Religious Typologies and Health Risk Behaviors of African American College Students

By Fife, John E.; Sayles, Harlan R. et al. | North American Journal of Psychology, June 2011 | Go to article overview
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Religious Typologies and Health Risk Behaviors of African American College Students


Fife, John E., Sayles, Harlan R., Adegoke, Adekunle A., McCoy, Jamal, Stovall, Mikeya, Verdant, Claudia, North American Journal of Psychology


Research on the impact of religiosity or spirituality on physical and mental health is a topic of increasing significance and interest to scientist in numerous fields. A growing body of work indicates that religiousness is positively related to a number of physical and mental health outcomes among the elderly (Ellison, 1994; Koenig, McCullough, & Larson, 2001; Powell, Shahabi, & Thoresen, 2003). Research has prominently shown that religion and spirituality can have an important influence on human health and behavior (Cole & Pargament, 1999; Dein & Stygal, 1997; Koenig & Perez, 1998; Pargament, Smith, Koenig & Perez, 1998). Research has also indicated a positive relationship between religious attendance or religious membership and physical activity (Merill & Thygerson, 2001; Oleckno & Blacconiere, 1991; Wallace & Forman, 1998). These physical activities included seatbelt use, walking, and strenuous exercise. Other studies have found a relationship between religiosity and healthy dietary habits, with dietary habits defined as fruit and vegetable consumption. (Lytle et al. 2009; Neumark-Sztainer, Story, Perry, & Casey, 1999); Waite, Hawks & Gast, 1999; Wallace & Forman, 1998).

Religion is often defined as an organized system of beliefs, practices, rituals and symbols designed (a) to facilitate closeness to the sacred or transcendent (God, higher power, or ultimate truth/reality), and (b) to foster an understanding of one's relationship and responsibility to others in living together in a community (Koenig et al., 2001). Spirituality, however, is seen as more of a personal quest for understanding answers to ultimate questions about life, about meaning, and about a relationship to the sacred or transcendent, which may (or may not) lead to the development of religious rituals and the formation of community (Koenig et al., 2001).

Religion is an important, but often overlooked factor that may be tied to college students' behavioral health. Although college students report lower levels of religiousness than the general population, most still endorse being religious. In a national survey, approximately 77% of college students reported being members of a church, synagogue, or campus religious group. In addition, 80% of college students reported that religion is "important" to them (Gallup & Bezilla, 1992).

Religion is deeply rooted in traditional African American culture. Throughout much of American history, religious institutions have occupied an important position in the African American community and studies have reported that a majority of African Americans are affiliated with a religious denomination (Taylor, Ellison, Chatters, Levin, & Lincoln, 2000). The overarching role of religion in the lives of African Americans is a vehicle used to speak to issues of oppression and the quest for liberation, love, hope, and justice (Anderson & Black, 1995).

Religiousness may be a factor to target in an effort to reduce underage drinking among college students. Wechsler, Davenport, Dowdall, Moeykens, and Castillo (1994) reported that college students who stated that participating in religious activity was "not at all important" to their lives had a significantly higher likelihood of binge drinking than students for whom religion was "at least somewhat important." In a longitudinal study, Wills, Yaeger, and Sandy (2003) found that religiousness buffers against adolescent substance use. There has also been a consistent inverse relationship reported between alcohol use and both frequency of service attendance (Adlaf & Smart, 1985; Hadaway, Elifson, & Petersen, 1984) and importance of religion (Jessor, Chase, & Donovan, 1980). College students who drink lightly or infrequently cite religious beliefs as one of the reasons why they do not drink heavily (Slicker, 1997). In a study investigating college students' reasons for not drinking, Strawser, Storch, Geffken, Killiany, and Baumeister (2004) found that an increase in religious faith was associated with a decrease in the likelihood of alcohol problems.

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