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Soul SearchingThe Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers$

Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780195180954

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2005

DOI: 10.1093/019518095X.001.0001

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God, Religion, Whatever

God, Religion, Whatever

On Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

(p.118) 4 God, Religion, Whatever
Soul Searching

Christian Smith (Contributor Webpage)

Melinda Lundquist Denton

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores American adolescents’ thoughts, beliefs, and feelings about and experiences of religious faith and spirituality, drawing from interviews of 267 teens in 45 states. In most cases, teenage religion and spirituality in the US can be seen as a reflection of the world of adult religion, especially parental religion. Few teenagers are rejecting or reacting against the adult religion into which they are being socialized. Rather, most are living out their religious lives in very conventional and accommodating ways.

Keywords:   American teenagers, teens, adolescents, religious faith, religion, spirituality

THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE for talking with someone for a long time if you hope to understand him or her. Surveys are very useful for providing big-picture descriptions of and sorting out associations between different variables in human life and society. But surveys alone rarely provide enough insight to really understand people's lives. To get beyond the surface descriptions that surveys provide, to get to the important experiences, feelings, contradictions, processes, and complex layers of meaning in most people's lives requires using other methods, such as directly observing and talking with people at length. To better understand the lives of U.S. teenagers, therefore, we traveled around the country to the rural areas, towns, and cities where many of the teens we surveyed live—to 267 teens in 45 states, to be exact, as shown by the map in figure 1—and sat down and talked with these teens at length about many subjects. We also took notes on observations we made about many of the teens we interviewed: about their neighborhoods, interactions with parents, clothing, attitudes, whatever seemed worth noting.

In this chapter we report on what we found, exploring a variety of key themes around adolescent religion and spirituality that emerged from our in-depth interviews. Here we provide an important clarifying follow-up to the survey data presented in the two previous chapters, broadening, deepening, and sharpening our understanding. Much of what follows significantly qualifies the survey numbers we examined earlier; some of it helps us better interpret or put into context the numbers above; and some of it pushes well past what the survey questions addressed. In all cases, the survey findings should be interpreted in light of this chapter's interview findings, as the interview findings must be framed by the survey findings. We need to combine every methodological means at our disposal to portray as complete a sociological picture as possible of the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers.

The analysis that follows is organized around a number of major themes emerging from our 267 teen interviews. Each of the themes highlights a dominant tendency among U.S. teenagers on various concerns. Each thematic central tendency is also typically flanked on two sides by minority voices representing alternative experiences and views. We thus represent both the typical teen voice that surfaced in our interview discussions, as well as a range of divergent perspectives.


Perhaps the most widespread and persistent stereotype about teenagers in American culture is that they are intractably rebellious. In U.S. culture, the very ideas of “teenagers” and “rebellion” are virtually synonymous. Decades of psychological theorizing about adolescents in the twentieth century, based primarily on observation of adolescent psychological patients, not coincidentally, portrayed the teenage years as inevitably rocked by “storm and stress.” For decades, experts taught that adolescence is a time of radical identity change, emotional upheaval, and relational conflict. Thus, in the late 1950s, Sigmund Freud's psychologist daughter, Anna Freud, wrote about teenagers, “To be normal during the adolescent period is by itself abnormal.”1 By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the youth and adults of an entire era came to understand themselves as caught in the crisis of a “generation gap.”2 In more recent decades, adolescents have been habitually framed as “alien creatures” from another planet, who inhabit a “teenage wasteland” and whose rebellion and craziness parents and other adults can only attempt to “survive.”3 Teens today are also framed as “monsters among us,” psychopathic freaks driven by “raging hormones” and teetering on the knife edge of frenzied, violent destruction.4 Although academic adolescent researchers have more recently come significantly to revise this picture of normal adolescence,5 many books about teenagers and religion continue to employ the “storm and stress” master frame in ways that set teenagers' religious values and interests in opposition to those of adults. They depict youth as “alone,” “disillusioned,” “irreverent,” uniquely “postmodern,” belonging to something that is “next” and “new,” and “in search of an authentic faith” different from that of existing adult religion, which simply “isn't cutting it.”6 Such stereotypical cultural frames lead to the clear impression that, when it comes to faith and religion, contemporary teenagers are deeply restless, alienated, rebellious, and determined to find something that is radically different from the faith in which they were raised.

But that impression is fundamentally wrong. What we learned by interviewing hundreds of different kinds of teenagers all around the country is that the vast majority of American teenagers are exceedingly conventional in their religious identity and practices. Very few are restless, alienated, or rebellious; rather, the majority of U.S. teenagers seem basically content to follow the faith of their families with little questioning. When it comes to religion, they are quite happy to go along and get along. The popular images of storm and stress, generation gap, and teen rebellion may describe the religious orientations and experiences of most teenagers of prior generations, but they do not accurately portray the religious realities of most teenagers in the United States today.

“Just How I Was Raised”

Teenage religious conventionality is most evident in the way contemporary U.S. teens talk about their own religious identity, interests, and beliefs and where these come from. The vast majority of the teenagers we interviewed, of whatever religion, said very plainly that they simply believe what they were raised to believe; they are merely following in their family's footsteps and that is perfectly fine with them. This typical mentality is evident in the following exchange with a 16-year-old white mainline Protestant boy from Oregon (I stands for interviewer, T for teen):

I: Okay, where do you think you get your ideas of what God's like?

T: From my parents.

I: From your parents.

T: What they've told me.

I: And have your parents told you very much about that, or … ?

T: No, just kind of what I've figured from them.

I: Okay. And what religion, if any, do you consider yourself to be now?

T: Christian.

For most of the teens we interviewed, many of their answers to our religion questions were just as cut-and-dried as that. To the vast majority of teenagers, it was obvious that a teenager would naturally follow and believe what his or her parents believe. When asked how his beliefs compare to his parents', for instance, this 13-year-old black Protestant boy from Ohio answered, “Not different. I don't know what I'm gonna believe in [the future]. I'm guessing they're just going to be what my parents do, but that's about it.” Similarly, when asked about religious influences in his life, this 15-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from Texas responded, “Like I said, I grew up with it, in a Christian home and it's always been that.” And this 14-year-old East Indian Hindu girl from California said the most important influences in her life are “My parents, mostly, because I look at them and want to be like them.”

Some teens, such as this 14-year-old black Protestant girl from Pennsylvania, were more conscious and appreciative of their parental religious socialization: “I was raised Christian. My mom is a sucker about God, oh my goodness, everything you say, she says, 'Take it to God, take it to Jesus,' and I do it and it works. I'm a Christian, she is a Christian. She has raised me right. She says, 'That's what God wants you to do,' then you do it. She wants me to be the best I can be, but also to know that the way you live has to be a Christian way.” When we asked if her religious beliefs were any different from her mother's, she replied: “I don't think we have any different beliefs. I don't want to say I'm not in the mind-set to think on my own, yet when it comes to that I think that she paves the way for what I think. Because she'll say something to me that doesn't make sense, but as I get older it starts making sense, and then I start to listen to what she says more often than I'll listen to others. I just think everything that has to do with Christians, she's right, in my opinion. Even if someone else is right, I'll think she's right, because I'm just biased when it comes to her, so I just, I stick with her.” Most teens, however, are more likely simply to take for granted their parents' influence on their own religious identity and beliefs. Their answer to many questions about the main religious influences in their lives most often are “Just my parents,” “Parents and church,” “My parents, actually,” and “I guess my family.” We observed no variance in such teens' answers by teen age, sex, race, or other factor.

Religious conventionality was also evident in teen reports of actual and ideal religious service attendance, as illustrated by our exchange with this 14-year-old white Catholic girl from Florida:

I: How often do you go to church?

T: Every Sunday.

I: And do you like that?

T: Yeah.

I: If you could go as much or as little as you wanted, how often would you go?

T: Every Sunday.

There are, of course, some disgruntled teenagers who would much prefer to sleep through their religious services. But the majority, as we also saw in table 6 of chapter 2, seem to be just fine with attending religious services at the same congregation and with the same frequency as their parents.

On the ultraconventional side of this dominant group of family-following teenagers were a small minority who seemed to think that teenagers should not even yet have their own, independent religious identity and beliefs. They conveyed the vague idea that sometime in the future they would probably develop their own views, but that for now it is normal to simply mimic their parents' religious beliefs and practices without much thought. One 17-year-old white mainline Protestant boy from Michigan, for instance, reported, “Like when they tell us to give a silent prayer or something, I'll just try to pop something into my head, just to act like I'm doing something, even though nobody can tell. I guess just trying to fit in until I'm ready.” “Ready” meaning ready to get the religion thing figured out for himself sometime in the future.

On the other side of the family-following majority of conventional teenagers are a minority who no longer believe in the religion in which they were raised. Few of these unbelieving teens, however, as we are about to see, appear to make an issue of their divergent view with their parents. Some, such as Joy in chapter 1, do not even disclose their different views to their parents. Besides these, a very few other teens claim their own mind, not how they were raised, as the only source of their religious beliefs. One 17-year-old Hispanic Catholic girl from California, for instance, replied in answer to our question about where she gets her ideas about God, “Just my thoughts.” She denied that her ideas came from anywhere other than her own reflection. The same kind of approach is evident in our exchange with this 18-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from Wisconsin:

I: Where do you think you got these ideas about God?

T: Uh, personal beliefs.

I: Okay.

T: Whatever I've come to conclude.

I: Do your parents have any influence on that or … ?

T: Not really, no they haven't.

I: Have you ever talked to them about it?

T: Not really.

I: So, would you consider yourself to be any particular religion?

T: I don't really know. I know I'm one but I don't know what.

But such voices were a small minority. The vast majority of U.S. teenagers are simply not only not hostile to or rebellious against religion generally or the faith tradition of their parents specifically. They are also quite content to believe what their parents believe, what they've been taught to believe. In this way, for most teens, religion is taken as part of the furniture of their lives, not a big deal, just taken for granted as fine the way it is.

“Not Worth Fighting About”

As a result of this high degree of teenage religious conventionality, our interviews uncovered very little religious conflict between teens and their parents, other adults, or friends. The vast majority of youth reported that they largely share their parents' beliefs and have very little conflict with family members over religious matters. Again, the dominant mentality seemed to be to go along and get along, especially in families where all members embrace the same faith. But even in the minority of families where teens and parents overtly disagree religiously, religious differences rarely seemed to be a point of conflict. Consider, for instance, the account of this 15-year-old white Catholic boy from Georgia:

T: Well, I don't know about my brother 'cause I haven't talked to him about it, but the rest of my whole family is big on religion. And I'm just an “out there” atheist.

I: So you've become an atheist, but are your parents atheist?

T: No. I'm different from them in that way.

I: Is that a source of conflict at all?

T: Oh no. Not at all, no.

I: Okay. So does religion ever come up in conversation with your parents?

T: No.

This 13-year-old white Jewish boy from Washington, D.C., told a similar story:

T: Oh, everyone's is completely different when it comes to religion.

I: Completely different.

T: I'm probably closest to my sisters. But my parents, I'm completely direct opposite of my dad, closer to my mom, ah, but not really.

I: Would you say religion is a source of conflict or solidarity between people in your family?

T: Um, neither.

I: Neither.

T: It doesn't really come up that much. Religion's just not a big part of my family at all.

Finally, one 16-year-old white boy from New Mexico who thinks of himself as not religious explained that he, his father, and stepmother are all agnostics but that his mother is a Christian. When asked if that difference is a source of conflict with his mother, he answered, “No, it never is. No.”

In only a small handful of interviews did teenagers say religion was a source of conflict in their relationships. Usually the conflict in these cases sprang from doubtful teens questioning the beliefs or practices of parents whom they view as too religious. One 18-year-old white Mormon boy from Idaho, for example, said demands of their church create conflicts in his household: “It's a source of major conflict. My mother always puts church before family, like she would miss my graduation if there was a church activity scheduled at the same time. And my mom, dad, and I argue a lot over different religious rules that our church teaches.” A 13-year-old Hispanic Catholic girl told how her hyperreligious stepfather, an immigrant from Central America, forced her to learn and recite prayers from a book each night and how he yells at her and pulls on her ears when she stumbles over words in the prayer book. “He's too religious, he wants me to be exactly like him and is always talking about how they used to treat him when he was a boy. That's why he treats me this way now, too.” One 17-year-old black Protestant girl from Louisiana also talked about recurrent struggles with her mother about getting ready for church:

On Sunday mornings when we're trying to wake up, it is really hard for us to get out of the house, 'cause nobody's motivated to get up except for her. And we're like, “Just leave us here,” and she's like, “No, you have to go to church, you have to do this and that.” So we get up and go because she wants us to. If we had a choice I don't think we'd get up. And we do have disputes on certain topics. 'Cause she's one of those people who says, “No, that's not right because God says da da da,” and I'll be like, who cares what God says? [laughs] I mean, this is real life, you know what I'm saying? So, yeah, we just had a fight like that.

One 15-year-old Jewish boy from New Jersey also described conflicts with his mother over religion: “We have conflict over the God part and observances just because God wants you to. I tried for many years, but I just couldn't believe in it, even when I said I did, I didn't. And so I finally just admitted that to myself, and then when I told my Mom, that I don't need to be going to synagogue, I don't care, it's not something I want to do, she's like, 'Well when you move out you don't have to. I know you'll want to, I regret now that I didn't when I was a child.' It is a source of conflict, a lot. My dad doesn't get involved, just my mom, she does everything.” But, again, these stories nearly exhaust the very small number of cases we heard of religion-provoked family conflicts. And what teens said about lack of family conflict over religion also applies to their relationships with friends. Few U.S. teenagers today talk about religious matters with their friends, and far fewer get into arguments when they do. As one 17-year-old white Catholic boy from Connecticut, whose religious experience with friends is representative of very many teens (and whose story we tell in greater depth in chapter 6) put it, “Some of my friends are religious, but it really doesn't come into play with any of us, not at all in terms of our interactions. Religion may influence them. I have no idea, that sector of their lives is a lot different from interaction with me, they are different chapters.” Likewise, a 15-year-old Buddhist girl from Alabama told us about the religious life of her friends, “Um, we don't talk about religion so much.”

Thus, to rightly understand the religious and spiritual lives of the vast majority of U.S. teenagers, we need to see that religion is not a particularly contested or conflictive aspect of their lives. Rather, it is generally viewed by most teenagers, religious and nonreligious alike, as something that simply is, that is just not the kind of thing worth getting worked up about one way or the other.

