Two important studies have been released within the last several years, the topic of which relates to the role of social support in the process of religious deconversion.
The first article is titled “Deconversion process and quality of life among Polish adolescents: The mediating role of Social Support” (Zarzycka et al., 2021). The research question of this study was how the process of deconversion in adolescence is affected by quality of life and social support systems. In this paper, deconversion is defined as the elimination of any standards, doctrines, or beliefs related to one’s current religious system, and an exit from one’s religious community.
This study took place in Poland, and sampled 272 Polish Caucasian adolescents between the ages of 14 and 18. The researchers were interested in the relationship between “deconversion” and “perceived social support,” more specifically, when a youth feels that she is receiving support from her social sphere, is she more or less likely to leave her religion?
To measure “perceived social support,” the researcher tapped into a previously developed questionnaire developed in 1988, titled “Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support” (MSPSS) as well as another questionnaire regarding the young person’s quality of life (QoL).
With those data in hand, the researchers attempted to predict several of the factors connecting QoL to deconversion. Three mediation models drawn from previous research were used in these predictions, including faith abandoning, existential emptiness, and moral criticism (Zarzycka et al., 2021). These were compared to QoL issues related to social support from family and friends.
The conclusion reached by this study was that social support systems did, indeed, serve as a mediator for faith abandonment. While faith abandonment resulted in what Zarzycka et al termed “existential emptiness,” lowering overall QoL, it also led to “moral criticism” which increased a sense of “social belonging,” increasing QoL (Zarzycka et al., 2021).
In other words, a stronger tie to family and friends within the faith served as a mediating factor reducing the probability of faith-abandonment. If a person with strong ties to family and friends within a faith tradition exited the faith, the risk of “existential emptiness” was higher, resulting in a lowering of QoL.
However, weaker ties to family and friends increased the probability of faith abandonment, and the resulting moral criticism improved QoL because moral criticism facilitated social belonging.
The second study I examined was titled “Deconversion processes in adolescence – the role of parental and peer factors,” (Łysiak et al., 2020), and looked at the same question: is there a relationship between social support and deconversion? In this case, the researchers were especially interested in parental relationships; the question being what relationship the attachment between the adolescent and parents, and the perceived support from family and friends, had toward the probability of deconversion during adolescence.
The sample size for this study was 232 adolescents between the ages of 15 and 18. The researchers were interested in whether “parental bonding and perceived social support” had any relationship to deconversion.
After measuring deconversion, parental bonding, and perceived social support using the appropriate scales, the data were analyzed. After running the tests, the researchers came to the conclusion that parents who are both religious and caring, as well as strong social supports serve to reduce the probability of deconversion occurring during adolescence.
Having examined both of these studies, it seems apparent to me that there are two social forces at work facilitating or discouraging faith abandonment during adolescence. The first is the person’s connection to parents and peers within the religious community and the sense of “existential fulfillment” (Zarzycka et al, 2021) one feels as a member of this community.
The other is the moral criticism of non-religious peers, and the sense of belonging the adolescent may feel if they were to participate in moral criticism along with their peers. If the individual does not feel a strong attachment to parents, and does not perceive strong social support within the religious community, they are more likely to participate in moral criticism along with non-religious peers, and experience the sense of belonging associated therewith.
References Zarzycka, B., Puchalska-Wasyl, M., & Łysiak, M. (2021). Deconversion processes and quality of life among Polish adolescents: The mediating role of Social Support. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 32(3), 196–213. https://doi.org/10.1080/10508619.2021.1946266 Łysiak, M., Zarzycka, B., & Puchalska-Wasyl, M. (2020). Deconversion processes in adolescence—the role of parental and peer factors. Religions, 11(12), 664. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11120664