God? Sure, whatever

A new book says that 80 percent of American teens believe in God -- but their God is a buddy who props up their self-esteem, and many don't even know who Jesus was.

Published April 30, 2005 2:34AM (EDT)

Between the real-life stories of lonely kids shooting their way out of despair, and culture makers who can't stop fetishizing teen disaffection, it's hard to imagine adolescence as anything other than a time of surly skepticism. But according to the National Study of Youth and Religion, a random survey of nearly 3,300 American teens aged 13 to 17 from all across the country and from varying socioeconomic backgrounds, most kids aren't quarreling with the cosmos -- 80 percent of them believe in God, and only 3 percent of them don't. More than six in 10 kids say they'd attend church several times a month if it were entirely up to them. They like their congregations -- but they don't want to be confused with Ned Flanders.

The survey was conducted over the phone and in person in 2002 and 2003 by a team of sociologists headed by Christian Smith, a professor at the University of North Carolina. Their findings can be found in the book "Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers," which Smith coauthored with Melinda Lundquist Denton.

Smith and his colleagues discovered that while three-quarters of their subjects professed to be Christians, they're dazed and confused when it comes to articulating their beliefs. "We go to church, and ... God is coming back again and he'll take us to heaven. And what was the other one?" was a typical attempt. One 14-year-old girl, through barely contained yawns, pointed to her Internet and cable connections as proof of God's goodness. And she wasn't the only one who saw God as a big cable guy in the sky. Most kids' faith, says Smith, takes the form of what he calls moralistic therapeutic deism -- God is an undemanding, all-fulfilling entity existing only to help us feel better about ourselves.

Salon talked to Smith, who has also written extensively about evangelical Christianity, about the inner lives of teenagers and the potential costs of their slacker spirituality.

You found that when teens do experiment with religion, they're not flirting with Buddhist or Wiccan practices -- in fact, less than one-third of 1 percent of the kids you spoke to identified themselves as either Buddhist or Wiccan. They're trying on Christianity instead. Did that surprise you?

Yes, very much. There's a lot in the media and books about spiritual seeking and people identifying themselves as "spiritual but not religious," so we expected to see that more. But if you stand back and think about it, mathematically Christianity is the dominant religion, and if you're any minority religion you're going to be surrounded by Christianity.

Do you think, mathematics aside, teens are looking into it because they think they might find community or because their Christian peers seem happier?

Well, any of that would go along with the mathematics. Say your parents were immigrants from East India and you have a Hindu background. It's not necessarily that your Christian friends are happier, but activities are going to be more available -- summer camps, friends going on a retreat. And so it's not like Christians are always smiling, it's that there are just so many opportunities to get involved with Christianity and those opportunities connect with friendships. Let me put it another way -- if you're a minority religion, especially one that isn't super well-organized, it's just harder to construct a whole life that the religion makes sense in.

There are two basic options when you're a minority religion. One is to construct an isolated subculture or counterculture that you can center your whole life on -- so you would have to be like the Amish, or Orthodox Jews in New York. You'd have to be part of an encapsulated community. But most people can't or don't do that and so that means that they are constantly exposed to values and practices of cultures different from their religion, and then that presents a challenge that they have to continually evaluate -- they have to continually decide how to respond. Do they resist? How? Do they acculturate? It could also be, and I don't have data on this, but most teens just want to fit in. They want acceptance, and so with teens of minority faiths, who have to deal with the ubiquity of Christianity, and have these cultural markers that are basically like neon signs that say, "I'm different, I'm weird," many of them don't want that.

There are so many accessories for Christian kids -- Christian rock, T-shirts with cheeky slogans, niche-marketed Bibles. Nearly half of the teens you surveyed said they'd worn jewelry or clothing with a religious message and nearly half listened to religious music. How did these accessories figure into their faith?

The percentages of kids having a favorite rock band or wearing a cross or clothing in meaningful ways were higher than I imagined. But again, these things were just part of the general fabric of their lives. I would connect this to, as I do in the book, living in a mass consumer capitalist society where everything gets commodified. Some of us sociologists think of our country's religious system as a religious economy. And it's competitive. There isn't a state church that you need to go and pay your taxes to. You can choose where you want to go, so congregations and pastors are in a market where they're trying to get followers. The believer is the consumer, essentially.