“It's Good for Lots of People”

Another major dimension of widespread teenage religious conventionality is the benignly positive light in view of which nearly all U.S. teenagers see religion. Practically all teens at every level of personal religious involvement feel quite positive about religion generally and, when they are affiliated with one, about their own religious congregations specifically. Very few U.S. teenagers are rocking the boat when it comes to religion. Rather, most volunteer benevolent and amiable comments, such as that they “don't have anything against religion” and that “it is really good for a lot of people.” Most U.S. teenagers thus tend to view religion as a Very Nice Thing.

The substantial majority of U.S. teenagers expressed in interviews that religion is a positive force in individuals' lives, in society, or both. Most commonly, teenagers of all sorts contend that religion helps provide people with strong moral foundations. According to one 18-year-old Hispanic Catholic girl from California, “The moral system of religion is valuable. I think the whole support system is valuable.” Likewise, a 17-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from North Carolina maintained, “The morals that you learn, like don't kill people, that's a good thing in religion.” A 14-year-old white Jewish girl from Massachusetts said, “I think it's just important to have a belief system because I think it helps you, what you believe is how you live.” And this 13-year-old white mainline Protestant boy from Minnesota observed, “More people would do a lot more sin and stuff [without religion]. It helps people behave the better way.”

Next most frequently, U.S. teens think positively of religion simply because it “provides something to believe in”—for many, something of value regardless of the content of the belief itself. One 15-year-old mixed-race Catholic boy from Texas observed, “I guess it gives people motivation, it gives them something to believe in.” And this 15-year-old nonreligious white girl from Washington said, “Religion gives people something to believe in, something to hold on to. Not everybody needs it, but for people who do, it gives them something to believe in.” Other teens made a similar point by saying religion is good simply because it “gives people faith.” Yet other teenagers emphasized religion's value in providing people a connection or relationship with the divine, as one 16-year-old black Protestant boy from California remarked: “What's valuable in religion is the relationship between you and God, I guess.” Likewise, an 18-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from Arizona commended religion because “It's important to know who God is and who Jesus is, but also important to know who you are as a person and how you related to God and Christ.”

Other teenagers, such as this 18-year-old white nonreligious boy from Colorado, stressed religion's positive merit in “helping people”: “Just to help people, I think that's really important. A religion should really try to help people, I feel like, anyway.” Similarly, this 16-year-old white Catholic boy from Florida stated, “The important thing in a religion is connecting yourself to the spiritual side of yourself and fulfilling that. That's the reason for religion, to make it possible for people to fill the gaps that nature can't explain. As long as you do that, that's the only purpose of religion.” A few teens, as with this 15-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from Alabama, claimed that religion is good because it helps people specifically to go to heaven and not go to hell: “People should always have religion, 'cause when you die you can either go to heaven or hell, and if you don't believe that there's a God then you're gonna have a really bad life and there's no way to change that.” A few other teens stressed the good of religion as the community relationships provided by churches, prayer, the Bible, and other miscellaneous religious practices or benefits. For the majority of teenagers, however, religion is a positive good simply because it “gives people morals” and provides “something to believe in.” Most of the teenagers we talked with seemed to truly value and appreciate religion for helping accomplish those things.

Even most nonreligious teens we interviewed seem very open to religion, not belligerent about it. Typically, nonreligious teens are quite appreciative and interested in religion, even if they say it is “not for them.” Consider, for example, the following quotes of boys and girls representing every age, race, social class, and region of the country, all of whom, bear in mind, identify themselves personally as not religious:

Religion gives people a good foundation, it's a great moral foundation for people who don't have any, a spiritual foundation, it helps a lot of people.

It's important that people take religion as their own and interpret it as it helps them. It definitely gives people some ground, like my aunt for one. She was heavily into drugs, then found God and has calmed down. So it gives a lot of people hope. I don't believe in pushing anything on people, but if they choose it, then great. It's all up to them.

I think it's good to have something to hold on to and religion is a very personal thing, so I would never say that religion is not good or that it's stupid. It just depends on the person.

I think religion is important for people to have. All religions are meant for people to better themselves. That's one way that someone can try to be a better person, through organized religion, so I think that's important and really good for a lot of people. It's not for some people, but I can't think of it as a bad thing.

Religion is something that should happen in people's lives, it's a good thing—any religion, as long as you believe in God. Because it's just having faith and believing in God, makes you feel like a different person.

What's good is that it emphasizes how you treat other people. Just ethics in general could be good. The main message of most religions is to love each other. Though in some religions, women are treated with less respect than men and that's not cool.

I don't think you necessarily have to believe in God and go to church, but I do think you have to believe that there's something more powerful than you and some things you can't control. If you don't have something to believe in, there's just no point in waking up and going to work. If people without religion are happy, that's okay for them. But if they start feeling like there's something missing, then I think they should believe in something.

Religion teaches treating other people with respect, to show kindness. Religion should be a really strong thing, 'cause a lot of people are in gangs and stuff and if they had a religious influence that would be good.

Religion brings people together, it's a big support. The people in the church and stuff are really supportive. If you need anything, they're always there. It doesn't matter which religious faith, as long as they believe in God. My idea has always been as long as you believe in God, you're doing the right thing.

Religion's another thing that helps instill morals in people when they're young and I think it's important to see God in life. It always shows there's hope, it gives people hope and that kind of thing.

To be clear, not all nonreligious teenagers talked like this. Some did say that they think there is no particular value in religion. Some, for instance, said, “It's all made up” and “Not really, I mean most people think religion's good but I don't, I mean, to go to heaven you don't have to go to church.” But these were the minority of nonreligious teens. Most expressed rather open and positive views of religion, like those quoted above. In any case, whether they saw any value in religion or not, no nonreligious teen we interviewed launched any outright attacks on religion as ignorant, destructive, regressive, or needing to be repressed. If nonreligious teens had nothing good to say about religion, they typically just did not say much at all.

Thus, in their general outlooks, the vast majority of U.S. teenagers representing all religious commitments and persuasions express little if any rebellion against, aggravation with, or hostility toward religion, including organized religion. Rather, in keeping with their general religious conventionalism, the vast majority of U.S. teens view religion in a benignly positive light.

“What Do You Mean, 'Spiritual Seeking'?”

Part of the conventionality of contemporary teenage religion in the United States is evident in what we found regarding the lack of spiritual seeking among teens. As we already noted in chapter 3, any teenage interest in practicing the spiritualities of other faiths or being “spiritual but not religious” is present among only a very small minority of teens. Most, in fact, have not even heard of the spiritual but not religious mantra, and many of those who have do not really know what it means. Very few teenagers today have ever considered practicing other faiths. “Why would I ever want to do that?” seems to be the general attitude of the vast majority, even if they typically grant anyone else the right to practice other religions if they wish. But few teens themselves generally have any such interest. When we asked teenagers if they ever experimented with other religious practices, explored alternative spiritualities, or considered adopting or converting to a new religion, they simply replied, “What?,” “Nah,” “No, never,” and “Not really.” For many, the idea seemed never to have occurred to them before. Some teens were even unable to comprehend our simple questions about spiritual seeking and experimenting, the very ideas seemingly so inconceivable to them that we had to repeat and rephrase our questions multiple times before they understood what we were asking. Because spiritual but not religious seeking is so far off the radar screen of so many teenagers, it was difficult to generate much discussion of the topic in interviews, and so we do not have a lot of quotes on the matter to report here. The vast majority of U.S. teens are simply too conventional to consider, much less actively pursue, the idea of an eclectic spiritual quest. Again, however they were raised seems to be good enough for most.

The few teenagers we interviewed who had explored or were exploring the spiritualities of religions other than those in which they were raised are instructive. Many were doing so not because they were seriously considering changing faiths but wanted “just to learn more.” Most were also not seekers on internally driven quests for enlightenment, but were merely introduced to some religious practice by a friend or relation who recommended it to them. Few seemed particularly serious about the possibility that their seeking experiments might significantly change their life or identity. One 16-year-old black Protestant boy from South Carolina, for example, told us he was interested in looking into Islam for these reasons: “I'm looking for Muslims as far as the way they treat their body and treat women, I feel that's what God would want. But on the other hand, I like Christianity, you know that's how I was brought up and that's the only thing I know, so I wouldn't want to drop that completely. There's just a lot of things I don't understand right now and am trying to figure out, like, um, Islamic maybe. I mean, I'm not saying I want to become a Muslim, I would just like to learn a little bit more about it. But my own religious beliefs haven't changed.” Meanwhile, he continues to attend his Baptist church weekly, prays alone many times a day, and reports that his Christian faith is extremely important in his daily life. Or consider the case of this 14-year-old white nonreligious boy from Oregon, who reports:

T: I've thought about being a Buddhist because my brother influenced me. He was a Buddhist for a little bit and told me about a lot of things he'd done, that he really felt like he connected with the higher power. So I meditate sometimes. You kind of think about one thing over and over and almost get a feeling of, like I'm one with everything. Sometimes I do that just to go to sleep and sometimes I'm bored so I'll meditate, like once or twice a month.

I: Do you find that helpful?

T: Somewhat.

I: Do you think that you would ever become Buddhist?

T: I've thought about studying it more, I really would like to study religions because I do feel that there's a higher power and I kind of want to test some of the religions and see what they do, for a connection with the higher power that I believe is out there. So I might keep looking in the future.

This boy, at only 14, definitely sounds like a spiritual seeker. And yet, notice that he is seeking from a nonreligious, not traditional religious, circumstance; his interest in Buddhism was introduced to him by his brother; he only meditates on occasion when he is bored or wants to fall asleep; he only finds that somewhat useful; and he is unsure if he will study Buddhism more in the future. He clearly is an exception to the vast religious conventionalism of most U.S. teenagers. But, even so, he does not seem to be on much of a quest that will dramatically change his life.


The majority of U.S. teenagers are not rebellious toward religion but are generally rather positive about and conventional in living out religion. This fact should not, however, be presumed to mean that religion is among the most important concerns in the majority of U.S. teenagers' everyday lives. Conventionality, after all, very easily lends itself to routine and inertia. We believe, and the findings in chapter 7 help to confirm, that religious faith and practices are quite sociologically important in shaping many of the assumptions, values, lifestyles, and outcomes of the majority of adolescents in the United States. Religion really does matter in the lives of teenagers, we believe, however indistinct and inconsiderable it may sometimes seem on the face of it—especially as teenagers themselves describe it. But, however important or not religion objectively is in the lives of U.S. teenagers, and however generally positive teens may feel about religion, when it comes to getting specific about religion in their lives, most teens seem simply to accept religion as a taken-for-granted aspect or presence that mostly operates in the background of their lives. Most exhibit real but definitely limited recognition of religion's influence, importance, or distinction in their experiences.

When we asked teenagers directly how important religion was in their lives, some said frankly that religion is not important or that it is only somewhat important. But many teens did profess that religion is very important to them. They said things like, “Oh, really important, yeah,” “It's the center of how I live my life,” and “Faith influences many of my decisions.” Among these, a substantial minority did express specific claims that religious faith and practices significantly affect their lives. Some teens, for instance, said religious faith has rescued them from severe depression. Some say they quit smoking, doing drugs, and drinking heavily because of their religious convictions. Other teens explained how religion is helping them stay in school when previously they were being expelled or had flunked out. One teen told about how religious faith is all that sustains his hope that his ailing father will not succumb to a life-threatening disease. Others told how, because of their religious beliefs, they operate completely differently from their friends when it comes to sexual relationships; specifically, they are abstinent when their friends are sexually very active. Certain teens describe how religious commitments prevent them from giving in to temptations to steal and get into fights which they otherwise feel powerfully drawn to. The vast majority, however, do not give such specific examples but instead simply claim that religion is very important in their lives and the basis for their fundamental knowledge of moral right and wrong. We have no reason to disbelieve or discount these declarations of religion's importance. Our claim is not that religion makes no difference in any teenager's life.

The following pages, however, do question the relative position that religion occupies in teenagers' lives and examines how poorly many teens, in spite of their claims to the contrary, are able to see and articulate religion's role in their life. Our analysis provides a tempered view of the importance and operation of religion in teenagers' lives that the survey data showed. We suggest that there seems to be among many or even most teenagers a lot more unfocused, “invisible” religiosity than focused, “intentional” religiosity at work in their actual lives. As such, teenagers' responses and reactions to many of our questions and issues regarding religion often seemed quite tepid, not particularly energized or animated or engaged. Again, our interviews did turn up some exceptions to this invisible, background-style of religion. Kristen, whose story we recounted in chapter 1, is an example of a teen practicing a more intentional, foreground approach to religion. Such exceptions tended to come from conservative Protestant and Mormon traditions, but not exclusively so, and certainly not all conservative Protestant or Mormon teens practiced religion intentionally in the foreground of their lives. But viewed as a whole, for most U.S. teenagers, their claims to religion's importance notwithstanding, religion actually appears to operate much more as a taken-for-granted aspect of life, mostly situated in the background of everyday living, which becomes salient only under very specific conditions.

“What I'm Really Into”

The first tip-off to the largely invisible and backgrounded nature of religion in the lives of most U.S. teenagers is what they talk about in general, wide-open discussions as being most important, central, and interesting in their lives. We talked with the teens we interviewed about what they get enthusiastic or excited about, what pressing issues they are dealing with, and what forces and experiences and routines seem to them most important and central in their lives. Most teenagers talk about friends, school, sports, television, music, movies, romantic interests, family relationships, dealing with issues of drugs and alcohol, various organized activities with which they're involved, and specific fun or formative events they have experienced. What rarely arises in such conversations are teens' religious identities, beliefs, experiences, or practices. Religion just does not naturally seem to appear much on most teenagers' open-ended lists of what really matters in their lives. This is not surprising. It simply reflects the fact that there is very little built-in religious content or connection in the structure of most U.S. adolescents' daily schedules and routines. Most U.S. teenagers' lives are dominated by school and homework; many are involved in sports and other clubs besides. Most teens also spend lots of time with their friends just hanging out or doing things like going to the mall or bowling. In addition, most teens devote a great deal of life to watching television and movies, e-mailing or instant messaging friends, listening to music, and consuming other electronic media. Boyfriends and girlfriends sometimes consume a lot of teenage time and attention as well. In all of this, religion simply is not an integral aspect of teens' structured lives, does not often come up as a relevant subject of discussion, and is not often involved in many teens' most significant social relationships. As a consequence, religion seems to become rather compartmentalized and backgrounded in the lived experiences of most U.S. teenagers. (p.119) (p.120) (p.121) (p.122) (p.123) (p.124) (p.125) (p.126) (p.127) (p.128) (p.129) (p.130)

(p.131) “Not Sure How to Explain It”

In our in-depth interviews with U.S. teenagers, we also found the vast majority of them to be incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives. We found very few teens from any religious background who are able to articulate well their religious beliefs and explain how those beliefs connect to the rest of their lives, although Mormon and conservative Protestant teens were sometimes an exception. This pervasive teen inarticulacy contributes to our larger impression that religion is either de facto not that important for most teens or that teens are getting very little help from their religious communities in knowing how to express the faith that may be important to them.

