First, the good news: American teenagers are more religious than many adults seem to think.
And now the bad news: American teenagers are less religious than many adults seem to think.
Are you confused yet? Well, it’s not quite as confusing as it sounds, if you read the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. The authors did an impressive amount of research, surveying and interviewing teenagers and their parents across the country. And they do a remarkable job of clearing up adult misconceptions about teenage spirituality.
For instance, adults tend to think of teenagers as rebellious. As a matter fact, according to Smith and Denton, “about three in four religious teens in the United States consider their own religious beliefs somewhat or very similar to their parents.... U.S. teens lean strongly toward similarity with their parents in religious belief.” A large majority of teens consider religion very important to them and believe that religion is a positive influence in the world.
These are encouraging findings. The worrisome part comes in when the researchers start examining specific details of teens’ religious beliefs. They talked to Christian kids who attend church every week but can’t explain who Jesus is. Take Heather, whose mother teaches religious doctrine at their Catholic church. The fifteen-year-old told an interviewer: “I don’t really get the whole thing about how, well, with the Catholics, how God is Jesus and Jesus is God, I don’t understand that.” And Heather’s not the exception to the rule.
In fact, the survey results show that many religious teens just don’t get the point of religion. They unknowingly subscribe to a philosophy that Smith and Denton call “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Instead of learning the basic tenets of their religion, teens are simply absorbing a belief that you try to be good all the time, you’ll be happy—and being happy is what life’s all about. This philosophy, the authors suggest, “is colonizing many historical religious traditions and… converting believers in the old faiths to its alternative religious vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness.”
But before we start pointing fingers at teens, Smith and Denton tell us, we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves. Teenagers aren’t getting this vague, consumer-based version of religion out of nowhere. The authors remind us that adults preach at teenagers about defying authority, spending too much money, watching too much TV, being sexually irresponsible, and more—and yet adults engage in these practices to a far greater extent than teens do. “We often say one thing but do something else,” Smith and Denton remind us—and that includes the religious among us. Teens who compartmentalize their faith, or just don’t take time to understand it, are a natural result of adults who do the same things.
Soul Searching is an invaluable book for understanding the religious lives of teenagers, and learning about how we can reach out to them. But even more important, it’s a much-needed reminder that the kids we’re so concerned about are in many ways simply reflections of ourselves.