Adults, you say, view teens as living in an embattled subculture roiling with alienation. But you found that the majority of American teens were content to follow the faith they inherited and seemed to think that it was self-evident that kids would accept what their parents had taught them -- they had no real desire to assert their independence by finding a different religion.

This was another thing that really ,surprised us -- how conventional they were. Because teenager and rebellion are virtually synonymous in popular thinking. But they said, "This was how I was raised, what do you expect?" Baby boomers' main experience was not being like their parents -- changing the world, fostering cultural revolutions, breaking boundaries, thinking if you're over 30 you're evil. So their children grow up with parents who still imagine adolescence in terms of rebellion. But it's not the same world as, say, 1964. There are fewer boundaries that need to be broken through. So teens have parents who still have those particular notions of what it's like to be a teen but the teens themselves, I think, wish for more boundaries and structure than they have. And that's partly coming from what we heard in interviews and partly from what we know about psychology and human behavior, what we know about what humans need to thrive -- they need structure.

You say that teens' "benign whateverism" is a bigger problem for communities of faith than teen rebellion. Why? And can you define that?

The benign part is that they see religion as generally good for people. It doesn't hurt you -- at the very least, if you enjoy it, it can produce positive results and help you to be moral. And so they're pretty positive about religion on that score -- as long as nobody's forced to do it. And then the whateverism is that religion's not that important. It's not worth getting all that worked up about. If someone wants to do it, good. Their parents go to church now and then, most of their friends say, "Sure, God, that's fine, whatever," and it's not this kind of active, foregrounded, important belief. It's just sort of part of the furniture. You wouldn't have an argument about it in the same way you're not going to have arguments about the wallpaper in your dining room -- it's just there.

Another thing that surprised us was how inarticulate they were when it came to talking about these matters. So many Christian teens of all denominations couldn't talk about the most elementary Christian beliefs. Most of the highly devoted teens were certainly more articulate. But I would say maybe a majority of the regular or even sporadic church attenders certainly would just not be able to answer elementary questions. For example, they'd answer "Who is Jesus?" with "I don't know."

You say that teens were more articulate when discussing their views on drugs or pregnancy or AIDS. Why do you think that is?

There are two factors behind their increased articulacy when discussing their views on drugs and other problems, and they're both related. One is that these are things that could wreck their lives, things that could ruin their futures -- you die in a car crash because you were drinking. Well, they think about that. And it's also because the adult world has communicated to them, effectively and over time, that you need to pay attention to this, this is important. We don't want you getting herpes and AIDS, we don't want you killing yourself and other people driving drunk, we don't want you getting pregnant. The adult world has taken an interest and said we have got to educate them about this. And they are educated about this. So the larger point is teens are educable, they can be taught. But adults have got to decide, "Religion matters, and we're going to teach them why this matters."

Your study found that teens often subscribe to the philosophy of moralistic therapeutic deism -- the belief that God exists to help us out, that God largely exists to boost our self-esteem -- and this is how God is often imagined in the evangelical community. I'm wondering, since you've studied and written on evangelical beliefs, how much of this philosophy is coming from those churches?

There are things in the evangelical subculture that feed directly into moralistic therapeutic deism. One is the personal relationship with Jesus, and that's a big theme. And originally evangelicals intended that to mean you make a personal commitment to Christianity. But that can turn into thinking that Jesus is your buddy, Jesus is a pal, Jesus helps you out. Another thing is evangelicalism's insistence that your faith should have to do with all parts of your life and I think that makes for a strong religious tradition in some ways, but it also can easily slide into thinking like, "I prayed for a parking spot and God gave it to me." Basically, instead of thinking, "I'm living my life with God," it can easily turn into something self-centered: "I want God to fix all my problems and meet all my needs."

Another piece of evangelicalism is the whole seeker church or church growth movement, which is very much about finding out what the customer wants and delivering it. This redefines faith not as a truthful tradition that people need to get onboard with and respond to, but as a consumer commodity that is out there to meet individual needs and wants. The seat of authority then is the unchurched Joe in whatever suburb who may have an itch in his life for something different, and some church will come along and say, "Come here, there's no demands, you can dress however you want, we'll entertain you." All these things feed into moralistic therapeutic deism. And I would say -- and this is getting more theological here -- but I would say that they're all distortions of practices and precepts that are intended to be good.

Did moralistic therapeutic deism color the way they viewed politics?