A substantial minority of religiously affiliated U.S. teenagers, when asked if they held any specific religious beliefs, simply answered, “No” or “Not really” or “Not that I can think of.” We expect such answers from nonreligious teens, but we also heard many religious teens say flatly that they hold no particular religious beliefs. Another large minority did claim to hold religious beliefs but were unable to describe them. Thus, the transcripts of our interviews with U.S. teenagers are littered with the following kinds of answers to our questions about the religious belief, practices, and influences in their lives:

Uh, I haven't really thought about that [pause]. I don't know.

Just like, um, what they taught me, what I grew up knowing, I don't know.

I believe in the [pause], I, ohhh [pause], I don't think I'd really like to talk about that.

I don't remember.

I don't think so right now.

Hm, I don't know, I'd have to like ask somebody or something, I don't know.

Um, I guess I believe … [laughs], um, I don't know. I don't really know how to answer it.

These are a small sample of actual quotes of all kinds of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and other types of religious teens of all ages and both sexes.

Mainline Protestants were among the least religiously articulate of all teens. Consider, for example, this 17-year-old white mainline Lutheran boy from Colorado: “Uh, well, I don't know, um, well, I don't really know. Being a Lutheran, confirmation was a big thing but I didn't really know what it (p.132) was and I still don't. I really don't know what being a Lutheran means.” This 17-year-old white mainline Presbyterian boy from Kentucky managed an only slightly stronger answer: “Um [pause], I don't know, I just, uh, just like anybody else I guess. There's nothing really to say, I don't know, just the Presbyterian beliefs. Just like I believe in all the sin and stuff and going to heaven and stuff, life after life.” Similarly, here is what one 15-year-old white mainline Methodist girl from Michigan—who, note, attends two church services every Sunday, Sunday School, church youth group, and Wednesday-night Bible study—offered regarding her own personal religious beliefs:

T: [Pause] I don't really know how to answer that.

I: Are there any beliefs at all that are important to you? Really generally.

T: [Pause] I don't know.

I: Take your time if you want.

T: I think that you should just, if you're gonna do something wrong then you should always ask for forgiveness and he's gonna forgive you no matter what, 'cause he gave up his only son to take all the sins for you, so.

That was it. Catholic teenagers also tended to be particularly inarticulate about their faith. One 18-year-old white Catholic girl from Massachusetts, for instance, said that what made Catholics distinctive was, “Like, you, you live better, like you, um, you have like a standard for yourself that's higher than like other people. Uh, I don't know.” Similarly, this 17-year-old white Catholic boy from Indiana explained about his basic religious beliefs, “Um, I think if you're a good person and like, you know you don't break any huge, if, if you live your life around the basic structure, you know. I mean nobody's perfect so you're gonna do bad things. But like, the whole Ten Commandments and stuff, pretty much a good person, then when you get judged you get to have another life. If you ask forgiveness and pray a lot you have a pretty good chance, just 'cause, you know, the whole forgiving God thing.”

At the next higher level of articulation, some teens were able to make a bit more of a stab at explaining their faith. One 18-year-old black Protestant boy from Georgia, for example, said, “What do you mean, like by living by the Ten Commandments and stuff like that? Um, I just believe that you should live your life according to the Bible, and that's it.” This 16-year-old Hispanic Catholic girl from Arizona explained her beliefs as, “Uh, God is everywhere, you know, helping, he's there when you need him, things happen for a reason, um [giggles].” In most cases, as with these quotes, even when teenagers did offer specific accounts of their beliefs, they usually turned out to be mere snippets or fragments of what is in fact the larger belief system of their own religious traditions. One 13-year-old black Protestant boy from Illinois, for instance, recounted his religious beliefs as simply “God is coming back.” One 16-year-old Asian Muslim boy from Michigan described his religion as, “Nothing really, like, just hard work, my parents really believe in hard work, so it's one thing. Like, concern for other people, things like that, (p.133) like just don't be an asshole, you know.” A 17-year-old white Seventh Day Adventist girl from New Jersey summarized her religious beliefs as, “Well, we are, hmm, we keep the Sabbath that not everyone does … yes, all religions and … we don't paint ourselves, like with makeup.” And this 16-year-old white Catholic boy from Washington said his “key religious belief” is that “God is forgiving, he's the only one who can judge you, the only one who can be right 100 percent of the time. And basically that's about it.”

There were, of course, some teenagers who were impressive in explaining what they believe, what they doubt, why they think what they think, what it means to them, and how it influences their lives. Religiously devoted teenagers were more articulate than nominally religious teens, for obvious reasons. And older teens tended to be slightly more articulate than younger, but not by much. However, impressively articulate teens were few and far between. The vast majority simply could not express themselves on matters of God, faith, religion, or spiritual life.

We do not believe that teenage inarticulacy about religious matters reflects any general teen incapacity to think and speak well. Many of the youth we interviewed were quite conversant when it came to their views on salient issues in their lives about which they had been educated and had practice discussing, such as the dangers of drug abuse and STDs. Rather, our impression as interviewers was that many teenagers could not articulate matters of faith because they have not been effectively educated in and provided opportunities to practice talking about their faith. Indeed, it was our distinct sense that for many of the teens we interviewed, our interview was the first time that any adult had ever asked them what they believed and how it mattered in their life. Very many seemed caught off-balance by our simple questions, uncertain about what we were asking, at a loss to know how to respond. It was clear that, for many teens, very little in their lives had prepared them to be able to explain, even in basic terms, what they believe and how that fits into their lives. Some teens came right out and said so. One 14-year-old Hispanic conservative Protestant boy, for instance, replied to our questions about his religious beliefs, “Um, hmm, not really that I can think of, not really. 'Cause no one has ever really asked me.” Likewise, this 15-year-old white Jewish boy from Pennsylvania answered our questions about religious belief by saying, “I guess I don't really know, basically I haven't been taught about it.” Religious language is like any other language: to learn how to speak it, one needs first to listen to native speakers using it a lot, and then one needs plenty of practice at speaking it oneself. Many U.S. teenagers, it appears, are not getting a significant amount of such exposure and practice and so are simply not learning the religious language of their faith traditions.

“I Believe There Is a God and Stuff”

A closely related observation is, for many, their accompanying meager, nebulous, and often fallacious knowledge of the belief content of their own religious traditions which they claim to embrace. To the extent that the teens we interviewed did manage to articulate what they understood and believed (p.134) religiously, it became clear that most religious teenagers either do not really comprehend what their own religious traditions say they are supposed to believe, or they do understand it and simply do not care to believe it. Either way, it is apparent that most religiously affiliated U.S. teens are not particularly invested in espousing and upholding the beliefs of their faith traditions, or that their communities of faith are failing in attempts to educate their youth, or both. The net result, in any case, is that most religious teenagers' opinions and views—one can hardly call them worldviews—are vague, limited, and often quite at variance with the actual teachings of their own religion. In the end, many teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were. This suggests that a strong, visible, salient, or intentional faith is not operating in the foreground of most teenagers' lives.

Some U.S. teenagers' articulated religious beliefs are simply quite paltry. One 15-year-old black Protestant girl from Florida, for instance, stated her personal religious beliefs this way: “[Long pause] Be kind.” A 15-year-old white Catholic boy from Michigan said, “God's watching over us, that's it.” This 15-year-old white conservative Protestant girl from Oregon reported, “I really don't have any beliefs, but basically just do whatever. I just pay my dues of going to church every Sunday and vacation Bible school things, just that.” And one 17-year-old white mainline Protestant girl from Maryland told us, “I'm not one of those people who, you know, believes in these specific things. But I celebrate Christmas and, you know, that kind of thing.” Other U.S. teens related to us their core religious beliefs that were not so much paltry as just trivial. A 13-year-old white mainline Protestant boy from California, for example, explained his religious beliefs in this way: “I don't believe in ghosts, they really aren't real. I think God's real and, um, he can see us but we can't see him.” One 14-year-old white Catholic boy from New York told us, “I believe there's life after death, but that's about it.”

Some teens summarized their central personal religious beliefs in terms representing what are actually at best secondary beliefs in their own religious traditions. One 17-year-old white Catholic boy from Wisconsin, for example, recounted his essential religious beliefs this way: “My religious beliefs, what's good and bad, like you know, if you kill or rape someone, I think you're screwed, give up on life 'cause it's over.” Then he added, “I'll never stop being Catholic, even if I stop believing in God, I'll still be Catholic.” This 15-year-old white mainline Protestant boy from Virginia stated his beliefs as, “You know, if somebody's in the wrong, you let them know, if you don't, that's a sin. That's pretty much what's been handed down to me.” This 13-year-old white mainline Protestant girl from Montana explained, “I just, like, believe that no sins are any different from any other ones, they should all be like, the same rate. And, uh, I don't know, when I die I'm going to heaven.” And one 16-year-old white conservative Protestant girl from Washington explained her beliefs in this way: “We go to church, and that God is coming back again and he'll take us to heaven. And what was the other one? I forgot, (p.135) but we did go over this in Bible class [laughs], I remember.” Our exchange with this 14-year-old white conservative Protestant girl from Idaho also conveys some of the lack of focus and enthusiasm about religious faith that many teens manifested in their interviews:

I: When you think of God, what image do you have of God?

T: [yawning]

I: What is God like?

T: Um, good. Powerful.

I: Okay, anything else?

T: Tall.

I: Tall?

T: Big.

I: Do you think God is active in people's lives or not?

T: Ah, I don't know.

I: You're not sure?

T: Different people have different views of him.

I: What about your view?

T: What do you mean?

I: Do you think God is active in your life?

T: In my life? Yeah.

I: Yeah, hmm. Would you say you feel close to God or not really?

T: Yeah, I feel close. [yawns]

I: Where do you get your ideas about God?

T: The Bible, my mom, church. Experience.

I: What kind of experience?

T: He's just done a lot of good in my life, so.

I: Like, what are examples of that?

T: I don't know.

I: Well, I'd love to hear. What good has God done in your life?

T: I, well, I have a house, parents, I have the Internet, I have a phone, I have cable.

A number of Christian teenagers we interviewed conveyed an “Oh-yeah-and-Jesus-too-I-guess” kind of attitude in trying to express their core religious beliefs. For example, a 13-year-old white Catholic girl from South Dakota said, “I'm not sure, not sure, I can't remember what I believe. Oh, mm-mm, yeah, like Jesus and God and them guys. That he is alive and watching over us.” This 15-year-old conservative Protestant Hispanic boy from Texas took some reminding eventually to tentatively include Jesus in his beliefs: “I'm sure God exists and like, helps people and answers their prayers, that's pretty much it. [Do you believe in Jesus?] Ah, yes … I think [little laugh]. I don't know, I don't know.” And this 14-year-old white Catholic girl from Montana summarized her religious beliefs in this way: “I really don't know, um, pretty much I believe in God and Jesus and all those people.” Recall, these were not throwaway comments of teens, these were their main answers to our key questions about their basic personal religious beliefs.

(p.136) A number of religious teenagers propounded theological views that are, according to the standards of their own religious traditions, simply not orthodox. One 13-year-old white mainline Protestant girl from Colorado, for instance, told us, “I think [laughing] I kind of picture God like this man, this woman, all types of animals and I mean no real total definition, can't even see the shape or anything, this great amazing being who, one snap of his or her fingers and a human is born, it's just amazing and really nice.” A 14-year-old Hispanic Catholic boy from California said, “I kinda believe in reincarnation and I kinda don't, 'cause like my little brother totally believes in it, that he can become a hawk as soon as he's dead. Sometimes I think it's cool and then my cousin says no, so I'm all lost. So I just kinda believe in it.” A 17-year-old Hispanic conservative Protestant girl from California confessed, “I believe that there's heaven and hell and spirits and angels, I even believe that there's still vampires living today.” A 15-year-old Arabic Muslim boy from California summarized religious faith as, “I don't know, just like, pretty much try to live life without regrets, try to take responsibility for what you do, 'cause I don't know, just don't be a bitch about things. Try to make things fair, that's another thing, as fair as possible.” One 18-year-old black mainline Protestant boy from New York described God this way: “I feel like God is everybody, all the dead spirits together, I feel like that's God combined into one, he's just looking down and watching us. He's in everyone's eyes, know what I'm saying? Like everyone's spirit, like my voice that you're hearing right now, I feel like that's God right now.” Similarly, this 15-year-old Native American Catholic boy from Illinois reported, “When I think of God, I think of everything, like everything around us. [Like this desk?] Yeah, like the trees, everything. I don't think you can picture God as a being or a person, he's everything, everywhere, like grass growing, everything.”

Viewed in terms of the absolute historical centrality of the Protestant conviction about salvation by God's grace alone, through faith alone and not by any human good works, many belief professions by Protestant teens, including numerous conservative Protestant teens, in effect discard that essential Protestant gospel. One 15-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from Mississippi, for instance, explained, “If you do the right thing and don't do anything bad, I mean nothing really bad, you know you'll go to heaven. If you don't, then you're screwed [laughs], that's about it.” Similarly, this 16-year-old black conservative Protestant girl from Pennsylvania told us, “Being a Christian means, um, don't do many sins, read the Bible, go to church, living godly, that's about it. It's basically not committing sin, basically.” Likewise, historically orthodox Christian doctrines about the personal nature of God and the authority of revelation are abrogated by more than a few teens' religious views, such as that expressed by this 13-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from Ohio: “God is just this big thing that's been there forever and controls everything, probably not personal, I don't know. [How did you come to that idea?] Ah, like, I was just raised that way I guess, and I guess I believe it till I hear another theory that's more reasonable or something, like from science.”

(p.137) And then there are the teenagers, such as this 18-year-old Hispanic Catholic girl from Maryland, who simply admit that they are confused: “My beliefs are so wishy-washy, like I'll think something one minute, something else the next. I don't know what is most important, 'cause I don't really live by the Bible.” Similarly, this 17-year-old black Protestant girl from Illinois confessed, “I guess I'm a Christian, but I'm one of those still trying to figure everything out. I believe there's a higher power, but that's about all I know for sure.”

