Whale, whale, whale, whadda we have here. About a year ago, U Tx (San Antonio) sociologist Melissa Lundquist Denton and USC sociologist Richard Flory published an essay in the Christian Century, summarizing their recent research into the spiritual lives of American teenagers. The report meshes well with what I've seen in my own interactions with teens over the last 20 years, especially the interactions within the last 5 years or so. You really need to read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts that dovetail with what I've been writing: "For more than a decade scholars have been investigating the spiritual lives of teenagers and young adults in the US in a sustained research project called the National Study of Youth and Religion. In the latest installment in this project, we interviewed a range of emerging adults about their lives, their relationships, their hopes and dreams, and even their failures. The young adults responded in articulate and insightful ways about these aspects of their lives.
But their articulateness did not extend to talking about religion or spirituality. This inarticulacy has been noted over the life of the research project, starting when the subjects were teens. In the intervening years, their ability to articulate religious teachings and exactly what they believe doesn’t seem to have improved in any significant way." More:
Emerging adults are not alone in this trait; several studies have shown the limited state of religious knowledge among Americans in general. How can we explain this inability among emerging adults—and perhaps, more broadly, among Americans—to provide articulate answers to questions related to their religious and spiritual beliefs? In our view, there are three likely explanations that are each present, in different degrees, for different people.
First, and perhaps most obvious, there is a lack of knowledge about religion in general and their own religious traditions in particular. As was argued in the initial book in this research project, Soul Searching (by Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton), attaining religious knowledge is no different from learning other things: it takes an explicit effort. In short, religion needs to be taught.
Many emerging adults told us that their parents were “open” to religion but that it was not something that the parents actually required or encouraged, assuming instead that emerging adults would pursue it on their own if they were interested. We’ve also heard the emerging adults in this study talk in the same way about how they want to approach religion with their own children. As a result, to the extent that emerging adults have picked up on religious knowledge, it is in an incomplete way, and the knowledge they do have is tailored to their own interests and needs.
Second, religion just isn’t all that important to most emerging adults and competes with other responsibilities and commitments. Even for those who are otherwise religiously committed, the tendency is to maintain a level of commitment that is less demanding of their time and effort. As a completely voluntary institution, and one that can often require time and effort, religion loses out to more pressing demands. In turn, the less they are involved in religious institutions, of whatever sort, the less opportunity and interest they have to develop a bank of religious knowledge.
Finally, among those emerging adults who have maintained some relationship with religion, whether they can be categorized as committed, marginal, or disaffiliated, religious knowledge is not seen as something that needs to be explained. In our view, this approach is related to the way that emerging adults approach moral issues. Emerging adults consistently frame their moral decision making as something they “just know” or “feel.” A decision is right or wrong based on tacit knowledge that is felt rather than rationally articulated.
Similarly, while they may be fairly certain of their religious beliefs, they are only able to express the general contours of those beliefs, without many specifics. Their beliefs remain “taken for granted” or are an assumed part of their lives, and they are more or less accepting of their faith as they have experienced it growing up. Ideas about God and faith are things they “just know.” With some notable exceptions, emerging adults see no need to develop well-articulated beliefs because beliefs are just an intuitive part of the world in which they have always lived.
And finally: This (generalized spiritual) perspective (that emerging adults possess) can be described as a “do it yourself” religious or spiritual outlook, in which they both borrow and develop beliefs and morals from different religious traditions and larger cultural currents, without any need for greater involvement in or commitment to any particular religious tradition or for any actual coherence with these traditions.
They’ve picked up cues about religion from their youth and how they were raised, as well as from the larger culture, cues that are cobbled together into a highly individualized religious/spiritual perspective tailored to their own needs. For most emerging adults, this perspective operates mostly as the background assumptions of their daily lives but nonetheless informs how they understand the world.
We have identified seven core tenets of this general outlook: 1) karma is real, 2) everybody goes to heaven, 3) just do good, 4) it’s all good, 5) religion is easy, 6) morals are self-evident, and 7) no regrets.
They go into more detail following. Read it all; it is very insightful and accurate.
The article 100% describes the spiritual beliefs--if any--that young adults in my classes have. What's more, Christian students, who come from solid Christian families, who are leaders in their youth groups at church, are not appreciably different. Some do profess biblical beliefs with a little more articulateness, but not much, and the "do it yourself" religion holds sway over their minds more than you might first realize.
In a future post, I will share some thoughts on how youth pastors and parents can combat these trends.