What American Teenagers Believe

This interview with Christian Smith from Books and Culture highlights his recent research on American teens. Of his work, I’ve only read The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life, a very interesting book. His thesis there is that the secularization we see in our culture is not merely an accident, but in many cases had knowing agents working to make it happen. Secularization theory, he notes, is sort of an apologetic for the strategy of secularizers. I’d been inclined to think that was the case for some time, so it was nice to find some more support.

In this interview Smith tells of American teens who are more religious than he’d anticipated, but on average, not very articulate about their faith.

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.”

In most subjects where we want kids to learn something, we give tests: Math, Science, English, etc. These tests not only measure what the kids have learned, and how well the teacher has taught, but also in forcing the student to articulate knowledge, produce the knowledge itself. Considering the kind of god many believe in (see next paragraph), however, it will be hard to raise the level of expectations.

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.

This sounds like the god I see in many circles in America. This is the god who enjoins us who are church leaders to strive to meet “felt needs” above all. I understand the need to consider felt needs and “relevance” (one of those other gods we bow down to), but I am skeptical that all true needs are accurately felt and identified as needs.

It turns out when you look at the structure of teenagers’ lives, and their schedules, religion fits in a very small piece of all that. It’s actually amazing to me that religion has any effect in teenagers’ lives. Part of the structure, too, is that what really matters to teenagers is their socially significant relationships. If teenagers have socially significant relationships that cross at church, that cross with other families of believers, then that helps out a lot. But many teenagers have their socially significant relationships almost exclusively through school; even if they have friends at church, the youth group is a satellite out there on the fringe of their life, rather than at the center.

Teens are busy. Americans are busy. Nothing new here. It’s tough when kids are primarily socialized by their peers. Smith later notes the huge influence parents are on kids – good news – but I think we parents need to pay more attention to helping kids learn to articulate their faith.

One thing we need to do more strategically and systematically is challeneg our kids in a safe environment. When they go off to college their faith will be challenged. They will run into teachers and other elders who will tets them like never before, offering them a new set of answers, usually very different from those offered by the Christian faith. For too many kids this testing during college will be the first serious intellectual testing they receive. Since testing is a teaching tool, the lessons that testing will give them will not be conducive, in many instances, to continuing in the faith. I had the advantage of being aware of the reality of faith-testing before I started college, so I was prepared for the idea that I could (and should) argue with my professors. I had no trainign in HOW to argue, but knowing that I should, spurred me to extra study and learning. Since a truly healthy education process is about making the students hungry for learning and self-feeding at the trough of knowledge, the faith-challenges offered by professors are a good thing. But we in the churches need to equip our kids to handle them. I see no way top do that short of raising our expectations and challenging them ourselves now while we have them.

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