Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers

By Gortner, David T. | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers


Gortner, David T., Anglican Theological Review


Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. By Christian Smith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 346 pp. $25.00 (cloth).

Into popular conversations about "spiritual but not religious" American youth, Christian Smith hurls an unpopular reality-check: the demise of religion among teenagers has been greatly exaggerated. Soul Searching presents an in-depth suminary and analysis of the National Study of Youth and Religion, the largest of its kind to focus on adolescent religion and spirituality. With its supplement, Portraits of Protestant Youth (available as a pdf file on the internet), the book provides a wealth of information for patient readers on how teenagers value, understand, internalize, and integrate religion and spirituality in their daily lives.

Christian Smith, who has been studying religious life in the United States from the early 1990s to the present, began the project on youth and religion at University of North Carolina and now directs it from the University of Notre Daine. In Soul Searching, Smith continues his careful sociological work, debunking popular myths that have unfortunately been taken up into theological education and strategic ministry, while also opening a window into adolescents' attitudes about religion and how religion shapes-and fails to shape-teenagers' decisions.

Smith offers several key assertions worth noting. (1) The "spiritual but not religions" mantra is largely unrecognized by most teenagers. Youth say that religion is important, and are at least moderately involved. (2) Mainline Christian and Jewish youth report very different (less) engagement with religion than conservative and Black Christian youth. Here, the supplementary Portraits reveals how Episcopalian youths' responses tend to drag down the mainline Christian subset: they report higher drug and sex use, less moral clarity in decision-making, lower church attendance, and more dubious views of people at church. (Thirty-five percent say that adults in our congregations are hypocrites.) (3) Teens seem compliant but unformed in religion, saying they believe what their parents believe while unable to state their religion's core beliefs. (4) Without clarity and internalized commitment to the stories, beliefs, and ideals of a particular religion, "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" becomes the default theological framework of adolescents. …

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