Again, nobody expects adolescents to be sophisticated theologians. But very few of the descriptions of personal beliefs offered by the teenagers we interviewed, especially the Christian teenagers, come close to representing marginally coherent accounts of the basic, important religious beliefs of their own faith traditions. The majority of U.S. teens would badly fail a hypothetical short-answer or essay test of the basic beliefs of their religion. Higher proportions of conservative Protestant teenagers than other Christian teens proved able to summarize the elementary beliefs of their tradition, though often in highly formulaic terms. And teenagers affiliated with minority religious traditions—Mormon, Buddhist, Jewish, and other—who do not have the luxury of taking their religion for granted, also seem somewhat better able to explain the basic outlook and beliefs of their traditions. Otherwise, most teenagers held religious beliefs that, judged by their own religion's standards, were often trivial, misguided, distorted, and sometimes outright doctrinally erroneous. The point here is not that U.S. teenagers are dumb or deplorable. They are not. The point is simply that understanding and embracing the right religious faith and belief according to their religions does not appear to be a priority in the lives of most U.S. adolescents—and perhaps many of their parents. Faith is usually just there, around somewhere, and most teens do believe something religious or other. But religion simply doesn't seem consequential enough to most teenagers to pay close attention to and get right. Rather, most teens seem content to live with a low-visibility religion that operates somewhere in the mental background of their lives.

“Religion's Really Important to Me, I Guess”

Teens may struggle with articulating their cognitive religious beliefs, but perhaps they can better explain what their faith means to them and how their religion forms their identity and actions. We asked them outright how important their faith is to them, why, and in what ways. Here, in fact, the picture is somewhat more complicated than the view on religious beliefs painted above. About 25–30 percent of teens we interviewed said simply that religious faith was not important to them, religious beliefs did not influence their lives, religious practices made no particular difference in who they were and how they behaved. This substantial minority of U.S. teens included many nonreligious teens, as we might expect, but it also included a fair number of religiously affiliated teenagers from a variety of faith backgrounds. That, however, still leaves a substantial majority of U.S. teenagers who, when directly asked, claim that religious faith is indeed between somewhat and ex (p.138) tremely significant in shaping and giving meaning to their lives. Within this larger group, there is a range of positions on the matter.

Some teenagers are absolutely exuberant and adamant about how important faith is in their lives. These teens report, “I base everything I do on faith, it affects every action I make,” “It's the only thing that gets me through, 'cause if I didn't have faith, I wouldn't even be here,” and “It's the center of everything, a top priority of my life.” One 18-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from California, for instance, told us, “Absolutely central, it's the basis for everything, who I am, what I think. Like what life is all about, what I'm looking for, what satisfies me.” Such teens often elaborate their strong statements by describing how God changed their lives in a religious conversion, how religion structures all of their values and commitments, or how different they feel from “the world” or “secular people” because of their faith. Such intense religious accounts are very striking and seemingly genuine. However, they represent a fairly small minority of teenagers, mostly, but not entirely, conservative Protestant and Mormon teens.

The majority of U.S. teenagers, by contrast, typically speak in more tempered tones about how religious faith and practice influence their lives in various ways. Many teens report that their religion helps them in knowing right from wrong, making good decisions, providing a sense of hope and purpose in life, motivating them to be moral and altruistic, and helping them get through hard circumstances. For example, one 15-year-old black Protestant girl from California said religion is important because “when I'm about to do something wrong, like steal or anything, I'm like, no, I'm trying to be on God's side, trying to go to heaven.” A 15-year-old white mainline Protestant boy from Virginia said, “If I wasn't religious, I would be doing a whole lot more stuff, like drugs and smoking, but I think it's leading me to a good, straight path.” And this 17-year-old white Mormon girl from Utah explained, “It helps me make decisions. I just pray every night and I keep my religion in mind throughout my day while making my choices.” We have no a priori reason to question the sincerity or veracity of these statements. At the same time, we do notice certain clues in some of the interview discussions that raise questions worth considering about the depth or specificity of the professed meanings and influences of religious faith and practice in some teenagers' lives.

For example, what a number of teens, perhaps especially black teens, apparently mean in reporting that religion is very important in their lives is that religion is very important in the strictly religious sector of their lives. Religion influences them religiously—that is, when it comes to church attendance, basic beliefs, prayer, and so on—but not necessarily in other ways. One 14-year-old black Protestant girl from Maryland, for instance, elaborated on how religion influences her life: “It affects my life every day in one way or another. I say my prayers every night and we always bless the table before we eat.” A 14-year-old black Protestant boy from South Carolina said that faith influences him “because I can call on the name of Jesus and all, he can wash all my sins away.” A 15-year-old Hispanic conservative Protestant (p.139) girl from New Jersey explained that religious practices are important in life because they “strengthen my faith.” Avoiding hell was another key theme some teens articulated. One 17-year-old black Protestant girl from Alabama stated, “Very important, because I want to go to heaven, I don't want to go to hell.” Likewise, this 13-year-old black Protestant boy from Illinois explained, “It's very important, 'cause when you do bad stuff, even if the cops don't see you, God saw you, and that really puts a hurt-down on you after you die, for your afterlife.” And even this 17-year-old white nonreligious boy from Wisconsin says religious practices are important in his life because they “give a sense of security, like, 'Oh, phew, I'm not going to hell now 'cause I repent of my sins.' ” Thus, sometimes religion is important to teens for specifically religious purposes but not for reasons beyond that, as this 14-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from North Dakota made clear: “Church makes me learn more about God and Jesus, but that's about it. It doesn't have any effect on my life.”

Other teens claimed that religion is important in their lives, but ended up explaining the reason for religion's importance in terms that were so distant and far-fetched as to seem nearly irrelevant. One 18-year-old nonreligious girl from Arizona, for instance, suggested that, despite not being religious, religion “influences me a lot with the people I choose not to be around. I would not hang with people that are, you know, devil worshipers because that's just not my thing, I could not deal with that negativity.” Perhaps socializing with Satanists is a real issue in this girl's life; more likely she is simply reaching very far for some explanation of why or how religion influences her at all. Similarly, one 17-year-old Catholic boy from Texas explained that religion influences him in “the things I choose not to do, um, like bad things, like murder or something.” Again, perhaps this boy does struggle with murderous tendencies, but more probably, this explanation merely establishes religious influences in a way that is not too demanding or threatening to his routine life. Another version of citing largely irrelevant factors in teen explanations of religion's importance is commending what for most would be fairly negligible or unrelated accomplishments of religion. One 16-year-old Seventh Day Adventist girl, for instance, explained the difference her faith makes in this way: “Well, without my faith, my life would be different, um, I'd go shopping on Saturday 'cause they always have sales on Saturdays. That's the only thing I can really think of.” A 13-year-old white Jewish girl from Georgia suggested, “I think it influences me to not do things that aren't acceptable in my religion, like getting tattoos.” One 17-year-old white mainline Protestant boy from Tennessee said his faith is “kind of” influential in that “I don't cuss because it's a sin.” A 13-year-old Hispanic Catholic girl from Connecticut told us that “faith helps me understand things better, like why the sky is blue and where trees come from, those questions.” And one 15-year-old white conservative Protestant girl from California stated that her faith influences her this way: “Um, I'm conservative, a card-carrying Republican! Conservative, like the way I dress, the music I listen to—I'm one of the few teenagers that considers 'Rhapsody in Blue' and Rachmaninoff's Concerto (p.140) some of my favorites.” Again, it may be that for certain teenagers Saturday clothing sales, tattoos, curse words, explanations for why skies are blue, and “conservative” music tastes really are momentous life issues. But our impression is that, in most such cases, the teens are simply groping for something, anything that might confirm their claim that religion is indeed important in their lives. And sometimes they seem to have to grope hard because it actually is not very important.

Yet other teens we interviewed exhibited some slippage between the idea of religion's actual importance in their lives and its ideal importance. One 18-year-old white Catholic girl from Ohio, for instance, explained that religion is important to her in these terms: “I think it should be the, for me, I think it should be the central thing, um, yeah.” Here she seems caught between the socially desirable answer that religion is in fact important and the apparent actual reality that it really is not that important. Similarly, this 16-year-old white Catholic boy from New York switched from discussing how religion does influence him to how it would if he were a serious believer: “I know it influences my personality, 'cause everything does, but I don't know how. If I was a devout Catholic, I'd probably have some more conservative and strict beliefs, like premarital sex and stuff.” Another form of slippage that a few teens exhibited concerns differences in the objects in which one's faith is placed. One 17-year-old black conservative Protestant boy from New York, for instance, readily slid from discussing how religious faith influences him into how having faith in himself has been helpful: “How is religious faith important? Well, like school. If I didn't have faith in myself, I wouldn't be going to school right now, wouldn't have the motivation.”

A final reason why, even though many teens said religion is important in their lives, it still seemed to us to be mostly part of the furniture in the background of their lives is the repeated lack of specific examples of religion's importance many of them offered in other sections of our interviews. In addition to our general discussions with teens about religion's value and significance in their lives, throughout the interviews, in sections on other topics—such as family relationships, dating, school, sexual activities—we also asked questions about whether and how religious faith influenced their thinking or living in these specific areas. Quite often, teens said they did not think their religious faith affected their family relationships, they did not believe religion was relevant to the conduct of a dating relationship, they did not see that religion affected their life at school, and so on. This was often even true for teens who in the religion discussion explicitly said that faith was important and influential in their lives. One 16-year-old white mainline Protestant girl from Michigan, for example, who explicitly stated, “Religion is very important to me,” denied in every other section of the interview that religion had anything to do with her relationships, dating, school work, or any other aspect of her ordinary life. This is not to say that she or any others are frauds or hypocrites, simply that it is easier to say generally that religion is important than to specify exactly how and why it is important in particular areas of one's everyday life.

(p.141) Related to this observation, we also asked teenagers whether they observe that religion makes any difference in the lives of their peers and friends. Do they notice that religious teenagers around them live any differently than nonreligious teens because of their faith? About half of the teens we interviewed said they did observe a difference, such as this 14-year-old East Indian Hindu girl from Oregon: “My peers who are religious are very disciplined and know what is right and wrong, but those who aren't religious, it's kind of hard for them.” But half of the teens also said they did not notice that the religious teens were any different from the nonreligious teens around them. Matching teens' observations about religion's importance and influence in their own lives (often said to be quite important) compared to the lives of their peers and friends (often observed to be not that important) reveals a discrepancy that is difficult to explain. Either the teens we interviewed underestimate or fail to notice religion's real influence on their friends and peers, or they overestimate and give undue credit to religion's influence in their own lives. The reality is probably some of both. The bottom line, however, is that, for whatever reason, most U.S. teenagers seem to view strong religiosity as a socially desirable trait, such that at least some seem inclined to give themselves the benefit of the doubt in reporting how important and influential religious faith is in their own lives. We have no doubt that for many teenagers, religion indeed is meaningful and influential, even in ways about which many teens are only vaguely aware. But for the majority of U.S. teenagers, we think it consistent with teens' frequent professions of the importance of faith in their lives that, for the most part, religion actually operates largely as an invisible factor situated in the backgrounds of their lives.

“I'm Not Too Religious”

As we talked with U.S. teenagers about what it means to be religious and spiritual, we also noticed a particular category helping to structure the larger cultural framework of religious understanding assumed by many teens, namely, the category of being “too religious.” Many U.S. teens across all religious traditions seem to hold in their minds a negative image of people who are too religious, which they definitely seek to avoid by muting their own religiosity. Consider, for instance, the following quotes drawn from our discussions with teens about what it means for them to be religious:

I'm not a big religious person where I go around preaching all the time, like this kid in my school who carried his Bible all the time and said really scary things, like whoa. I'm not that religious. (16-year-old white conservative Protestant girl from Virginia)

I'm not religious as in, you know, holier than thou or sanctimonious, praying all the time and whatnot. (17-year-old black Protestant boy from New York)

I think it's important to keep tradition, but I don't think it's too important to do, to like dive too much into it. (16-year-old Asian Hindu boy from Michigan)


I mean, I go to church but I'm not like, “Oh my God, I have to do what God tells me,” I'm not, no I'm not like that. (17-year-old Hispanic Catholic girl from California)

I mean, I believe in God and Jesus but I'm not like, holy rolling Christian type person. (16-year-old white mainline Protestant boy from South Carolina)

I'm pretty religious I guess, but I'm not like Ned Flanders [evangelical neighbor on The Simpsons television show] or anything, you know? (16-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from Indiana)

There are some really, really religious Jews I know, they even go to my synagogue, who like, won't associate with anyone who is not Jewish, like they're protecting themselves and their religion. (15-year-old white Jewish girl from Maryland)

I do have a lot of knowledge of my religion, but I don't go around and preach. (13-year-old Catholic girl from Connecticut)

I'm not, like, very highly religious but I mean, I have faith and everything, but I'm not a really religious person, not the kind of person, you know, who carries around a Bible and stuff like that. I follow my religion, but I don't try to tell other people about it. (17-year-old while conservative Protestant boy from West Virginia)

I go to church but it's not like I'm deep into church, I'm not like, really, really religious. (16-year-old conservative Protestant Hispanic girl from New York)

I think of myself as a person who knows and is into her religion, but not like, a religious person, because people who go to my church have to wear really long skirts and I don't like to dress that way, or like reading the Bible every day. I know my Bible and I pray but, you know, not really strong, like religious, religious people do. (13-year-old black Protestant girl from Illinois)

I go by what I'm feeling. If I were religious I would be like my mom and I would be really, really literalist. People are like that, religious gets really weird, really weird, church-y candles with the crosses. (15-year-old conservative Protestant Hispanic girl from New York)

I don't really follow anything, like too much, not like I'm following everything to a T, but like, I do have basic principles and morals and stuff. (16-year-old white pagan girl from Wisconsin)

I am religious but you know, not too, I wouldn't consider myself a strict Methodist, I don't base my life around it, but you know, when it comes to church and all, I'm into it and stuff. (15-year-old white mainline Protestant girl from Virginia)

I'm not a fanatic, I don't, you know, go up and down the street waving a Bible. (14-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from Texas)


I'm not religious, like holy roller, constantly talking about God and stuff like that. That would very much bother me, would get very annoying after a while. I'd probably want to slap the person and say, “Get a life.” (16-year-old white mainline Protestant girl from New Mexico)

Well, religious kids tend to be less accepting of people that aren't religious, sometimes kind of stick together. That's the reason why religion may suffer, it's made into something that, like, people shouldn't limit themselves to certain people just because of religion. (16-year-old white Jewish girl from New York)

I'm not a big Jesus freak or something. I mean, some people live their life by the Bible! (17-year-old white conservative Protestant from Kentucky)

I do, but not, like, to the extent where there's these fanatics going to people's doors. Sometimes people just go overboard. (17-year-old white mainline Protestant boy from Pennsylvania)

Sometimes people that are more religious take it to an extreme, like sure, but after a point, when are you going to finally live your life? (16-year-old white Catholic boy from Washington)

Thus, many teenagers, including many evangelical teens, have negative images of people who are “too religious.” And in the larger cultural field of religiosity in which they see themselves operating, very few teens want to be too religious. So they position themselves in relation to that negative image as more modulated and irresolute in the practice and expression of their own religious faith. This structured contrast of too religious versus modestly religious is yet another factor helping to place religion in the background, not the foreground, of U.S. teenagers' lives.


