The Spiritual Life of American Teenagers–A New Study

“American teenagers can embody adults’ highest hopes and most gripping fears.” That statement introduces an important new study on the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. Led by principal investigator Christian Smith, a group of researchers has conducted a massive study of American adolescents and their religious beliefs.

The group’s findings are published in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, recently published by Oxford University Press. Smith and his colleagues conducted their research through the National Study of Youth and Religion, located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The data and analysis produced by this research project provide an interesting perspective into the beliefs and practices of American teenagers.

The prevailing stereotype of the American adolescent is of a young person who is likely to be in conscious rebellion against all forms of authority–starting with parents. One of the most important findings in this massive study is the fact that the vast majority of American teenagers identify strongly with the religious beliefs and practices of their parents. Evidently, today’s teenagers do not see themselves as rebels against the faith of their parents.

This is a quintessentially American study, and the teenagers interviewed in this project–more than 3,000 in total–appear, if anything, to be fully representative of the nation at large. The very idea of adolescence is a modern invention, isolating a period of life between childhood and adulthood that is understood to be a time of experimentation, self-actualization, and struggle. In essence, we have developed a concept of adolescence that gives young persons incredible, indeed almost adult-like freedom, but without adult responsibility and demands.

Beyond this, America has gone through periodic spasms of concern over its adolescence. In retrospect, many of these anxieties were well grounded. Nevertheless, Christian Smith and his fellow researchers found that most American teenagers appear to be highly functional, even if they experience the normal pangs and perplexities of adolescence. Most remarkably, the researchers found that these young people have a “highly conventional” set of religious convictions.

Given the scope of this sociological project, the teenagers studied included Christians–both Protestant and Roman Catholic–as well as Jewish teenagers and Mormons. As expected, the analysis is not truly theological in character, but sociological, focusing on religion as a social phenomenon and individual choice. In the main, the researchers found that “there are a significant number of adolescents in the United States for whom religion and spirituality are important if not defining features of their lives.” Yet, the range of different levels of involvement and belief was very large, encompassing those only marginally connected to their faith and other whose lives are pervasively entwined with faith commitments.

Many observers will be surprised by the finding that “very few American adolescents appear to be caught up in the much-discussed phenomenon of ‘spiritual seeking’ by ‘spiritual but not religious’ seekers on a quest for higher meaning.” The researchers had expected to find a much larger percentage of young people fitting the “spiritual but not religious” profile, but this was simply not reflected in the lives of the young people interviewed for this project. To the contrary, most appeared to be very conventional in their commitments and beliefs. As Smith and his team discovered, “Contrary to popular perceptions, the vast majority of American adolescents are not spiritual seekers or questers of the type most often described by journalists and some scholars, but are instead mostly oriented toward and engaged in conventional religious traditions and communities.” It may be that the “spiritual but not religious” profile is more commonly found among the baby boomers and the children of the 70s and the early 1980s.

But if most of the teenagers reflected conventional beliefs and practices, very few were able to offer even a rudimentary explanation of what these beliefs and practices mean. These teenagers were remarkably incoherent and inarticulate in speaking of their own convictions. “If there is indeed a significant number of American teens who are serious and lucid about their religious faith,” there is also a much larger number who are remarkably inarticulate and befuddled about religion,” the researchers assert. “Interviewing teens, one finds little evidence that the agents of religious socialization in this country are being highly effective and successful with the majority of their young people.”

Those thrown off by academic jargon such as “agents of religious socialization” should understand that the researchers are here talking about parents and religious leaders such as pastors, youth ministers, and others who work with youth in Bible studies and related ministries.

In a related finding, the researchers found that parents are most determinative in establishing the beliefs and practices held by their adolescent offspring. In most cases, these teenagers are not rejecting the faith of their parents, they are merely reflecting the low level of their parents’ commitment and convictions.

Against claims that American teenagers are primarily influenced by peers and agents outside the home, Smith and his team found that parents “exert huge influences in the lives of American adolescents-whether for good or ill.” Other findings offer similar insights. Smith reports that American teenagers “are not flocking in droves to ‘alternative’ religions and spiritualities such as paganism and Wicca.” As a matter of fact, the team found that teenagers involved in organized pagan groups represent “fewer than one-third of 1 percent of U.S. teens.”

