Understanding The Religious And Spiritual Lives Of Teenagers
“The single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents – not their peer group, not their own individual searching, not even their youth ministers,” said Christian Smith, principal investigator of the National Study of Youth and Religion, a research project being conducted at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Smith said parents who are from the “Baby Boomer” generation (1944-1964), who experienced the mass generational rebellion in the 1960s, mistakenly expect their children to react the same way. “The youth today have more in common with grownups than not. They have embraced the mainstream values. Their main concern is to succeed in the society that’s been given to them.” The lesson for parents, Smith said, is to stop thinking about teenagers as strange, impenetrable beings. “Parents have an enormous influence over teens they are often unaware of.”
Among the survey questions and answers:
1. Are teens disconnected from religion?
One third of teens surveyed are religiously involved.
One third are sporadically involved or loosely connected.
One third are disconnected from religion.
“It is a big spread, and there is a lot of variance,” Smith said. “Many people assume teens are disconnected and not interested in religion, but that is not the case.”
2. Do teens today reflect the increasing religious diversity of the United States?
No. The vast majority of US teens identify themselves as Christians, according to the survey. “Adolescents are no more varied today than they have been for a very long time,” Smith said. “But the area that has grown the most is the non-religious category. These are the people who quit saying ‘I’m Catholic’ just because their family background is Catholic, whatever.”
3. Are teens hostile toward religion?
“There is very little hostility toward religion among teenagers,” Smith said. “Almost no teens we surveyed launched an attack on religion. Most think religion is a good thing.”
4. What is the impact of religion on teens?
“Very religious teenagers appear to be doing better in life than less religious teenagers or non-religious teens,” Smith said.
5. Are US teens “spiritual seekers”?
Only two to three percent of those surveyed could be considered as spiritual seekers, Smith said. “Contrary to many popular assumptions and stereotypes, the character of teenage religiosity in the US is extraordinarily conventional,” Smith said. “The typical answer is, ‘This is what my family does; this is how I was raised. I am happy to follow how I was raised; this is what I’ve been taught; it’s good enough for me.’ There is not a lot of questioning; not a lot of searching.”
6. Do American teenagers consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” or follow esoteric spiritual fads?
“Very few American teens appear to be exposed to, interested in, or actively pursuing ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ personal quests or eclectic spiritual seeking,” Smith said. “Of course there is a minority of teens who are rebellious; who are searching. But the vast majority in the middle is conventional. And there is a minority that is extremely religious.” “I Don’t Know” Although the majority of the teens surveyed claimed some form of Christianity as their religion, very few could describe the tenets of their religion and what it means. “For many of the teens interviewed in the survey, it was the first time any adult had asked them what they believed. It was like, ‘What? I’m supposed to give an account of this?’ Teens’ most typical response to what their religion required was, “To be a good person ...?” or simply, “I don’t know,” Smith said. More likely, he said, “religious educators are failing to socialize teenagers to talk about their faith. And I don’t mean to single out teens. I think teens are reflective of their parents. Teens are not the problem. They reflect what is true of the adult world. They are just being socialized into it.”
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
Out of the vague answers the teens provided about faith, Smith detected a pattern of thought, a particular religious outlook that he calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” or MTD. The creed of MTD, based on what emerged from the survey, breaks down as follows:
Faraway God- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth. “But God is distant. God is inaccessible and far away. He is out there somewhere, but he is not really involved in history or world events,” Smith said, summarizing the teens' opinions.
Don't be a jerk- God does not make demands of us that we need to respond to. “But God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and most other world religions,” Smith said. “Some teens summarize their moral worldview as ‘Just don’t be an a------’”
No bad feelings- “The central goal in life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself—not to be a disciple, not to be a servant of the most high; not to be a part of a people from a very long tradition that shapes who you are,” Smith said. “The primary idea is to be happy, not feel bad about oneself or have bad feelings.”
Cosmic therapist- God does not need to be involved in one’s life except when He is needed to resolve a problem. “God is there to call when you are in trouble or when you have a problem. He is there to call when you have bad feelings. Otherwise God can stay away,” Smith said. “God is a combination of a divine butler and a cosmic therapist.” Be good. You just need to be “good,” and you will go to heaven. Good people go to heaven when they die.
In the broader survey, he said the teens could account very little of why something is right or wrong. “There is very little connection to the tools to help think through moral issues beyond ‘this is how I feel,’” he said.
Despite the apparent weakness of conviction and understanding of faith, American teens who are religiously affiliated generally perform better in life. “Although teens aren’t able to articulate, when we step back and look at the difference between religious and nonreligious teens, there are enormous differences on literally every life outcome, such as not engaging in risk behaviors, getting along with parents, doing better at school—any outcome you want, even considering other variables such as income, parents’ education, region, race,” Smith said. “Although religiously active teens are significantly less likely than non-religious teens to engage in risk behaviors, significant numbers—between 20 percent and 40 percent—of religiously active teenagers are involved in serious risk behaviors involving alcohol and drugs, according to the survey. Religious congregations benefit teens by being one of the few non-age-stratified places where toddlers, teenagers, middle-age adults and senior citizens all come together in one place”, Smith said, “Simply the structure of going to church every Sunday, hearing the moral teachings of religion, and mixing with adults serve important functions for teens,” Smith said. “Religion has a positive and constructive influence in teens’ lives, despite the act that teens don’t know much about their religion and can’t articulate it. It shows people are formed by forces they might not even be aware of or understand.”