Defining Religiousness in Aging-An Agenda for Research

Article excerpt

In the past few years, the topic of religion has emerged from relative obscurity and become a subject of great interest to researchers in aging. The study of religion and aging, like the study of health behaviors, has focused on the potential benefits of this domain on the physical and emotional well-being of older people. To test these potential benefits, researchers have devised numerous scales to measure the effects of religion on elders. An excellent example of such a scale can be found in Multidimensional Measurement of Religiousness/Spirituality for Use in Health Research published by the Fetzer Institute, Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1999.

The development of these measurements is curious because there does not seem to be a consensus on definitions of the term religiousness, a word that refers to the state or character of an individual's belief. Although most scales designed to measure the effects of religion on health assume a definition of religion as a formal system of belief in a supernatural deity, there seems to be no agreement on how to define or measure the strength of any individual's faith in such a system. Although each scale carries with it an implicit definition of the term through the questions asked, clear, specific and well-developed definitions of religiousness are frequently absent. The problem is made more complex by the attempt to separate the concepts of religion and spirituality into distinct categories.


The scales designed to measure religiousness carry another, untested, assumption. If they are designed for use in research along with scales developed to measure other conditions and behaviors, then the implicit assumption is that the scales are not specific to any individual faith or belief system. No one has carefully examined this presumption that such measurements can be used with people of any religious background, whether they are Hindu, Jewish, Southern Baptist or members of any other community of believers who are generally recognized as a religion.

The problem is that if researchers wish to measure religiousness (or any other domain, for that matter), they need to be able to "operationalize" the term in the form of specific beliefs or behaviors that together form a measure of the underlying concept. For example, when investigators want to measure functional health, they list a series of health behaviors, such as the ability to walk a flight of steps or stand up without assistance. The same methods apply when measuring beliefs, such as feeling good about oneself, that might affect psychological well-being. The research and clinical communities share a broad consensus on what constitutes appropriate operationalizations of many aspects of physical and mental health, but none of these operationalizations relate to religiousness.

How can one operationalize the concept of religion? What specific beliefs or behaviors are common to all faith systems? These issues become more complex when people remember that operational scales must not contain a very large number of questions. To be truly universal measures of religiousness, the behaviors and beliefs on such scales must be core to all religious systems. Questions that contain assumptions of a single god are useless in polytheistic faiths. Questions that assume the primacy of private over public behavior will miss the mark when used among people whose faith systems stress the community over the individual. Questions that treat ritual as secondary to belief will fail to capture deep religious faith among those for whom ritual is the highest expression of belief. Questions that address God as a "he" will be difficult for those who worship female divinities.

Therefore, even if a study participant can understand the question and respond to it, researchers cannot assume that the question is correctly measuring the particular domain-religiousness, for example-in any given individual unless they understand that individual's faith tradition. …