Sunday, September 20, 2009

How are religiosity and teen pregnancy related?

Razib points me to a new study showing that, controlling for various factors, states with greater religiosity scores tend to have higher teen birth rates. So, compared to more secular states, the states in the Bible Belt are more likely to supply underage guests for the Maury Povich show who shout at their parents and the audience that, "I don't care what you think -- I'm gonna have that baby!"

But does this state-level pattern hold up at the individual level or not? To be clear what the question is, it could be that it's primarily the non-religious girls who give birth as teenagers -- say, because both traits reflect an underlying wild child disposition -- and perhaps the religiosity of their community is a response to tame this problem. So, for whatever reason, some states might have a greater fraction of devil-may-care girls, which would cause the state to have a higher teen birth rate as well as a greater religiosity score. (These states would have more of a teen pregnancy problem to deal with, hence a greater community policing response via religion.)

Or the patterns could be the same at the individual and the state levels -- that is, there's something about a highly religious life that makes a female more likely to give birth. For instance, if they thought it was their religious duty to be fruitful and multiply, or if they saw something sacred or divine in conceiving and giving birth -- rather than view it as a threat to their material or career success -- then the more religious teenagers would have higher birth rates.

To answer this, I went to the General Social Survey, which has data on individuals. There is no variable for age at first birth, so I simply created a new variable which is the year of the first child's birth minus the year of the mother's birth. Unfortunately, this restricts the data to just one year, 1994. Still, that was before the teen pregnancy rate had really plummeted, so there should be enough variety among those who gave birth as teenagers for any patterns to show up. In order to get larger sample sizes, I grouped female respondents into four categories for age at first birth: teen mothers (9 to 19), young mothers (20 to 24), older mothers (25 to 29), and middle-aged mothers (30 to 39).

A lot of the questions about religion were not asked in 1994, but I managed to find three each for religious beliefs and religious practice. For beliefs, the questions measure whether she has a literal interpretation of the Bible, how fundamentalist she is (now and at age 16), and whether she supports or opposes a ban on prayer in public schools. For practice, the questions measure how often she attends religious services, how strong her affiliation is, and how often she prays. (See note [1] for how "rarely," "occasionally," and "frequently" are defined.)

First, let's look at how religious beliefs vary among women who gave birth first at different ages:

The pattern is stark: the earlier she had her first child, the stronger her religious beliefs, whether that means Biblical literalism, fundamentalism (now as well as at age 16), or opposing a ban on prayer in public schools.

Now let's look at how religious practice varies:

Here the story is a bit different. Teen mothers have lowest religious attendance, although young mothers have the greatest, while older and middle-aged mothers are in between. Also, teen mothers are tied with middle-aged mothers for lowest religious affiliation, whereas the young and older mothers have more strongly affiliated women. The pattern for prayer is the same as for attendance: teen mothers pray the least often, while young mothers pray the most, with the older and middle-aged mothers in between.

Putting these two sets of results together, we see that both of the plausible explanations for the state-level pattern show up at the individual level. Teen mothers are more delinquent in their religious practice, which supports the view that they have some basic wild-child personality that influences their attitudes toward giving birth and going to church. However, we know it cannot be some underlying antipathy toward religion that causes them to miss church or prayer because they are actually the most likely to hold fundamentalist or literalist beliefs. That supports the view that there's something about having a strong personal religious conviction that gives them a more favorable view of conceiving and giving birth.

Thus, the overall profile of a teen mother is a girl who is passionate enough in her religious beliefs that she sees something wonderful in giving birth, even at such a young age, but whose lower degree of conscientiousness keeps her from performing the institutional rituals as often as she should. Not being so well integrated into the institution, she doesn't feel whatever dampening effects the institution may have exerted through peer pressure (for lack of a better term). Indeed, if you've ever seen one of those teen mother episodes of Maury Povich, this portrait should be eerily familiar -- a misfit who isn't going to change her behavior just to lessen the authorities' social disapproval (whether her parents, Maury, or the jury in the audience), but who finds fulfillment in her private faith and in the ineffable bond between her and her child.

[1] For attendance, "rarely" is never, less than once a year, or once a year; "occasionally" is several times a year, once a month, or 2-3 times a month; and "frequently" is nearly every week, every week, or more than once a week. For prayer, "rarely" is less than once a week or never; "occasionally" is several times or once a week; and "frequently" is once or several times a day.

GSS variables used: sex, kdyrbrn1, cohort, bible, fund, fund16, prayer, attend, reliten, pray.


  1. tx for digging that data up. i'll be doing some county level analysis of this sort of thing soon....

  2. Great analysis agnostic. I agree with your interpretation that low conscientiousness is probably jointly responsible for the shirking of church practice and the recklessness of getting pregnant at that age. One reason for teen mothers paradoxically high religious beliefs might be lower IQ. Higher IQ women with more liberal social attitudes (e.g. contra biblical liberalism and pro women's rights) wait longer to have their children.