Soul Searching: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers

Christian Smith just finished a groundbreaking research project on the spirituality of today’s teens titled Soul Searching: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford)

Today I’m posting my own notes of rough quotes from the study. Should give you something to chew on, especially if you’re concerned about the next generation!

Christian Smith, with Melinda Lundquist Denton
Soul Searching: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford 2005)

Conclusions about today’s teens:

Inarticulate and confused regarding belief. (27)
Religious faith and practice operate in a social and institutionally competitive environment.
Parents and other adults exert huge influence

Vast majority call themselves Christian. (68)
(Tribal) When it comes to US teenager’s close friendships and school experiences, religion seems somewhat more remote. (70)

The majority of American teenagers appear to espouse rather inclusive, pluralistic, and individualistic views about religious truth, identity boundaries, and need for religious congregations. A significant minority do hold fairly particularity attitudes on these matters, but most tend in their attitudes to be fairly liberal, relativistic, and open to differences among religious types. When it comes to their thinking about what is legitimate for other people, most affirm pluralism, religious inclusivity, and individual authority. This is true for notable percentages of teens even in America’s more conservative and strict religious traditions. (115)

God, Religion, Whatever Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
Conventional kids in religious identity and practices
But religion is not worth fighting about.
And it is not what they are excited or talk about.
“Religion is really important to me, I guess” 136
Exuberance about its place–don’t know what they believe.

“We talked with teens about what they get enthusiastic or excited about, what pressing issues they are dealing with and what forces and experiences and routines seem most important and central in their lives. MOST teenagers talk about friends, school sports, television, music, movies, romantic interests, family relationships, dealing with issues of drug and alcohol, various organized activities with which they are involved¢â‚¬¦What rarely arises in such conversations are teens religious identities, beliefs, experiences or practices. Religion does not naturally seem to appear much on teen’s open-ended lists of what really matters in their lives¢â‚¬¦

Most teens devote a great deal of life to watching television and movies, e-mailing or instant messaging friends, listening to music and consuming other electronic media. (130)

In all of this religion simply is not an integral aspect of teens structured lives, does not come up as a relevant subject of discussion and is not often, involved in many teen’s most significant social relationships. As a consequence, religion often seems to become rather compartmentalized and back-grounded in the lived experiences of most US teenagers. (131)

The vast majority of teens are “incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives. We found very few teens from any religious background who are able to articulate well their religious beliefs and explain how those beliefs connect to the rest of their lives. 131

Most religious teenagers either do not really comprehend what their own religious traditions say they are supposed to believe, or they do understand it and simply do not care to believe it. Either way, it is apparent that most religiously affiliated US teens are not particularly invested in espousing and upholding the beliefs of their faith traditions or that their communities of faith are failing in attempts to educate their youth, or both. The net result, in any case, is that most religious teenagers’ opinions and views–one can hardly call them worldviews–are vague, limited, and often quite at variance with the actual teachings of their own religion. In the end, many teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear about who Moses or Jesus are. This suggests that a strong, visible, salient or intentional faith is not operating in the foreground of most teenager’s lives. 134

Viewed in terms of the absolute historical centrality of the Protestant conviction about salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone and not by any human good works, many belief professions by Protestant teens, including numerous conservative Protestant teens, in effect discard that essential Protestant gospel. 136

Avoiding being too religious. 141
“I’m not too religious.” 141
“I’m pretty religious I guess, but I’m not like Ned Flanders (evangelical neighbor on the Simpson television show) or anything you know? (16 year-old white conservative Protestant boy from Indiana).

Everyone Decides for themselves (143)
“Who am I to judge?”
“There is no right answer.”
Religion helps you do what you want. “most USA youth tend to assume an instrumental view of religion.
“You don’t have to be religious to be good (155)
Some teens live in a morally insignificant universe. (156)

Typically teenagers in the US consider themselves to be “self-directing, autonomous individuals, the key mediators or arbiters of all outside influences, fully in charge of their own interests, choices and actions. 158

Nearly ALL US teens seem to have adopted a posture of civility and a careful and ambiguous inclusiveness when discussing religion with possible “others,” especially in public. 160

“Religion clearly operates in a socially-structurally weak position, competing for time, energy, and attention and often losing against other, more dominant demands and commitments, particularly school, sports, television and other electronic media.” 161

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (162)
1) A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3) The central goal of life is to be happy ands to feel good about oneself.
4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5) Good people go to heaven when they die.

