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

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

Recent Posts

December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.