January 6, 2005


What American Teenagers Believe: A conversation with Christian Smith. (Interview by Michael Cromartie, January 2005, Christianity Today)

Christian Smith is Stuart Chapin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. [...]His latest book, due in March from Oxford, is Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, coauthored with Melinda Lundquist Denton. Based on the National Study of Youth and Religion, an unprecedented survey conducted from 2001 to 2005, the book opens a window on the religious beliefs and practices of American teens. In November, Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center met with Smith in Washington, D.C., to talk about his findings.

You say that "today's youth are depicted as disillusioned, irreverent, uniquely postmodern, belonging to something that is next and new." Indeed, "when it comes to faith and religion," we're told, "contemporary teenagers are deeply restless, alienated, rebellious and determined to find something that is radically different from the faith in which they were raised." And yet, you conclude, this largely unchallenged perception is "fundamentally wrong." Why is that?

Teenagers today (and I am talking about 13- to 17-year-olds) are invested in society as it is and in mainstream values. They are well socialized into the mainstream, they are committed to it, and they want to succeed in it. From the Sixties we've inherited the notion of the "generation gap," but that model simply isn't adequate to describe what we are dealing with today. For the most part, young people have a great deal in common with their parents and share their values. That may not be immediately apparent, but underneath, not too far below the surface, there is a lot of commonality.

You found that most of them are very conventional in their beliefs. Did you expect to find a more rebellious, anti-authoritarian youth culture?

Yes, I expected to find more resistance, more negative views of religion in general. Of course, there is so much yakking out there about spiritual questing, we've been conditioned to look for kids who can't stand traditional religion. But that's just not the case! Most kids are quite happy to go with whatever they are raised to believe; they are not kicking and screaming on the way to church. On the contrary: most teenagers have a very benign attitude toward religion.

This is a controversial point.

I presume it will be. Again, we are only making claims on 13- to 17-year-olds. It could be that when kids go to college, they engage in more spiritual seeking. But high schoolers and middle school kids are extremely conventional in their religiosity.

Lots of people think that a key category for young people is "spiritual but not religious." What we found is that this concept is not even on their radar screen. But one thing that most teens emphatically don't want to be is "too religious." They want to be religious, but they don't want to be perceived as overzealous, uncool, embarrassingly intense about their faith. They have an image in their mind of one kid in their high school who walks around with buttons and badges all day carrying a Bible, and they think that that's wacko.

There is good news for the church in your study. But there is plenty of bad news as well. For example, you found in your in-depth interviews with teens that a vast majority of them are "incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices." You found very few teens from any religious background who are able to articulate clearly their religious beliefs and explain how those beliefs connect to the rest of their lives.

One way to frame this problem is to think of the language of faith as something like a second language in our culture. And how do you learn a second language? You learn a second language by listening to others who know how to speak it well, and having a chance to practice it yourself. I don't know how much teens are hearing other people speak the language well, and it really struck us in our research that very few teens are getting a chance to practice talking about their faith. We were dumbfounded by the number of teens who told us we were the first adults who had asked them what they believed. One said: "I do not know. No one has ever asked me that before."

You point out that the very idea of religious truth is attenuated among teens, but in spite of that you found that few teenagers consistently sustain any kind of radical relativism.

Very few teens are hardcore relativists. In fact, they are quite moralistic. They will confidently assert that certain things are right or wrong. What they can't do is explain why that's the case, or what's behind their thinking. And again I think they've been given very little chance to practice thinking about why things are morally right or wrong. It's just asserted. To some degree, I think, public schools don't want to get into that. So what you have is a generation of young people who don't know how to explain why they think what's good and bad is good and bad.

You argue that "what legitimates the religion of most youth today is not that it is the life-transformative, transcendent truth, but that it instrumentally provides mental, psychological, emotional, and social benefits that teens find useful and valuable."

Yes, not only for the kids but also for their parents. The instrumental good has what you might call a public health justification. If I get my kid involved religiously, he will be less likely to do drugs, he'll get better grades, and will wear his or her seat belt. And I think a lot of parents are very interested in that, quite understandably.

In the United States we have a competitive religious economy. And I think a lot of religious organizations—consciously and unconsciously—make that instrumental pitch to families: we'll be good for you. Now it's an empirical fact that religious kids are doing better. There's nothing wrong with celebrating that. But when that becomes the key legitimation of what religion is all about, then that's a whole different matter.

Based on our findings, I suggest that the de facto religious faith of the majority of American teens is "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." God exists. God created the world. God set up some kind of moral structure. God wants me to be nice. He wants me to be pleasant, wants me to get along with people. That's teen morality. The purpose of life is to be happy and feel good, and good people go to heaven. And nearly everyone's good.

The god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, you write, "is primarily a divine Creator and Law giver. He designed the universe and establishes moral law and order. But this God is not Trinitarian; he did not speak through the Torah or the prophets of Israel, was never resurrected from the dead, and does not fill and transform people through his Spirit. This God is not demanding. He actually can't be, since his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist."

Yes, there is very little particularity in this de facto faith. It's specifically designed, so to speak, to help people who are very different to get along with each other. You don't have to get too personally involved with this God. But when there is a problem—when you need him—he will solve it as soon as you snap your fingers or ring the bell. Many teens explain their faith in these terms: "you know, there is a god out there, and when I get in trouble I think about that." The rest of the time God's irrelevant. So the deism is qualified by the therapeutic.

This is true even among evangelicals?

A good proportion of conservative Protestant teens articulated just that.

They believe being religious is about being good and it's not about forgiveness?

It's unbelievable the proportion of conservative Protestant teens who do not seem to grasp elementary concepts of the gospel concerning grace and justification. Their view is: be a good person.

Somehow that seems better than the alternative. Teenagers don't know much about anything--hardly surprising they'd not have particularly well-developed theologies. How many great theologians weren't even believers when young?

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 6, 2005 6:50 PM

The idea that all teenagers are supposed to rebel the way teens did in the period between 1967 and 1971 is encased in amber among the intellectual set as the way it always is, even though it hasn't been that way for over 30 years. That's why results like this are always so "shocking" to that same group, or in the more purely political mode, why the Democrats were so stunned back in November that the rebellious 18-year-old voters didn't rise up to throw George W. Bush and his faith-based ideas out of office.

Posted by: John at January 6, 2005 7:54 PM

Being religious is about being good. It's just too bad that none are good enough, no not one.

Posted by: Randall Voth at January 7, 2005 6:45 AM

The odd blend of Caesaropapism and antinomiamism which the extreme Protestant position so easily slips into is so counter-intuitive that the Church had evolved the Purgatory doctrine to make sense of the concept of justification sola fide.

Catholics believe in jutification by faith in Christ, but have this whole complicated thing about temporal punishment due to sin to tie together human yearning for justice and those inconvenient Bible verses which seem to indicate that it really does matter what we do. A lot of Evangelicals resolve this problem with a literal intepretation of some lines about one's good works being "garments" that one gets to wear in Heaven, and preach sermons about people who are believers but do no good works being naked in the afterlife.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 7, 2005 11:41 AM