the Ventura County Star and the alt-weekly, VCReporter.

More From Erik Hayden

Tags: , , ,

If you would like to comment on this post, or anything else on Pacific Standard, visit our Facebook or Google+ page, or send us a message on Twitter. You can also follow our regular updates and other stories on both LinkedIn and Tumblr.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Follow us


Subscribe Now

Quick Studies

How Junk Food Companies Manipulate Your Tongue

We mistakenly think that harder foods contain fewer calories, and those mistakes can affect our belt sizes.

What Steve Jobs’ Death Teaches Us About Public Health

Studies have shown that when public figures die from disease, the public takes notice. New research suggests this could be the key to reaching those who are most at risk.

Speed-Reading Apps Will Not Revolutionize Anything, Except Your Understanding

The one-word-at-a-time presentation eliminates the eye movements that help you comprehend what you're reading.

To Make Friends, Autistic Kids Need Advice—and Space

Kids with autism need help when it comes to making friends—but they also need their independence.

Gaming the Wedding Gift Registry System

Registering for your wedding? Keep your must-have items away from the average price of your registry—they’re unlikely to be purchased.

The Big One

One state—Pennsylvania—logs 52 percent of all sales, shipments, and receipts for the chocolate manufacturing industry. March/April 2014