American youth, like American adults, are nearly without exception profoundly individualistic, instinctively presuming autonomous, individual self-direction to be a universal human norm and life goal. Thoroughgoing individualism is not a contested orthodoxy for teenagers. It is an invisible and pervasive doxa,7 that is, an unrecognized, unquestioned, invisible premise or presupposition. U.S. teenagers' profound individualism informs a number of issues related to religion.

“Who Am I to Judge?”

For most teens, nobody has to do anything in life, including anything to do with religion. “Whatever” is just fine, if that's what a person wants. Consequently, certain traditional religious languages and vocabularies of commitment, duty, faithfulness, obedience, calling, obligation, accountability, and ties to the past are nearly completely absent from the discourse of U.S. teen (p.144) agers. Instead, religion is presumed to be something that individuals choose and must reaffirm for themselves based on their present and ongoing personal felt needs and preferences.

Second, most U.S. teens are at least somewhat allergic to anything they view as trying to influence them.8 They generally view themselves as autonomous mediators or arbitrators of all outside influences; it is they themselves who finally influence their own lives. Other people and institutions provide information that youth see themselves as filtering, processing, and assimilating. Based on this information, they then make their own decisions for themselves. Or so the story goes. This autonomous individualism, not incidentally, helps to explain why teens have such difficulty articulating how religion influences them. They have difficulty imagining how religion influences their lives because they tend to imagine that nothing influences them, at least without their final choice that it does so. The idea that one's life is being formed and transformed by the power of a historical religious tradition can be nearly incomprehensible to people who have allergies to outside influences. Such a perspective lends itself instead to thinking of religion as something one chooses to use, as we will see below, not something to which one devotes oneself or gives away one's life.

A third consequence of American individualism for teenagers' relating to religion is that most teens embrace a very strong ethos that forswears judging any ideas or people that may be different. When each individual has his or her own unique and self-authenticating experiences and felt needs and desires, it is impossible for any other (alien) individual to properly evaluate or judge those chosen beliefs, commitments, desires, or lifestyle. The typical bywords, rather, are “Who am I to judge?” “If that's what they choose, whatever,” “Each person decides for himself,” and “If it works for them, fine.” As one 16-year-old black Jehovah's Witness girl from California said of a friend who has switched between four different religions, “Whatever floats her boat.” In this context, as it is often pointed out, the very idea of religious truth is attenuated, shifted from older realist and universalist notions of convictions about objective Truth to more personalized and relative versions of “truth for me” and “truth for you.” In fact, despite the rhetoric, few teenagers actually consistently sustain such radical relativism. In certain ways and areas of life, teens do actually draw clear lines, often quite moralistic lines. Like many of the adults who are socializing them, they also often readily proffer decisive judgements as obvious facts that they take as self-evident to any reasonable person, such as, “Well, obviously you shouldn't hurt someone else” or “It's totally wrong to have sex with someone you don't really care about.” What almost all U.S. teenagers—and adults—lack, however, are any tools or concepts or rationales by which to connect and integrate their radical relativistic individualist selves, on the one hand, with their commonsensical, evaluative, moralist selves, on the other. So teens continually seesaw, with little self-awareness that they are doing so, between their individualist Jekyll and moralistic Hyde selves, incapable of reconciling their judgments with their anti-judgmentalism, and so merely banging back and forth between (p.145) them. In matters of religion, however, it is the latter, the nonjudgmental demeanor, that normally wins out. For some, this position seems couched in the civic notion that, in the United States, by virtue of the First Amendment, all citizens enjoy freedom of religion as a sacred right of conscience. But for many more teens, that limited civic and legal notion appears to have morphed into a more comprehensive epistemological and metaphysical sensibility that truth either does not exist or cannot be known, such that individuals can do no better than to choose whatever version of truth happens to work for them.

“There Is No Right Answer”

When we asked the 15-year-old Native American Catholic boy from Illinois—who maintained that God was present in the desk, trees, and grass—what he says to people who have a different view of God, he replied:

T: I couldn't say anything. It's their opinion. I have my own opinion.

I: Are you right?

T: Ah, I don't know. I have no idea, but.

I: Is there a right or wrong answer when it comes to God?

T: There is no right answer.

I: Why not?

T: There isn't a wrong answer. 'Cause it's God, you can't prove, it's just what you believe.

Some teenagers champion this skeptic's view of individual, relativistic truth with great relish. Others concede it only very reluctantly, often intuitively believing in one truth, but not knowing how or being too cautious to try to express or defend it. In either case, whether through active embrace or compliant acquiescence, some version of this individualistic subjectivism and relativism is the dominant, assumed viewpoint about religion among most contemporary U.S. adolescents.

A very small minority state uncompromisingly not only that other people should practice some religion but that there is one right and true religion that people should practice. Most of these are conservative Protestants, with a few Catholic and Mormon teens mixed in; these are the U.S. religious traditions that still appear capable of socializing at least a few of their youth into a definite sense of religiously exclusive truth. This small minority of religiously particularistic teens, of various ages and sexes, boldly expressed the following views:

Other religions do not worship the one true God. They're not teaching what's right about the one and only God. That's not right.

The Bible says that everyone should praise the Lord and everyone will praise the Lord. I'm not going to knock anyone's religion, but that's the way I was raised. They should become the same as mine, Christianity.

Jesus died for you on the cross, I mean, that's a matter of life and death. If you're practicing another religion, it's pretty pointless, it (p.146) doesn't matter what religion you're believing if you don't believe in Jesus and the cross.

If I said people could practice whatever, I'd be two-faced, 'cause I believe I found something great and I want other people to also, so yeah. Not Buddhism or anything, nothing that worships an idol. If you believe in God and Jesus then that should be enough. If you know the truth, he is the truth, then I think you're set.

I would influence others to pick my religion and my God over somebody else's. Everyone else thinks theirs is right, and I think mine is right. When it comes down to it, when Jesus comes back, they're gonna wish that they had believed in my God as opposed to their statues that they worship.

There can be only one truth, so you can only really be religious with one belief. If they're not gonna practice the right one then don't bother. If they practice something else, it's not only wrong, it's also not the truth.

I know this is completely against PC, but you know people like Muslims and stuff, they're not all about peace and love. Completely ridiculous. Their scripture tells them to kill Jews! If you want people to believe in a faith, you would want them to believe in a particular faith, not any old faith. The best would be to be a Christian.

If you're not believing in the truth, what does it amount to when you die, if it's not the truth? The Bible is the truth and Holy Spirit lives in me and I know it in my heart, it's evident. I'd say I know it's the truth.

I think a lot of other people live better lives than Christians do, more respectful. But being a Christian, I think everyone should be a Christian, yes, I think that there's only one true God.

These are the more steadfast teen voices of religious particularism, though not necessarily behavioral intolerance, as most of these teens still appear to take civil, accommodating approaches to their interpersonal relationships.9 But among U.S. teenagers, at least as far as our personal interviews with teens are able to tell, these teens represent only a minor fringe of dissenters skirting a vast majority of religiously individualistic, relativistic, subjectivistic teenagers. The dominant position on the matter among contemporary adolescents in the United States is more evident in the following voices, representing Jewish, Catholic, conservative, black, and mainline Protestant, and nonreligious teens of all ages and both sexes:

When it comes to religion, people should do what they want. I shouldn't be the one to say what they do.

Everybody has their own stuff, people are all different, so our religions are very different. People have a right to choose to be religious or not.


I think everyone is capable, if they choose to believe in a higher power, I think they are capable of dealing with it themselves. Some people prefer a group method, but there's other ways to go about it.

They can just do whatever they want. If people want to believe in something they should, but it wouldn't matter at all, they're all pretty much the same.

I basically believe in guardian angels. I believe if you're really bad you will get punished sooner or later, but I don't believe in hell, that's just too, it's not right for me.

People who aren't religious? It's up to them, I don't know. It's their belief and stuff like that, it doesn't really matter. It's their own choice, their own choice.

Religious practices can make my life hard because they say to do something and I don't want to 'cause nobody else is doing it. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't.

It's up to everybody to choose their own religious path, and mine are made up of various beliefs, a weird mixture of sorts.

My religious beliefs? I believe everybody should be treated with respect and everybody should have peace and just [be] treated fairly and have all kinds of opportunities to do things and stuff.

Religion is very important to me. I don't do everything by the book. I'll do stuff that I'm told not to do.

I can't speak for everybody, it's up to them. I know what's best for me, and I can't, I don't preach to nobody.

In these voices we hear the core underlying ideas constituting American religious individualism: that each individual is uniquely distinct from all others and deserves a faith that fits his or her singular self; that individuals must freely choose their own religion; that the individual is the authority over religion and not vice versa; that religion need not be practiced in and by a community; that no person may exercise judgments about or attempt to change the faith of other people; and that religious beliefs are ultimately interchangeable insofar as what matters is not the integrity of a belief system but the comfortability of the individual holding specific religious beliefs. From the wells of radical American religious individualism, contemporary U.S. teenagers have drunk deeply, no doubt following the example of their parents and other adults. For most, religious individualism appears to be all U.S. teens can actually conceive of.


Most U.S. youth tend to assume an instrumental view of religion. Most instinctively suppose that religion exists to help individuals be and do what (p.148) they want, and not as an external tradition or authority or divinity that makes compelling claims and demands on their lives, especially to change or grow in ways they may not immediately want to. For most U.S. teenagers, religion is something to personally believe in that makes one feel good and resolves one's problems. For most, it is not an entire way of life or a disciplined practice that makes hard demands of or changes people. Stated differently, for many U.S. teenagers, God is treated as something like a cosmic therapist or counselor, a ready and competent helper who responds in times of trouble but who does not particularly ask for devotion or obedience. The latter might make a person feel awkward or uncomfortable. Thus, one 14-year-old white Catholic boy from Ohio told us, “Faith is very important, I pray to God to help me with sports and school and stuff and he hasn't let me down yet, so I think it helps you.”

“Helps Me Feel Happy”

This instrumental image of religion is not the invention of teenagers. It seems to be a dominating image of religion embraced by many adults in the United States. Numerous other scholars have already observed that American parents use religion instrumentally to achieve prosocial outcomes for their children, to help their kids be more healthy, safe, and successful in life. The family sociologist Nicholas Townsend, for example, makes this incisive observation:

Many men [hold an] … instrumental view of religion. Particularly when talking about the role of religion in their children's lives, the men I talked to emphasized its practical or behavioral aspects and never mentioned transcendence or fulfillment. For many people in the United States, religious observance is imposed on them as children, dropped when they are young adults, and resumed once they become parents. Parents of young children enlist religion as a source of values to inoculate their children against danger. Their motivation is in line with their view of children as malleable … Given this image of children as sponges, and a sense of the world as full of bad influences, it is hardly surprising that many parents turn to the churches as allies in their struggle to protect their children … The men I talked to … equated “high morals” with not using drugs and with wearing a seatbelt, rather than with a thirsting after righteousness, sacrificing for the common good, or speaking truth to power.10

Our interviews with hundreds of teenagers around the United States reveal that such an instrumentalist view of religion has also been deeply and widely embraced by the vast majority of American adolescents. We discussed in depth with teens what religion was all about, whether religion has any value, why anyone would want to practice a religious faith, what religion does and does not do in their own lives. What we heard from most teens is essentially that religion makes them feel good, that it helps them make good choices, that it helps resolve problems and troubles, that it serves their felt needs. What we hardly ever heard from teens was that religion is about significantly (p.149) transforming people into, not what they feel like being, but what they are supposed to be, what God or their ethical tradition wants them to be. What U.S. teenagers very infrequently said, for instance, is that God is the one who calls and people are the ones who respond. What our interviews almost never uncovered among teens was a view that religion summons people to embrace an obedience to truth regardless of the personal consequences or rewards. Hardly any teens spoke directly about more difficult religious subjects like repentance, love of neighbor, social justice, unmerited grace, self-discipline, humility, the costs of discipleship, dying to self, the sovereignty of God, personal holiness, the struggles of sanctification, glorifying God in suffering, hungering for righteousness, or any other of a number of historically key ideas in America's main religious tradition, Christianity. What very few U.S. teens seem to believe, to put it one way, is that religion is about orienting people to the authoritative will and purposes of God or about serious, life-changing participation in the practices of the community of people who inherit the religiocultural and ethical tradition. As far as we could discern, what most teens appear to believe instead is that religion is about God responding to the authoritative desires and feelings of people. In simple terms, religion is essentially a tool for people to use to get what they want, as determined not by their religion but by their individual feelings and desires. Of course, very few teenagers, or adults, come out and say it in these crude terms. But such a view emerges rather clearly from a systematic analysis of our interviews.

Before exploring this dominant view of religion among U.S. youth, however, we first consider the minority alternative voices flanking the majority on either side. On the one end, there is a minority of youth, fewer than 10 percent, who are either so disconnected from anything religious that they simply have no opinion, or who merely suspect that religion could not accomplish much of value for anyone. Religion is not something one can use to accomplish anything important; religion is just an incomprehensible thing that some people do for reasons unknown. Such teens express sentiments like, “I have no idea what religious people think they are doing” and “I don't see religion has any point, it's just whatever.”