Furthermore, American teenagers do not reflect a great spectrum of religious diversity. The team found that less than one half of one percent of U.S. teens consider themselves Muslim, with Buddhists and Hindus coming in far behind. In reality, Mormonism appears to be a much stronger competitor to Christianity, with five Mormon teenagers for every one Muslim adolescent.

By any measure, the theological beliefs held by American teenagers appeared to be confused and confusing. While more than 80 percent indicate belief in God, only two thirds believe in a God who is a personal being. At least 13 percent believe in “something like a deist view of God as having created the world but not being involved in it now,” and 14 percent reflect some form of New Age belief. These twin findings must be understood in tandem. As Smith explains, “Those who assume U.S. youth have been largely secularized might be surprised by the first finding. Those who assume U.S. youth are continuing on with a biblically traditional or orthodox view of God should be surprised by the second finding.”

In other words, American teenagers are very religious, with a vast majority indicating a belief in God. Yet the God in whom many of these teenagers believe bears virtually no resemblance to the God of the Bible.

The lack of theological clarity evident in the responses from these teenagers appears in relation to two critical issues–moral judgment and the nature of proof. Higher levels of church involvement are directly tied to lower levels of premarital sexual activity, use of pornography, and other temptations common to adolescence. Nevertheless, few of these teenagers seem to know exactly why their faith commitments should impact their moral reasoning or how specific beliefs should relate to moral decision-making. Furthermore, the teenagers tend to be extremely non-judgmental, framing issues of morality as individual decisions that should be beyond the scrutiny and judgment of others.

Christian Smith and his colleagues suggest that this is the residue of the radical individualism that marks the worldview of the baby boomers, who are presumably parenting this generation of adolescents. In addition, the researchers provide ample evidence that the moral behavior of America’s teenagers is no worse-and may even be better-than that of their parents.

This situation is further complicated by the fact that many adults, including the parents of these teenagers, are primarily involved in their own issues and problems. As Smith and co-author Melinda Lundquist Denton explained, “Significant numbers of teens today live their lives with little but the most distant adult direction and oversight. They spend the greater part of most weekdays in schools surrounded almost exclusively by their peers. Their parents are working and otherwise busy. Members of their extended family live in distant cities. Their teachers are largely preoccupied with discipline, classroom instruction, and grading. Their neighbors tend to stay out of each others’ business. These teens may have their own cars, cell phones, spending money, and televisions in their bedrooms. Or, they may simply spend all their free time hanging out with friends and associates at the mall, on the streets, at friends’ houses, or other places away from home. In any case, when school lets out, it may be hours before a parent gets home from work.”

When it comes to their concept of truth, “American teenagers appear to espouse rather inclusive, pluralistic, and individualistic views about religious truth, identity boundaries, and the need for a religious congregation.” While some adolescents hold to particularistic and exclusivistic understandings of Christianity, a far greater number “tend in their attitudes to be fairly liberal, relativistic, and open to differences among religious types.”

This is fully consistent with earlier research conducted by James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia, who found that younger evangelicals surveyed in the 1980’s appeared poised to compromise the biblical teaching that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation. In today’s cultural and intellectual context, largely shaped by a reflexive embrace of relativism, such claims appear to be out of step and “intolerant.”

In the main, the researchers found that the contours of adolescent belief–across all institutional and denominational boundaries–can be reduced to what they called “moralistic therapeutic deism.” This “de facto creed” was found most commonly among mainline Protestant and Catholic youth, but this profile was also visible among some conservative evangelicals. According to “moralistic therapeutic deism,” God’s main concern is that individuals be happy, good, moral, and pleasant. In the main, this religion is “about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents.”

This important new study offers a wealth of sociological analysis. Soul Searching is a thoughtful and credible investigation of adolescent beliefs and practices. We must recognize that sociology has its limits, and the response of the Christian church should be based in theological conviction rather than sociological strategy. Nevertheless, this research project should serve as a catalyst for careful Christian thinking, and as an impetus for missiological awareness as we consider the vast mission field represented by America’s teenagers.