We didn't ask specifically about their views on issues of the day, but from interviews I can tell you they're fairly apolitical. We did ask them what they were excited about or interested in so there would have been opportunities to discuss things like this at length if they wanted to, and the more extreme liberal or conservative teens did have more thought-out positions on things like abortion. There's a minority who are interested in politics, but a majority think it doesn't have anything to do with their life. If life is about being happy, and as long as politics isn't impinging directly on your happiness, they're not going to think about it. If they did have, for example, patriotic views, it would be because they were from a generally patriotic family. What's really pressing, we found, are things like who are they going to sit with in cafeteria, did they get good grades, did they make the play? They hear about Iraq in news, and they may feel bad about the people dying, but these are not the immediate pressing concerns.

According to your results, 11 percent of highly devoted teens have engaged in oral sex and 9 percent have had intercourse -- and they've had an average of about three sexual partners. How did they reconcile sex with prescribed chastity?

Well, if you expect the numbers to be zero then that's a high number. But if you compare it to the national norm for teens [according to the most recent figures from the CDC about 30 percent of teens aged 15-17 have had intercourse] then it's somewhat lower. With some of them we don't know when they became devoted -- they may have been involved in a relationship when they were 14 but when they were 15 they got serious about religious faith. Some amount of kids are sincere and committed about faith and it's just that stuff happens, which they may regret or they may not. Then there are some kids who are highly compartmentalized -- they may be highly religious and go to youth group but in some other area in their life there's contradictory stuff going on. The culture sends signals that say you have a human right to sexual fulfillment as long as you're ready and comfortable, and this is natural, there's no reason why it should be repressed. So for a lot of teens sex is not a moral issue, it's about A) are you being safe and B) do you really like the person. We asked everyone, "Does your faith have anything to teach about sexual behavior?" I interviewed some Catholic teens that told me the church has no teaching on sexuality. They weren't aware that this was an issue. Sex was one thing you do under certain conditions and religion was something else.

One 16-year-old boy in the book said his faith became stronger when he saw his prayers for his drug-addicted father answered. "I was like, if God can do that, than he can do other things too," he says. It's as if he sees God as an appliance -- or, as you say, a "divine butler." Of those 16 percent of kids who considered themselves non-religious, did you find that they ever gave up when God didn't function as an appliance?

The vast majority just see that God comes through. There were a few kids who said, "Where the heck is God? He's not doing what he's supposed to do." But most non-religious kids didn't put it that way. They just said, "Oh, I'm just not interested." They didn't say, "You know, I asked God for my brother to be healed and he wasn't, so I'm pissed off." They didn't say that. The whateverism is also on the not religious side -- their attitude is, "I've got nothing against it, I'm just not interested."

Were you heartened at all in talking to these kids? It seemed like even if they were encountering trouble in their lives they really did want to be good.

Unless we were deceived by these interviews, and I don't think we were, teenagers really do have this sense that you should be good, you should be nice, you should be trying to do well. They link being good and doing well. You're probably not going to do well in life if you're a complete screw-up and immoral. They're oriented toward being a good person and that God is out there -- which, compared to being neo-Nazis or Nietzschean nihilists, is great. It's just that it doesn't have much rootedness -- you ask them why and they don't know.

What consequences do you think this lack of rootedness will eventually produce?

Without roots, people become vulnerable to ideologues and demagoguery. Like the one kid we mention in the book who started off our in-person interview saying you should treat everyone lovingly. But then later in the conversation said, "Well, evolutionarily, if you had to kill a bunch of people, that's fine too." That's scary. He hasn't been trained in moral reasoning. Teens can't give a good argument so they're left with asserting. And assertions only go so far.

Why is it important for teens to be able to reason in a religious context?

Articulacy matters if you're interested in having teens and people who are serious and committed and know what they're doing with their faith. This claim of mine that it is important is somewhat Christian oriented, Christianity being in general more focused on cognitive belief, as compared to Buddhism, or Judaism, which has evolved in such a way that it can be more focused on family and community and identity. And I'm coming from a certain philosophical position, which is that if we can't articulate our beliefs, belief can only be so real. So if these teenagers grow up, and they have kids, and when their kids want to know why are certain things right and wrong or say, "Why should I believe anything you're telling me?" what substance will they have to explain why? And what will our churches look like 10 generations from now? The congregation of We Don't Really Know.

By Carlene Bauer

Carlene Bauer is an editor at Elle magazine.

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