(Dick’s summary) Moral Therapeutic Deism: Good moral, kind, nice, pleasant people, will receive therapeutic benefits, like a happy life, from their religion, while believing in a relatively uninvolved and undemanding God who is “watching everything from above.”

What we are theorizing here, is the very real existence of a shared American religion that is analogous to the American civil religion that Robert Bella astutely described in 1967, yet it operates at an entirely different level from civil religion¢â‚¬¦.

Religion in the US separates itself out and operates at multiple levels in different ways,

American religion is most obvious at the level of formal organizations, the plane on which denominations, seminaries, religious congregations, publishing houses and other religions organizations operate.

But religion also often operates distinctively at a level below the organizational plane, at a level of individual belief and practice. Here religious faith is often eclectic, idiosyncratic, and syncretistic, inconsistently–from the perspective of most organized religious traditions, at least–mixing together elements as diverse as belief in infant baptism, interest in horoscopes predictions and the collection of religious kitsch. This is the dimension that some scholars have called “lived religion” or “popular religion.”

Beyond these two levels, Bellah’s major contribution in 1967 was to reveal civil religion operating at yet another level, above the plane of formal religious organizations. Bellah very insightfully showed how religious symbols and discourse, appropriated and abstracted from the Judeo-Christian tradition, are mobilized at a national civic level for purpose of national order, unity, and purpose.

What we are suggesting in our observations about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is that, to understand the fullness of religion in the US, we need to see another level or plane of religious life or practice operating in this social order¢â‚¬¦.

Situated between the individual level on the bottom and the organized and civil religions on planes above that, there operates yet another distinct level of religion in the US: the widely shared interfaith religion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Therapeutic individualism defines the individual, self as the source and standard of authentic moral knowledge and authority, and individual self-fulfillment as the preoccupying purpose of life. Subjective, personal experience is the touchstone of all that is authentic, right and true,,,

James Nolan observes, “where once the self was to be brought into conformity with the standards of externally derived authorities and social institutions, it now is compelled to look within¢â‚¬¦no longer is society something a self must adjust to; it is now something the self must be liberated from¢â‚¬¦where once the self was to be surre3ndedred, denied, sacrificed, and died to, now a self is to be esteemed, actualized, affirmed and unfettered” 173 (From The Therapeutic State. New York University Press 1998) p3

Moral decisions making in therapeutic individualism is always profoundly individually self-referencing. Right and wrong are determined not by external moralities derived from religious teachings, natural law, cultural tradition or the requisite collective social functioning 173

As therapeutic individualism has institutionalized itself as a natural dominant framework¢â‚¬¦Religion as an external authority or tradition that people encounter and that makes authoritative claims that form their believing, thinking, felling, desires and living, becomes increasingly inconceivable. 175

American religion and spirituality may be profoundly shaped by American mass-consumer capitalism. (176) Capitalism is not merely a system for the efficient production and distribution of goods and services; it also incarnates and promotes a particular moral order, an institutionalized normative worldview comprising and fostering particular assumptions, narratives, commitments, beliefs, values and goals. 176

(For example it views the individual as an “individual, autonomous, rational, self-seeking, cost-benefit-calculating consumer.”)

The more American people and institutions are redefined by mass-consumer capitalism’s moral order, the more American religion is also remade in it’s image. Religion becomes one product among many others existing to satisfy people’s subjectively defined needs, tastes and wants. Religious adherents become spiritual consumers uniquely authorized as autonomous individuals to pick and to choose in the religions market whatever products they may fund satisfying or fulfilling at the moment. 176
Many Americans complain about “the culture,” “the media,” “television,” and “Hollywood,” for the evident roles they play in generating teenage problems. But if we think systemically, we see that these are for the most part euphemisms for mass-consumer capitalism. For what drives television, the media and Hollywood? What are they really about? They are often both commodities for sale themselves and the means of gathering and organizing buying audiences of consumers to whom to sell other products (177-178)

At the level of subjective consciousness, adolescent religious and spiritual understanding and concern seem to be generally very weak, Most US teens have a difficult to impossible time explaining what they believe, what it means, and what the implications of their beliefs are for their lives. 262

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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