On the other end, there is a very small minority of teenagers, mostly conservative Protestants and Mormons, who are devoted to following their religious faiths and who can speak in at least fragments of terms other than that of individual instrumental benefits. One 15-year-old white conservative Protestant girl from Indiana, for instance, explained that religion shapes everything she does and pushes her “to want to be who I can be just for the kingdom of God.” This was one of only two Christian teens we interviewed who referred to “the kingdom of God.” One 16-year-old white Mormon girl from Utah told us, “I want to be like Christ and try to live that way, and I think that changes the goal.” A 14-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from Delaware explained that praying and reading the Bible are important to him because he needs them “to live for God.” One 17-year-old white conservative Protestant girl from California explained that when she does good things “I've glorified God in some way.” A 15-year-old white conser (p.150) vative Protestant girl from Georgia spoke of God as in charge of “everything that goes on in my life and his will in my life is for my own good and for his own glory. He is a compassionate, loving God, but can be wrathful against his enemies, both judging and loving at the same time. Even God's enemies bring him glory. That he defeats them and protects his own brings him glory.” One 13-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from Kentucky talked about the need to “have Christ in your heart and live every day for him.” A 16-year-old black Protestant boy from North Carolina said, “I try to do everything the Bible says to do, that's what I try to govern myself by, the Bible.” One 13-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from California said, “My religious practices strengthen my spiritual walk and make me more of the person God would want me to be.” And a 13-year-old white mainline Protestant girl from Colorado described how, before she came to faith, she took part in any poor behavior she wanted to, but that when she “got saved” that “changed the type of person I am, it changed my mind, so now it's just like I don't want to do that stuff.” Whatever anyone thinks of the theologies and spiritualities represented in these statements, they nonetheless illustrate something of a departure from the individualistic instrumentalism that dominates U.S. teen religion by making God and not individuals the center of religious faith. But such statements and the religious outlooks they convey are rare among U.S. teenagers.

The overwhelming number of U.S. teens engage and value religion, not for the sake of God, or the common good of a just society, or for composing through identity and observance a distinctive community of people, but for the instrumental good it does them. So many are the interview quotes illustrating this observation that we simply enumerate them thematically in groups, without giving specific religion and demographic information for each statement. What follows, however, represents the broad view of most teenagers from all religious traditions.

First, one of the most important things that teens say religion provides them is guidance in being a “good person.” Most teens say they want to be good and most understand that good people generally do well in life and bad people often fare poorly. Religion is good because it supplies useful guidance and training in being the good person they think it is important to be. Hence, they answer questions about religion's value, importance, and role in their lives in the following kinds of terms:

It's important 'cause you have to have some kind of guidance in life, so I look to God.

Pretty important, without it it'd be harder to judge what's right and wrong.

Religion helps me make like a lot of decisions, gives just a guidance.

Training myself to be a moral person.

It's sort of guidelines for my life.


It's my blueprint for life, my guideline, it helps me through life.

It teaches me how to be like a good Jew, you know, go out and be a good person, moral.

Makes me a better person.

Just makes me a nicer person, 'cause before I hated adults but now it's a lot easier just to be, like, lovable and caring to people.

Closely related to the practical moral guidance and training that religion provides teenagers are the boundaries it sets to help teens stay out of trouble:

It helps me not to do a lot of bad things.

It's important to me to keep my life in order and stuff, to keep me straight.

Without religion, I'd be a troublemaker, I'd get out of hand.

I guess it keeps me on the right track.

It's probably good for me, helps keep me out of trouble.

Protects me from a lot of things, like a bunch of sex and AIDS.

I'm not in trouble no more, so it fixed my life and I don't get into trouble.

Makes me a better person, you don't just go out and do immoral things.

Most U.S. teens also value religion greatly for its ability to help them get through their problems and troubles:

It helps me get through trying times, helps me face problems.

Faith is important when I need God to comfort me and like that.

It's important, not like major important, but religion can help you get through a bad day.

If I ever have a problem I go pray, so.

You can do all things possible with Christ, it's true, you believe and he'll make a way for you to make a bad day turn into a good thing.

It's very central, whenever I need support with bigger problems I go to my parents, but with little problems, you know the little pushes, I ask God with that.

It affects day-by-day life, you can turn a bad day into a good day.

Yes, sir, they help me like in my problems or when I'm down, they help me see my way through.

It helps me deal with problems, 'cause I have a temper, so it calms me down for the most part.

It's influenced how I face problems, like there's this security and no matter what I'll be fine, I'll get over it and God's always there.


Whenever I have a problem, I can just go bear it and he'll always be supportive.

If I'm having a hard time, it makes me feel better.

Teenagers also report that religion gives them feelings of mental and psychological security, which they appreciate:

Praying just makes me feel more secure, like there's something there helping me out.

I know that doing religious practices will eventually bless me, that's why I do it.

Praying is a way to get something out, if you want to say something you go ahead and say it, like if you feel sorry, you ask forgiveness and that.

I'll pray to do the right thing and it kind of reassures me.

It's always there, helping you mentally, supporting you, you think things are okay.

Religion also helps teens keep a positive attitude about life:

If you don't live a godly life you will always think negative things.

Positive beliefs are important and valuable in religion.

Without my religious beliefs, I wouldn't accept the world or people for who they are, I wouldn't be able to tolerate or accept them.

We have a better day when we have family prayer, we just come home in a better attitude and atmosphere.

Many teens also often report that one of religion's mental and emotional benefits is in helping them keep a good perspective on life:

They help me to relax and remember all the little things that are important, to not worry about what isn't important. I forget that when I don't go to church.

It makes me see life clearly.

Gives me something to balance my outlook with and to check things against.

Gives me time. You need to think about and consider things that go on in your life.

They change my perspective on life, my perspective on problems, how I look at stuff.

They change what I focus on in life, focus on what's important instead of all these little things.

Just gives direction and puts a new focus on something.


A number of U.S. teenagers say that their religious faith has given them a personal confidence and direction which has proven helpful in living their lives:

Faith lets me move forward, like I have a shield in front of me that nobody can come past.

It gives more motivation to get up in the morning and do the same thing again, go to school and all that again.

Religious practices just provide me with something, like some support I'll always hold onto, faith that what I'm doing is all right and everything will work out the way it should.

It reinforces that I can do stuff, like helping friends, it's like, wow, I actually did something, I can do something about things.

Encouragement and enlightenment to go forward.

Teenagers also report that religion is good because it contributes to their growing maturity as they pass from childhood to adulthood:

It helps me understand more about what I can expect when I grow up.

I'm bettering myself by doing it, I become a better person, more mature and responsible in my life.

Makes me more prepared for the challenges that will come.

Helps me gain a sense of respect, that I'm supposed to do things, helps me understand and be more respectful of things.

Some U.S. teens even suggest that religion has served to help them be successful, socially involved, and healthier:

I would say prayer is an essential part of my success.

If I need something I can just pray.

Affects my life a lot 'cause I wouldn't be part of the youth movement, one of the biggest events of my life, and the experience of summer camp.

Ever since I've been praying, we've been eating healthier and I haven't been getting hurt as much.

But one of U.S. adolescents' highest compliments to religion and faith is simply that they help teenagers to feel good and to be happy:

It's pretty central, it helps me feel better.

If something's wrong, just a way to escape it and make things better, just feel better, whatever, positive.

I would probably feel lost, feel that emptiness, there would be that space nobody but God can fill.

It makes you feel better.


Our religious observances, some of them are a lot of fun and can really make you happy to do them.

Going to church makes me feel better, like if I go in angry, when I come out I am really happy.

It makes me feel better, kind of confident about my beliefs.

I guess it just makes me feel at ease knowing that I did something good.

Probably just more happy, 'cause it keeps reminding you of all the stuff.

Like the practices help me be a happier person with less problems going on.

It makes me a happier person, that I'm doing everything I'm supposed to do.

Broad swaths of U.S. teenagers—girls and boys, young and old, wealthy and poor, rural and urban, Southern and Northeastern, white and black and Hispanic and Asian—tell us that religion is very valuable, important, and influential in their lives. This is no doubt true in many cases. But observers should know that the religion to which most of them appear to be referring seems significantly different in character from versions of the same faith in centuries past. The religion that many U.S. teens acclaim today is not commendable for youth because, for example, it is revealed in truth by holy and almighty God who calls all to a turning from self and a serving of God in gratitude, humility, and righteousness. Nor is it commendable, alternatively, because it inducts them into a community of people embodying a historically rooted tradition of identity, practices, and ethics that define their selfhood, loyalties, and commitments. Rather, the religion that many U.S. teenagers acclaim today is for them commendable because it helps people make good life choices and helps them feel happy.11 What legitimates the religion of most youth today is not that it is the life-transformative, transcendent truth, but that it instrumentally provides mental, psychological, emotional, and social benefits that teens find useful and valuable. This is not an unambiguously bad (or good) fact. Most people would hope and expect that religious faith would indeed help youth to behave well, avoid trouble, solve problems, feel supported, and be happy. No American religious tradition actively promotes poor behavior, negative attitudes, and unhappiness. But all major American religious traditions have historically been about more than helping individuals make advantageous choices and maintain good feelings. However one evaluates the character and texture of contemporary American religion as reflected by most U.S. youth, it must be acknowledged that it seems qualitatively quite different from the faith of the same traditions in previous eras. And a key aspect of that difference is the primarily instrumental use value that it offers and is praised for by individual believers.

(p.155) “You Don't Have to Be Religious to Be Good”

For all of religion's functional value in the eyes of most U.S. teenagers, particularly in providing moral guidelines, religion actually bears a complicated relationship in teenagers' minds with what goes into moral living. Most U.S. teens think that one of religion's primary functions is to help people be good. But they do not view religion as necessary for anyone being good, because they see many means to being good and many good nonreligious people. Hence, most U.S. teenagers conclude that religion is a nonnecessary condition for achieving one of its primary functions. In other words, the thing religion specializes in does not actually require religion to achieve. Consequently, many U.S. teenagers construct religion in nonessential terms, as an optional individual lifestyle choice that does indeed help many people but is certainly not itself ultimately necessary.

One of the key teenage assumptions in this religion-morality equation is that right and wrong are simply common sense, something everyone just knows. For most teens, morality is not something that requires much thought or discernment. Everyone just knows it; whether they choose to live morally or not is simply their individual choice. Nobody therefore finally needs religion to specify what is right and wrong. The good, the right, and the true are not per se defined as the will or word of God, for instance. They are just things that any reasonable person knows. For many youth, the Bible, for example, nicely specifies what is right and wrong, but in any case pretty much everyone knows what is right and wrong, Bible or no Bible. In achieving the effect of living a good life, religion is therefore not a necessary condition. For some, it may be a sufficient condition. But for others, it may be entirely optional.

Despite the widespread teenage belief that moral right and wrong are obvious matters of common sense, U.S. teenagers actually disagree significantly among themselves about what actually is moral and immoral and why a person should be motivated to act morally. Some teens cite religious referents like the Ten Commandments and afterlife consequences to define moral boundaries and motives. They may believe that such a morality is universally known and applicable and not ultimately grounded in a particular religious tradition, but they nonetheless locate its clearest expression—at least “for them”—in teachings found in places like the Bible. On the other hand, for many U.S. teens, morality's core or covering law seems to be essentially “Thou shalt not hurt oneself or others.” For these teens, morality has little substance or content other than the general rule, needing application in various situations, that it is wrong to hurt other people or oneself. What these teens learn in school about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse and unprotected sex plays a significant role in defining key moral issues. There also seems to be some connection here to the new American “bourgeois bohemian” morality described by David Brooks.12 A more explicitly utilitarian version of the “Thou shalt not hurt” rule that more than a few teenagers seem to have adopted is that what is “immoral” is defined as that which significantly puts at risk being successful in life, that which would screw up one's life chances as defined by school, (p.156) science, and cultural common sense. In this approach, it seems that behaviors such as cheating, lying, stealing, getting into fights, and abusing drugs are wrong simply because they might cause an automobile accident, get one expelled from school, reduce one's chances of getting into a good college, and so on. In this consequentialist morality, not succeeding per se seems to be that which constitutes the wrong and immoral. Last, there are a small minority of U.S. teenagers who claim to be consistent moral relativists. For them, moral goodness is simply whatever people want it to be, whatever they happen to want to think and do. Although some give in on this hard line when pressed, others continue to insist on no existing objective moral standard or even general rule of thumb. They profess to be pure moral social constructionists who are unflinching about the larger Machiavellian implications.

A Brief Excursus: On Living in Morally Significant and Insignificant Universes

We have just said that some U.S. teenagers openly profess to be Machiavellian moral relativists who regard right and wrong as little more than contingent and relative cultural constructions that people, being more or less aware of what they are doing, use to feel good about themselves and to manipulate others. This observation relates closely to another that we made in our interviews, which we think is worth taking a brief detour here to discuss. Namely, we observed in our interviews that at least some contemporary teenagers seem to live in what we might call a “morally insignificant universe.” In such a universe, moral commitments, decisions, obligations, and actions have little if any larger meaning, purpose, significance, or consequence; that universe is, in short, a morally empty reality. The next two paragraphs contrast this kind of universe with what we might by comparison think of as a morally significant universe.

Contrasted with living in the morally insignificant universe, to live in a morally significant universe means living one's life within a larger, morally meaningful order that provides significant direction and purpose to one's thoughts, feelings, and actions. Such a universe provides weight and gravity to living. It impregnates life's choices, commitments, and moral actions with purpose. To exist in a morally significant universe means that one's single, modest life is at another level also inescapably bound up to a larger framework of consequence. In a morally significant universe, one's decisions and practices and deeds bear the burden and reflect the significance of a much bigger story or system of import. In such a reality, moral temptations are serious business, as choices for right and wrong reverberate far beyond our own lives and affirm or violate a larger cosmic order. That order may be an inexorable and self-evident natural law woven into the fabric of reality against or with which our lives run in ways that over the long haul reveal that we inevitably reap what we sow. It may be the work of a perfect and loving God in history and in the lives of men and women whose daily choices and habits either resist or respond to God's redemptive purposes. It may be a long and hard historical human struggle for freedom, equality, justice, or sisterhood and brotherhood in which (p.157) one expends one's life to play a small but perhaps notable role in moving history forward. Whatever the exact universe may be, it is a morally significant one and in a big way. Its significance is not derived from one's own life. Significance rather emanates to selves from the very order of things, the creation, the cosmos, the human story, or the light and force of history. One's own single life finds its significance not in relation to itself, but by becoming connected to this larger moral order, by living a life in tune with and reflecting that order. In which case, so many desires, struggles, disciplines, and deeds signify not only themselves but also much larger purposes and consequences. One at once bears in one's living the burden of history and the cosmos, and yet is simultaneously relieved of that burden by knowing that their momentum and outcome are somehow formed by forces much larger than one's own life. A morally significant universe has a telos, an end, goal, and standard, by which one knows where one is and to where one is headed. It thus provides individuals the big script of a very real drama, in the sense both that the story is intensely dramatic and that the drama is reality, within which the living out of one's life really means something significant because of the role it somehow plays in helping to perform the larger dramatic narrative. In a morally significant universe, actions really do embody and reflect bigger challenges, struggles, failures, and victories—and all things really are finally going somewhere important. Many teenagers in the United States today live with more or less self-awareness in such a universe. But not all do.

