Those who know and rightly admire the adroit sociological analysis of Christian Smith and Melinda Denton’s groundbreaking 2005 study of the religious lives of teenagers, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers will surely also want to read carefully this new study. A Faith of Their Own is based on a second wave of surveys and in-depth interviews of parents and teenagers in the National Study of Youth and Religion.
The same teenagers, first interviewed in 2002, when they were between 13 and 17 years old, were followed up in 2005, three years later, to determine what if any religious changes took place as the teenagers began to drive their own cars, engage in nonmarital sex or cohabitation, and grow closer to planning their educational and career aspirations.
Lisa D. Pearce and Melinda Lundquist Denton have written a most helpful book. Their main thesis is that religiosity among teenagers (as among adults) is multidimensional. It does not lend itself to crude uni-dimensional indices of low versus high, without further ado. They postulate a threefold index for religiosity based on content, conduct and centrality. To assess content they probed respondents’ belief in God (and the kind of God they believed in: personal and engaging versus more detached or even just a cosmic principle) and belief in the exclusiveness of their religion (few American teenagers think there is only one true religion). For conduct, they analyzed responses about religious attendance, private individual prayer and helping as a volunteer. Finally, to assess centrality they used three measures: importance of religion to the respondent; how close he/she felt to God; and what each thought was the meaning of life.
Although the authors drew mainly from surveys, their intent was to hew as closely as they could to “lived religion.” They knew that most respondents are not totally consistent across the three measures. They can be strong in attending services (perhaps under parental pressures) but weak in claiming religion is important. Conversely, many who attend church only sporadically may pray daily, say religion is important to their lives and think often about the deepest meaning of life.
Based on their measures, Pearce and Denton profile five distinct religious types: abiders, adapters, assenters, avoiders and atheists. Abiders tend to come from intact families whose parents also attend services regularly. They do show a kind of congruence across content, conduct and centrality measures. They are, in one sense, the most religious (although the authors shy away from narrowly comparative judgments on religiosity). But they also show a kind of vulnerability when doubts arise. As the authors note: “When those who are highly religious become less religious, they tend to do so across the board, not just in public religious practice.”
Adapters are more likely to pick and choose among religious beliefs and, compared with abiders, are more lax in attendance at weekly services, although they may be more fervent in personal prayer than abiders, more likely to volunteer and stronger in claiming religion is central to their lives. Often enough, adapters may come from broken families or families of a lower income status, where parents may have night or weekend jobs that make church attendance difficult. The authors remind us that not all religious disengagement is a personal choice of the adolescent.
Assenters are lower on the centrality of religion to their lives or on personal prayer than the adapters, although their attendance at religious services may look the same.
Avoiders believe in God but in other ways avoid religion. Not that they oppose it, but the avoiders seem to have a congruence in their behaviors that displays initiative and ambition. There are few teenage atheists.
Overall, most teenagers (81 percent) in the second wave surveys remained in the same profile type they were in earlier. Continuity is the stronger characteristic of teenage religiosity than change. When change occurs, it tends to be one rung downward on the ladder: e.g., from abider to adapter or from an adapter to assenter. Some religious types (e.g., abiders) are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as drug or alcohol use and premarital sex.
Pearce and Denton also probe the role of peers, parents and religious institutions in supporting or helping teenage religiosity. As the earlier study, Soul Searching, showed, most teenagers are largely inarticulate about their beliefs. Often enough they are moralistic deists. Nor do they talk very much with their peers about religion.
Parents’ religiosity and roles are crucial. Religiously practicing parents more likely inspire practicing teenagers. Teenagers who report being close to one or both parents are more likely to be abiders or adapters than lower on the scale. Parents who pray daily for their children are more likely to have religious children. Key also is what the authors call “scaffolding.” This refers to parental help, guidance and their ability to talk to and give congruent and useful support for their children both in religious exploration and in dealing with their doubts and questions and achieving autonomy.
One key finding of the study is that teenagers who successfully personalize their own religion (as opposed to just acting out their parents’ expectations) were more likely to claim they had become more religious over the three-year span of the surveys than less, even if their religious attendance at church was more sporadic. Under-scaffolding (parental neglect or absence) and over-scaffolding are equally bad. Restrictive approaches that do not allow honesty about teenagers’ questions and doubts are not helpful.
The role of congregations in teenage religiosity was also probed. Two questions sought answers to whether teenagers found their local parish/congregation’s services boring and whether there were adults in the parish with whom the teenager could honestly talk about religious questions, including doubts. Most teenagers reported positive responses about their local congregation.
As a sociologist of religion, I would strongly recommend A Faith of Their Own to my confreres for its supple methodology for measuring and tracking religiosity. As a parish priest I would also recommend it highly to parents who may be perplexed or confused about their teenagers’ religiosity. I would especially urge religious educators of youth and/or youth ministers in parishes to peruse its findings.