Believing What They Need To

Book cover
Soul Searchingby Christian Smith, with Melinda Lundquist Denton

Oxford Univ. Press. 346p $25


A generation ago, the rock band The Who venerated and mocked their spiritually restless Baby Boomer peers in their song The Seeker, bragging that I’ve got values but I don’t know how or why. According to a major new study of teenagers and religion, spiritual seekers have all but vanished, but that feisty quip about values is as true as ever.

Soul Searching is a major sociological report about the faith lives of American teenagers. The authors (the respected sociologist of religion Christian Smith, who teaches at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, assisted by Melinda Lundquist Denton) present the results of the most comprehensive study of teenage faith ever attempted. Over 3,300 teens were surveyed by phone, and another 267 were subjects of personal follow-up interviews.

Through summary charts, brief biographical narratives and rich quotations, the authors present a clear, surprising picture of contemporary teenage faith. Far from being spiritual but not religious seekers, teens are inordinately conventional in their faith. They profess to enjoy being religious, or at least they lack suspicion about it. Mostly they believe what their parents believe, affirm seeking in theory but almost never do it in practice and do not bother to talk to one another in depth about faith or to be too concerned about what their professed traditions actually teach. They do not want to offend publicly anyone else’s faith (or lack thereof); they want to believe only what works for them. And teens, the researchers discovered, want religion to provide them with health and wealth, an American-style happiness.

Smith and Denton coin a phrase for this faith: moralistic therapeutic deism. By this they mean that teens like to make value judgments but are highly inarticulate in defending them; they use their faith to further their own sense of individual entitlement; and they imagine God as indifferent to or unable to be involved in worldly affairs in general, or their own moral decisions in particular. The teen credo that cuts across denominations is: Believe what you need to believe in order to fulfill yourself. Far from inventing this new religion, however, they learned it from their culture through their moralistic, therapy-oriented deist parents.

A (darkly) humorous subtheme in the book is that teen religious devotion is highly correlated with positive personal and social outcomes. The more religious teens are, the more they have good relationships with parents, healthy self-esteem, success in work endeavors and are generally well-adjusted. The authors admit that perhaps moralistic therapeutic deism bears partial responsibility for these outcomes.

Catholic teens come out the worst of all Christian groups in this study, far behind the high measures of religious devotion among conservative Protestants and others. In a finding that will surprise no one who has spent time with churched and unchurched young Catholics, Smith and Denton argue that these teens are at best only marginally literate in their religion or involved in it. The authors suggest that the Catholic Church should not be surprised by this embarrassing showing, when it has invested so little of its overall resources in reaching youth and does not measure its own excellence in its relationship to younger generations.

Because theologians often smuggle in sociological claims dressed as truth, it is probably only fair that sociologists make theological assertions, too. But the reader should be careful in this regard. Soul Searching offers interpretations of the data and exhortations to pastoral action that are too frequently theologically uncritical, ahistorical or simply uncreative. For example, they too quickly categorize certain teen professions of faith as New Age, biblical or orthodox. They also needlessly box teens in with some questionsby asking, for example, whether or not the whole of a faith tradition must be believed (an ill-conceived and useless dichotomy).

The authors seem to have little appreciation for the vicissitudes of everyday faith manifested by all people, not only teens. To heighten a sense of crisis, for example, Smith and Denton fall back on vague references to historically orthodox teachings contained in official doctrines that are not being learned by today’s teens, as if a narrow canon of teachings was at some verifiable point in the past believed by all or most of the faithful in the same way. Tellingly, they never consider that contemporary teen belief may have something substantially spiritually constructive, not just alarming, to teach the larger church.

Despite these theological defects, this study is illuminating and essential reading for anyone who interacts with teenagers today. Soul Searching is a landmark work that should lead to serious self-examination in families, schools and faith communities across the country. Smith and Denton’s bold, readable and challenging interpretation of what teens actually believe leaves none of usleast of all teens themselveswith the option of a dismissive whatever.

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