Teens’ religious lives ‘all over the map,’ says book on national study

By David Gibson

Catholic News Service

The attempt to understand teenagers too often overlooks the religious faith and spiritual practices in their lives, according to the authors of “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.” Their research shows that religion makes “quite a significant difference” in teenagers’ lives.

But while “any adequate understanding of American adolescents must recognize and account for (the) religious and spiritual realities in many of their lives,” the authors caution religious communities against “accepting and promulgating what may be simplistic generalizations about American youth.” For, religiously speaking, “American teens are complicated and ‘all over the map.’”

Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, wrote “Soul Searching” with Melinda Lundquist Denton, a sociologist at Clemson University in South Carolina. The book presents, analyzes and comments on the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion, conducted from 2001 to 2005 at the University of North Carolina.

“To our knowledge, this project has been the largest, most comprehensive and detailed study of American teenage religion and spirituality conducted to date,” the authors, members of the national study’s research team, explain. The study reflects the views of Christian teenagers across denominational lines, as well as Jewish and Mormon youths.

The inclusion of numerous interviews with teenagers that read like stories about their lives heightens the enjoyment of what, at times, is a technical report. Readers may garner hope from the strong, balanced faith convictions of some who were interviewed. At other times readers, like me, may find themselves troubled by what teens say — by the apparently risky and self-serving statements some make about the implications of a moral life, for example.

On a hopeful note, the book rejects the notion that religion makes no difference for the direction taken in the lives of teenagers. In fact, say the authors, religion “arguably exerts significant effects on important outcomes” in their lives.

“Soul Searching” dispels certain commonly held beliefs about contemporary teenagers. For example, it says that “very few American adolescents appear to be caught up in the much-discussed phenomenon of ‘spiritual seeking’ by ‘spiritual but not religious’ seekers” — the pursuit of spirituality outside religion.

Furthermore, the authors found little evidence of the quest for a more “exotic” religion that widely is thought to intrigue many teenagers. “In the U.S. marketplace of spiritual practices, the religious option that is actually having the greatest influence on teen experimenters with other faiths is” Christianity, they write.

Just how complicated are teenagers, religiously speaking? “Many U.S. teenagers construct religion in nonessential terms,” the book says. Still, it notes elsewhere, even “the majority of nonreligious U.S. adolescents are not particularly antireligious.” And it finds that “relatively few teens appear to be actively negative about or hostile toward their religious congregations.”

Not surprisingly, then, “Soul Searching” encourages religious communities to stop “presuming that U.S. teenagers are actively alienated by religion.” It says, “Huge numbers of U.S. teenagers are currently in congregations, feel OK about them, mostly plan to continue to stay involved at some level,” though the congregation “does not mean that much or make much sense to many of them.”

An affirming view of parental influence is presented here. “Parents are normally very important in shaping the religious and spiritual lives of their teenage children, even though they may not realize it,” the book states. “Soul Searching” proposes that “the best way to get most youth more involved in and serious about their faith communities is to get their parents more involved.”

The book’s discussion of Catholic teens may disturb a few readers, while prompting some to action. It would be mistaken, based on the enthusiastic devotion witnessed at large Catholic youth assemblies, to conclude “that Catholic teenagers in the United States are doing quite well religiously,” the book advises.

It says that at parish and perhaps diocesan levels, the Catholic Church seems “relatively weak when it comes to devoting attention and resources to its youth and their parents.” In a somewhat gentler vein, the book says the Catholic Church could do better at engaging teenagers “in its religious practices, though our findings hardly suggest that overall it is entirely failing to do so.”

“Soul Searching” should be taken seriously by those committed to nurturing the lives of teenagers. These include religious congregations and organizations, which “are uniquely positioned” in the array of U.S. social institutions “to embrace youth, to connect with adolescents, to strengthen ties between adults and teenagers,” the book comments.

But, it warns, this “will not happen automatically.”

 

Gibson was the founding editor of Origins, Catholic News Service’s documentary service. He retired in 2007 after holding that post for 36 years.

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