Saturday, December 15, 2007

Christian Smith's staggering findings among *conservative* Christian youth

Dr. Curry pointed these things out to us in his lectures on the subject:

Contemporary sociological research on the nature of adolescent religion, from Christian Smith's book: Soul Searching

I. Smith contends that there is a fair number of adolescents who claim that relig-ion is important in their lives and they engage in fairly regular religious practices, such as church attendance, prayer and devotional reading. Even though this is the case, adolescents don’t seem to be very aware of the character and nature of the religious commitments they claim to prize. He is dismayed by the overwhelming ignorance of teens and especially of those from conservative contexts.

A. “If there is indeed a significant number of American teens who are serious and lucid about their religious faith, there is also a much larger number who are remarkably inarticulate and befuddled about religion.” (27)

B. Conservative protestants seemed to fall short of any consensus on em-bracing historic conservative beliefs. Page 44 lists some of the confu-sion. “Likewise, significant portions of conservative Protestant youth are not assured about the existence of angels (21 percent report maybe or not at all), miracles (23 percent), life after death (38 percent), or the ex-istence of evil spirits (43 percent report maybe or not at all). On the other hand, 33 percent of conservative Protestant youth may or defi-nitely believe in reincarnation, 33 percent in astrology, 31 percent in communicating with the dead, and 21 percent in psychics and fortune-tellers. For a tradition that has strongly emphasized the infallibility or inerrancy of the Bible, the exclusive claims of conservative Christianity, and the need for a personal commitment of one’s life to God, some of these numbers are astounding.” 44

C. Smith points out some alarming trends among conservative protestant teens with regard to pluralism. “About half of their teens say that many religions may be true; more than one-third say it is okay to practice mul-tiple religions; more than one-quarter say it is okay to pick and choose one’s religious beliefs and not accept the teachings of one’s faith as a whole; and nearly two-thirds say a person can be truly religious and spiritual without being involved in a church…it certainly does appear to represent a large current-day gap between what most conservative Protestant pastors and leaders want their teens to assume and believe and what many conservative Protestant teens actually do assume and believe.” (77)

II. Smith contends that parents play the central role in the religious beliefs and practices of teens. That is teens are most likely to adopt the religious convictions and practices of their parents and hence the religious ex-pression of teens coincides with that of parents. The weaknesses in teen religious understandings most likely parallels the significant adults in their lives.

A. “…for a significant number of U.S. teens, religion and spirituality are not simply compartmentalized in church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, but are also expressed and shared in the family life of the home…For better or worse, most parents in fact still do profoundly influence their adoles-cents–often more than do their peers–their children’s apparent resis-tance and lack of appreciation notwithstanding…Most teenagers and their parents may not realize it, but a lot of research in the sociology of religion suggests that the most important influence in shaping young people’s religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught to them by their parents.” (56) “By normal processes of socialization, and unless other significant forces intervene, more than what parents might say they want as religious outcomes in their children, most parents most likely will end up getting religiously of their children what they themselves are.” (57) Religious teens tend to have many friends who share their religious values. (58) School does not seem to be a venue in which religion oc-cupies an overt place. (59) The authors suggest evidence that adults other than parents provide some religious connection and support for teens in their religious lives. (61)

III. The authors of the study find little evidence for teens who are spiritual seek-ers but who are not religious.

A. “Overall, therefore, our general conclusion based on these data remains the same: the phenomenon of spiritual seeking recently discussed by many observers of American religion is, according to the best available nationally representative evidence…very limited in the extent of its in-fluence among American teenagers. There clearly are some teenagers who think of themselves as spiritual but not religious and who behave in various ways like the new spiritual seekers that writers have discussed in recent years. But they appear to be a very small percentage of all U.S. teens. And even among them, it is not easy to find one who is clear and articulate about what it all means. It appears to be much more an amorphous feeling or sensibility than a specific idea or experience cata-lyzing a significant cultural or religious movement.” (83)

IV. Moralistic therapeutic deism appears to be the majority of teens whether from conservative or mainline denominations.

A. Smith summarizes moralistic therapeutic deism, what he calls the de facto religion of most teens, thusly: “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 it to be happy and 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 some problem. 5. God peo-ple go to heaven when they die.” (162, 163) He further notes these characteristics that moralistic therapeutic deism: “is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life…about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents…about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, cre-ated the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs–especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved.” (163, 164) Smith compares his moralistic therapeutic deism to Bellah’s notion of American Civil Religion, see 168-170.

B. Smith concludes that although many think teens are distinctive in their re-ligious views they share the views of most adults. “For it appears to us, another popular religious faith, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, is colo-nizing many historical religious traditions and, almost without anyone noticing, converting believers in the old faiths to its alternative religious vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and niceness…But we can say here that we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected tot he ac-tual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step cousin, Christian Moralistic Thera-peutic Deism.” (171)