When a person lives in a morally insignificant universe, by contrast, as some teenagers we interviewed appear to, all of what is described in the previous paragraph evaporates. Instead, there are only the specific people, pains, pleasures, and opportunities concretely before a person at any given time. There are no demons tempting or angels watching over anyone. There is no natural law or world-historic struggles and achievements. When one looks up into the stars, one sees not the gods, nor the handiwork of God, nor the portentous alignment of planets; one simply sees empty space in which nobody else is at home. People living in such a universe find themselves in a small corner of that empty space of which their short lives have come by chance and for reasons nonexistent into being on this minor and insignificant bit of carbon floating in a galaxy destined for extinction. There is no Creator who set humanity here and guides our lives and history with Providence. There is no larger law-like order in nature that structures the moral living of the human race. There is little worth spending life to fight for that does not seem arbitrarily chosen. There is no judgment, no final retribution or punishment, not even a remembrance of one's life or anything human after time and physics have run their course. There is no telos, but simply the given self and world and experience. Nothing more. In such a morally insignificant universe, the four dimensions of the morally significant universe collapse into two dimensions. What matters is simply what is in front and back and sideways. What is above and below doesn't particularly matter. And what some other people may believe is mysteriously hidden or present within the material world we occupy is either simply not on the radar screen of conceivable possibilities or is just not plausible—mere fairy (p.158) tales left over from more credulous ages. In such a universe, one's decisions and actions may indeed have certain pleasurable or painful consequences, but they have no particular meaning, purpose, or significance beyond that.13

We cannot here elaborate the sources, social locations, and social consequences of U.S. teenagers living in morally significant versus insignificant universes. Such a task would require its own dedicated chapter at least, which present space limitations will not allow. Suffice it to say here, however, in anticipation of a future elaboration elsewhere, that the living of U.S. teenagers in morally significant and insignificant universes strikes us as strongly correlated with teen religious commitment and lack thereof. For reasons not hard to grasp, those Christian, Jewish, and other religion teens we interviewed who are strong believers in and followers of their faith traditions tend to have lives that are quite firmly embedded in morally significant universes. By contrast, many of those teens who were quite serious about their nonreligious identities were also the ones who struck us as definitely living in morally insignificant universes. Such big-picture contrasts and associations are difficult to measure or quantify. But the association between levels of religious commitment and types of moral universes occupied seems to us, at least, to be very strong. Further research will have to determine if these observations are accurate and worth pursuing. Meanwhile, the remainder of this chapter returns to the more immediate task of describing the complex character of contemporary adolescent religion in the United States.


We have said that teenagers in the United States typically consider themselves to be self-directing, autonomous individuals, the key mediators or arbiters of all outside influences, fully in charge of their own interests, choices, and actions. The irony is that most teenagers are, of course, subject to all kinds of cultural directives and pressures which powerfully govern their assumptions, decisions, and behaviors. For example, although most teens went to great pains in our interviews to deny the operation of peer pressure in their lives, such peer pressures were patently obvious to us in many of the stories they recounted. Most teenagers simply could or would not see them.

“It'll Be More Important When I'm Older”

The religious and spiritual lives of most U.S. teenagers are significantly shaped by what are to them largely invisible cultural scripts about how people of various ages are supposed to engage religion. Most American youth, in other words, bring strong life course assumptions and expectations to their experiences of religion, often tacitly viewing faith's relevance and importance in terms of “age-appropriate” stages.14 This is a very natural and necessary social ordering process. In any given society, individual human lives are always structured and guided by particular cultural expectations about what is normal and expected at different stages of the life course. What is normative for a preteen is different from that for a middle-aged adult, for instance. As part (p.159) of this invisible cultural life course script, most U.S. teens view numerous other behaviors as also life stage–driven. Many consider drinking and partying, for example, to be things that teenagers are supposed to be doing, but that they will give up when they get older and settle down. Such culturally scripted stereotypes of the “typical” teenage lifestyle often greatly influence the thinking and behaviors of many youth.

One related background assumption of at least some U.S. teenagers, perhaps especially Catholic, Jewish, and mainline Protestant teenagers, is that religion should play quite a different role in the life of teenagers than that of adults. Some youth, for instance, seem to assume that while religion is mostly good for teens, as we saw above, it is not necessarily a naturally important part of teenage life. And it is sometimes presumed that it will be even less important for older, more independent teens and young adults, when it is often assumed that its role will diminish. More than a few teens also seem to assume that religion is something they will likely return to when they are older, especially when they have children—either because it is something they themselves will be more interested in learning about, or because their children will need it, or both. Some teens also expect that their future spouse will significantly shape their religious involvements, especially in encouraging religious service attendance. It would be misleading to overstate this point. Religiosity as culturally demarcated by presupposed life course–scripted social roles is not the most common or obvious theme in adolescents' discussions about religion. But the theme is definitely there for some. For example, this 14-year-old Asian Jewish girl from California expressed it clearly: “At the moment religion's not that important. I guess when I get older it might become more so, but right now being with my friends and having fun and being a teenager is more important to me.” This 15-year-old white mainline Protestant girl from Alabama made the same point a bit more subtly: “Praying and reading devotionals and going to church is just something I do. I don't think I've gotten to the how-it-affects-me yet. But I'm pretty sure that it will, I'll get to that point.” One 17-year-old black mainline Protestant girl from Louisiana elaborated the point about age-appropriate religious differences in this way: “A lot of people I know get caught up to think that it's more acceptable when you're a teenager to not understand everything with religion. You do know what's right and wrong. But you take chances and do things that feel good at the moment. But when I'm older, I think, like a lot of people, you think you've done everything that is possible for you to do, so you just try to settle down, be mature. Grow more and help others to grow.” Approaching religion with such a presumed life course script in hand means that at least some U.S. teenagers feel free not to pay much attention for the moment to what religious faith means and how it ought to shape their lives. One 14-year-old Hispanic Catholic boy from Texas, for instance, told us, “It hasn't influenced me yet, but I'm hoping when I become more active that it will have influenced me.” Likewise, this 15-year-old white Jewish girl from California answered our question frankly: “Does my religious faith influence me? Um, not right now.” One 17-year-old white Catholic boy from Connecticut (whose story we describe in greater depth in chapter (p.160) 6) went so far as to postpone the time he said he would take religion seriously to just prior to his death: “I'm sure when I get older I'll have to do more [with religion], but it's something that becomes a lot more important later on, you know, like when you're about to die.” Again, not every teenager we interviewed said such things. Not even the majority of teens did. But enough teenagers did speak in such terms that we did notice the theme, suggesting that expectations of life course–scripted, low-level teen religiosity serves as a background cultural structure that shapes the religious assumptions, interests, and actions of at least some U.S. youth.

“I Don't Want to Be Offensive or Anything”

A second major cultural influence on U.S. adolescent practices of religion that emerged from our interviews concerned the expression of their personal religious beliefs in public. Nearly all U.S. teens seem to have adopted a posture of civility and a careful and ambiguous inclusiveness when discussing religion with possible “others,” especially in public. It is possible that some teens especially comported themselves in this way with us, seeing us as strangers, professional interviewers from a secular research university. But this was clearly not the entire explanation for their civility. By so much of what so many of them said, it was clear that American teenagers have been very well trained to avoid religious particularity and possible discomfort in discussions. Their natural tendency is to studiously avoid personal expressions of religious specificity, seemingly in deference to normative rules governing the public-private divide in our culture. We assured and reminded our interviewees that our questions had no right or wrong answers, that everything they said was confidential, and that we really wanted to know whatever they actually thought, felt, and believed, not what they think we might want to hear. Despite that fact, many of the teens we interviewed seemed to take great care not to offend us, not to say things that would be politically incorrect. We believe that over the course of our interviews we did manage to put our teens at ease and help them be comfortable speaking frankly and honestly. But their natural first instincts were to be civil, inclusive, and nonoffensive when it comes to discussing the subjects of religion and spirituality.

Part of this careful civility seems rooted in the high premium that most teenagers place on being open to a vast variety of ideas, people, and experiences. It is normative in contemporary U.S. youth culture both to be open to if not accepting of nearly everything that comes along, and not to be “too” committed to or earnest about anything absolute or contentious. This itself is another expression of anti-judgmentalism derived from the American individualism that adolescents have thoroughly assimilated, as described above. Individuals can decide only for themselves and so cannot strongly evaluate or judge anyone or anything other. Part of obeying that general rule is being careful not to speak any potentially upsetting or exclusive things, particularly about religion. It is also obvious that, in all of this, public schools have served as an effective training ground for teaching teenagers to be civil, inclusive, and nonoffensive when it comes to faith and spiritual matters. In addition to (p.161) the general official promulgation of tolerance and acceptance of all cultural difference that normally begins in kindergarten, most teenagers report that their school teachers avoid discussing religion like the plague and that their school friends largely act as if religion is not part of anybody's life. Thus, we found many of the teenagers we interviewed to be—at first, at least—polite, judicious, and ambiguous. We sometimes had to work to create a comfort level for teens to admit, for example, that they love contemporary Christian music, that they believe their religion is the one true religion, or that they think some people will go to hell. We are confident that in the end most teens we interviewed were open and honest with us in discussing religion. But, again, that did not seem to be their first, natural, or most comfortable response.


One final general observation from our interviews: in the ecology of American adolescents' lives, religion clearly operates in a social-structurally weak position, competing for time, energy, and attention and often losing against other, more dominant demands and commitments, particularly school, sports, television, and other electronic media. If we conceive of adolescents' lives as bundles of finite interest, energy, and investment, then we can think of the various social institutions that touch adolescents' lives as seeking to lay claim to shares of those resources. Different institutions enjoy different capacities to extract and consume teenagers' attention, energy, and investments. School, for example, enjoys a tremendous amount of legitimacy and authority in demanding significant portions of teenagers' waking lives and disposable resources. Few teenagers seem to form their most significant social relationships in their religious congregations; instead, school appears to be the center of their most important social ties. Sports, peer groups, shopping and consuming, television, paid work, computers, and romance also compete to capture teenagers' attention and energy.

So what place is religion able to secure among these vying institutions and activities? For most U.S. teenagers, quite a small place at the end of the table for a short period of time each week (if that). Indeed, given religion's limited structured access to typical U.S. teenagers' lives, it is remarkable that as many teens insist on religion's high importance and great influence in their lives as do. Religion simply occupies a largely losing structural position when it comes to most adolescents' obligations, schedules, routines, and habits. When it comes to institutions possessing opportunities to form the lives of youth, religion is not among the more advantaged players. This general situation is evident in the way many teenagers talk about, for instance, their religious practices. Despite frequent declarations about religion being a “top priority” or “extremely important” in their lives, more than a few teenagers we interviewed seemed to consider religious service attendance, for example, a nice thing to do if and when it is feasible. “I go to church whenever I can, when there isn't homework pressing or a game scheduled” was a common (p.162) statement on the matter. For many teenagers, then, religion is often the thing that gives; school, sports, television, friends, and the like are the things that demand the giving. As one 16-year-old black Jehovah's Witness girl from California related:

I'm supposed to read the Bible by myself every day, but I don't because of that little magic box called TV and this other little magic box called computer. So my Bible reading kind of goes bye-bye [laughs]. Like I said, if I'm not pushed and it looks like work, I'm not gonna do it. I mean I appreciate the Bible and everything but some parts are kind of [hard to] wade through. I also like attending religious services, then I don't like going, 'cause that means I have to stop what I'm doing, get ready, and leave my house, and it's just [hard], you know, when you're sitting at home on the couch in front of one of your magic boxes.

Especially when religion is structurally isolated from the primary schedules and networks that comprise teenagers' daily lives are teens' religious and spiritual lives most weak. It is, by contrast, when teens' family, school, friends, and sports lives and religious congregations somehow connect, intersect, and overlap that teens exhibit the most committed and integral religious and spiritual lives. It does not take a Ph.D. to understand why. But such effects are nonetheless substantial. That parents are typically the primary agents in making such connections and overlapping happen or not is yet another way that parents are crucial influences in forming the religious and spiritual lives of their teenage children, for better or for worse.


The themes and analyses explored in this chapter have followed varied topical trains of thought and sometimes pursued diversions and digressions. But what does the whole look like when one puts it all together? When we get past adolescent inarticulacy about religion, systematically sort through the myriad stories and statements about religious faith and practice, and pull apart and piece together what seem to be the key ideas and relevant issues, what might one conclude? Here we attempt to summarize our observations by venturing a general thesis about teenage religion and spirituality in the United States. We advance our thesis somewhat tentatively as less than a conclusive fact but more than mere conjecture: we suggest that the de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers is what we might well call “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” The creed of this religion, as codified from what emerged from our interviews, sounds something like this:

  • 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.

  • (p.163)
  • 3. The central goal of life is 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 a problem.

  • 5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Such a de facto creed is particularly evident among mainline Protestant and Catholic youth, but is also visible among black and conservative Protestants, Jewish teens, other religious types of teenagers, and even many nonreligious teenagers in the United States. Note that no teenager would actually use the terminology “Moralistic Therapeutic Deist” to describe himself or herself. That is our summarizing term. And very few teenagers would lay out the five points of its creed as clearly and concisely as we have just done. But when one sifts through and digests hundreds of discussions with U.S teenagers about religion, God, faith, prayer, and other spiritual practices, what seems to emerge as the dominant, de facto religious viewpoint turns out to be some version of this faith. We could literally fill another chapter of this book with more quotes from teen interviews illustrating Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and exploring its nuances and variants. Given space limitations, however, suffice it here to examine merely a few more representative quotes depicting this religion's core components.

First, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one's health, and doing one's best to be successful. One 17-year-old white Mormon boy from Utah said this very clearly: “I believe in, well, my whole religion is where you try to be good and, ah, if you're not good then you should just try to get better, that's all.” Being moral in this faith means being the kind of person that other people will like, fulfilling one's personal potential, and not being socially disruptive or interpersonally obnoxious. As more than one teenager summarized morality for us, including the Hindu boy quoted above, “Just don't be an asshole, that's all.” Such a moral vision is inclusive of most religions, which are presumed ultimately to stand for equivalent moral views. Thus, a nonreligious white girl from Maryland said, “Morals play a large part in religion. Morals are good if they're healthy for society. Like Christianity, which is all I know, the values you get from, like, the Ten Commandments. I think every religion is important in its own respect. You know, if you're Muslim, then Islam is the way for you. If you're Jewish, well, that's great too. If you're Christian, well good for you. It's just whatever makes you feel good about you.” Feeling good about oneself is thus also an essential aspect of living a moral life, according to this dominant de facto teenage religious faith.15 Which leads to our next point.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is, second, about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents.16 This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one's prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character (p.164) through suffering, of basking in God's love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etcetera. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people. We have already examined numerous quotes to this effect in the pages above. A few more will help to complete the picture. One 15-year-old Hispanic conservative Protestant girl from Florida expressed the therapeutic benefits of her faith in these terms: “God is like someone who is always there for you, I don't know, it's like God is God. He's just like somebody that'll always help you go through whatever you're going through. When I became a Christian I was just praying and it always made me feel better.” Making a similar point, though drawing it out from a different religious tradition, this 14-year-old white Jewish girl from Washington State describes what her faith is all about in this way: “I guess for me Judaism is more about how you live your life. Part of the guidelines are like how to live and I guess be happy with who you are, 'cause if you're out there helping someone, you're gonna feel good about yourself, you know?” Thus, service to others can be one means to feeling good about oneself. Other personal religious practices can also serve that therapeutic end, as this 15-year-old Asian Buddhist girl from Alabama observed: “When I pray, it makes me feel good afterwards.” Similarly, one 15-year-old white conservative Protestant girl from Illinois explained: “Religion is very important, because when you have no one else to talk to about stuff, you can just get it off your chest, you just talk [to God]. It's good.” And this 14-year-old East Indian Hindu girl from California said of her religious practices, “I don't know, they just really help me feel good.” It is thus no wonder that so many religious and nonreligious teenagers are so positive about religion, for the faith many of them have in mind effectively helps to achieve a primary life goal: to feel good and happy about oneself and one's life. It is also no wonder that most teens are so religiously inarticulate. As long as one is happy, why bother with being able to talk about the belief content of one's faith?

Finally, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created 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. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance. He is often described by teens as “watching over everything from above” and “the creator of everything and … just up there now controlling everything.” As one 15-year-old Arabic Muslim boy from California put it: “God is like an entity that decides when, if he wants to intervene with a lot of things. To me God is pretty much like intervention, like extreme luck. Say you're $50 away from something and you find $50 on the floor, then that's probably God's intervention or something like that. But other than that it just seems like he's monitoring. He just kind of stays back and watches, like he's watching a play, like he's a producer. He makes the play all possible and then he watches it, and if there's (p.165) something he doesn't like he changes it.” For many teens, as with adults, God sometimes does get involved in people's lives, but usually only when they call on him, mostly when they have some trouble or problem or bad feeling that they want resolved. In this sense, the Deism here is revised from its classical eighteenth-century version by the therapeutic qualifier, making the distant God selectively available for taking care of needs. As this 14-year-old white mainline Protestant boy from Colorado said, “I believe there's a God, so sometimes when I'm in trouble or in danger, then I'll start thinking about that.” Like the deistic God of the eighteenth-century philosophers, the God of contemporary teenage Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is primarily a divine Creator and Lawgiver. He designed the universe and establishes moral law and order. But this God is not trinitarian, he did not speak through the Torah or the prophets of Israel, was never resurrected from the dead, and does not fill and transform people through his Spirit. This God is not demanding. He actually can't be, because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process. As one 14-year-old white Catholic boy from Pennsylvania, in response to our inquiry about why religion matters, said, “ 'Cause God made us and if you ask him for something I believe he gives it to you. Yeah, he hasn't let me down yet. [So what is God like?] God is a spirit that grants you anything you want, but not anything bad.” Similarly, this 17-year-old conservative Protestant girl from Florida told us, “God's all around you, all the time. He believes in forgiving people and whatnot and he's there to guide us, for somebody to talk to and help us through our problems. Of course, he doesn't talk back.” This last statement is perhaps doubly telling: God, being distant, does not directly verbally answer prayers, according to this girl, but he also does not offer any challenging comebacks to or arguments about our requests. Perhaps the worst the God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism can do is simply fail to provide his promised therapeutic blessings, in which case those who believe in him are entitled to be grumpy. Thus, one 16-year-old white mainline Protestant boy from Texas complained with some sarcasm in his interview, “Well, God is almighty, I guess [yawns]. But I think he's on vacation right now because of all the crap that's happening in the world, 'cause it wasn't like this back when he was famous.” Likewise, this 14-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from Ohio told us, “God is an overall ruler who controls everything, so like, if I'm depressed or something and things aren't going my way I blame it on him, I don't know why.” But few teens we talked to end up blaming God for failing them, because Moralistic Therapeutic Deism usually seems to be effective in delivering its promised benefits to its many American teenage believers.

We want to be very clear here about our thesis. We are not saying that all U.S. teens are adherents of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Some are simply disengaged from anything religious or spiritual, and others embrace substantive religious beliefs and practices that effectively repudiate those of this re (p.166) visionist faith. Some teens do appear to be truly very serious about their religious faith in ways that seem faithful to the orthodox claims of the faith traditions they profess. We are also not saying than anyone has founded an official religion by the name of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, nor that most U.S. teenagers have abandoned their religious denominations and congregations to practice it elsewhere or under another name. Rather, it seems that the latter is simply colonizing many established religious traditions and congregations in the United States, that it is becoming the new spirit living in the old body. Its typical embrace and practice is de facto, functional, practical, and tacit, not formal or acknowledged as a distinctive religion. Furthermore, we are not suggesting that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a religious faith limited to teenage adherents in the United States. To the contrary, it seems that it is also a widespread, popular faith among very many U.S. adults. Our religiously conventional adolescents seem to be merely absorbing and reflecting religiously what the adult world is routinely modeling for and inculcating in its youth.

Moreover, we are not suggesting that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a religion that teenagers (and adults) either adopt and practice wholesale or not at all. Instead, the elements of its creed are normally assimilated by degrees, in parts, admixed with elements of more traditional religious faiths. Indeed, this religious creed appears to operate as a parasitic faith. It cannot sustain its own integral, independent life; rather it must attach itself like an incubus to established historical religious traditions, feeding on their doctrines and sensibilities, and expanding by mutating their theological substance to resemble its own distinctive image. This helps to explain why millions of U.S. teenagers and adults are not self-declared, card-carrying, organizationally gathered Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. This religion generally does not and cannot stand on its own, so its adherents must be Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, Jewish Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, Mormon Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, and even nonreligious Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. These may be either devout followers or mere nominal believers of their respective traditional faiths, but they often have some connection to an established historical faith tradition that this alternative faith feeds on and gradually co-opts if not devours. Believers in each larger tradition practice their own versions of this otherwise common parasitic religion. The Jewish version, for instance, may emphasize the ethical living aspect of the creed, while the Methodist version stresses the getting-to-heaven part. Each of the believers then can think of themselves as belonging to the specific religious tradition they name as their own—Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Mormon, whatever—while simultaneously sharing the cross-cutting, core beliefs of their de facto common Moralistic Therapeutic Deist faith. In effect, these believers get to enjoy whatever particulars of their own faith heritages that appeal to them, while also reaping the benefits of this shared, harmonizing, interfaith religion. This helps to explain the noticeable lack of religious conflict between teenagers of apparently different faiths. For, in fact, we suggest, very many of (p.167) them actually share the same deeper religious faith: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. What is there to have conflict about?

One way to gauge people's interest in different matters is to track their language use. What do people talk about? How often do they use different kinds of key words and phrases? The idea behind this approach is that people's discourse roughly reflects their concerns and interests. We used this method as one means of assessing U.S. teenagers' relative orientations to religious and therapeutic concerns. We systematically counted in our interview transcripts the number of teenagers who made reference to specific subjects or phrases of interest. We found, first, that relatively few U.S. teenagers made reference to a variety of historically central religious and theological ideas. The following list shows the number of teenagers who explicitly mentioned these concepts in their interviews:

  • 47 personally sinning or being a sinner

  • 13 obeying God or the church

  • 12 religious repentance or repenting from wrongdoing

  • 9 expressing love for God

  • 8 righteousness, divine or human

  • 7 resurrection or rising again of Jesus

  • 6 giving glory to or glorifying God

  • 6 salvation

  • 5 resurrection of the dead on the Last Day

  • 5 the kingdom of God (2 Christian, 3 Mormon)

  • 5 keeping Sabbath (of 18 Jewish interviews)17

  • 4 discipleship or being a religious disciple

  • 4 God as Trinity

  • 4 keeping Kosher (of 18 Jewish interviews)

  • 3 the grace of God

  • 3 the Bible as holy

  • 3 honoring God in life

  • 3 loving one's neighbor

  • 3 observing high holy days (of 18 Jewish interviews)

  • 2 God as holy or reflecting holiness

  • 2 the justice of God

  • 0 self-discipline

  • 0 working for social justice

  • 0 justification or being justified

  • 0 sanctification or being sanctified

When teenagers talked in their interviews about grace, they were usually talking about the television show Will and Grace, not about God's grace. When teenagers discussed honor, they were almost always talking about taking honors courses or making the honor role at school, very rarely about honoring God with their lives. When teens mentioned being justified, they almost al (p.168) ways meant having a reason for doing something behaviorally questionable, not having their relationship with God made right.

For comparison with these tallies on religious terms, we also counted the number of teens who made reference to the key therapeutic ideas of feeling happy, good, better, and fulfilled. What we found, as shown in the following list, is that U.S. teenagers were much more likely to talk in terms broadly related to therapeutic concerns than in the religious terms examined above:

  • 112 personally feeling, being, getting, or being made happy

  • 99 feeling good about oneself or life

  • 92 feeling better about oneself or life

  • 26 being or feeling personally satisfied or enjoying life satisfaction

  • 21 being or feeling personally fulfilled

Note that these are not total number of times that teenagers used a word or phrase, but simply the number of teens who used them. In fact, our teenagers used the single, specific phrase to “feel happy” well more than 2,000 times. In short, our teen interview transcripts reveal clearly that the language that dominates U.S. adolescent interests and thinking about life, including religious and spiritual life, is primarily about personally feeling good and being happy. That is what defines the dominant epistemological framework and evaluative standard for most contemporary U.S. teenagers—and probably for most of their baby boomer parents. This, we think, has major implications for religious faiths seriously attempting to pass on the established beliefs and practices of their historical traditions.

What we are theorizing here, in other words, is the very real existence of a shared American religion that is analogous to the American civil religion that Robert Bellah astutely described in 1967,18 yet that operates at an entirely different level than civil religion. It is not uncommon for people to think of the United States as containing a variety of diverse religions that coexist more or less harmoniously: Protestant, Catholic, Jew; Freewill Baptist, Irish Catholic, Conservative Judaism, Reformed Presbyterian, Latter Day Saint, and so on. But the reality is actually more complicated than that. “Religion” in the United States in fact separates itself out and operates at multiple levels in different ways. American religion is most obvious at the level of formal organizations, the plane on which denominations, seminaries, religious congregations, publishing houses, and other religious organizations operate. But religion also often operates distinctively at a level below the organizational plane, at the level of individual belief and practice. Here religious faith is often eclectic, idiosyncratic, and syncretistic, inconsistently—from the perspective of most organized religious traditions, at least—mixing together elements as diverse as belief in infant baptism, interest in horoscope predictions, and the collection of religious kitsch. This is the dimension that some scholars have called “lived religion” or “popular religion.”19 Beyond these two levels, Bellah's major contribution in 1967 was to reveal civil religion operating at yet another level, above the plane of formal religious organizations. Bellah very insightfully showed how religious symbols and discourse, appropriated (p.169) and abstracted from the Judeo-Christian tradition, are mobilized at a national civic level for purposes of national order, unity, and purpose.

What we are suggesting in our observations about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is that, to understand the fullness of religion in the United States, we need to see yet another level or plane of religious life or practice operating in this social order, as shown in figure 2. At the bottom are the eclectic, idiosyncratic, and discretely syncretistic faiths operating at the level of individual religion. Higher up abide the more coherent, systematized faiths operating on the plane of organizational religion. Even higher exists the nationally unifying political faith of American civil religion. But situated between the individual level at the bottom and the organized religions and civil religion on planes above that, there operates yet another distinct level of religion in the United States: the widely shared, interfaith religion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Like American civil religion, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism appropriates, abstracts, and revises doctrinal elements from mostly Christianity and Judaism for its own purpose. But it does so in a downward, apolitical direction. Its social function is not to unify and give purpose to the nation at the level of civic affairs. Rather, it functions to foster subjective well-being in its believers and to lubricate interpersonal relationships in the local public sphere. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism exists, with God's aid, to help people succeed in life, to make them feel good, and to help them get along with others—who otherwise are different—in school, at work, on the team, and in other routine areas of life.

                   God, Religion, WhateverOn Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Figure 2. A Model of the Distinct Levels of Operative American Religion.

(p.170) Finally, to suggest that religion in the United States operates complexly and distinctly on different levels does not mean that those levels never interact or influence each other. They do, as indicated by the arrows in figure 2. Purely individual beliefs, for instance, are shaped in part by the teachings of organized religion as well as by horoscopes, advice columns, talk show hosts, and so on. And American civil religion is affected both by liberal religious activism and by the Religious Right operating at the level of formal religious organization. The same observation about interlevel interaction and influence is also true of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It helps to organize and harmonize individual religious beliefs below it. It also both feeds on and shapes, one might say infects, the religious doctrines and practices at the organizational and institutional level above it. It also mirrors and may very well interface with American civil religion at the highest level by providing the nation's inhabitants a parallel and complementary common, unifying, functional faith that operates at a more apolitical, private, and interpersonal level of human life. The cultural influence of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism may also be nudging American civil religion in a “softer,” more inclusive, ecumenical, and multireligious direction. What in American civil religion that is conservative becomes more compassionate, what is liberal becomes more inclusive, and aspects that are particularistic are increasingly universalized. All can then together hold hands and declare in unison, “Everyone decides for themselves!” And those who believe that only the born again go to heaven who are justified by the spilled blood of Jesus Christ, or that the Angel Moroni really did appear to Joseph Smith with a new and commanding revelation, or that God's chosen people really must faithfully observe his laws are suspect. The flock of sheep is diversified and expanded, but certain goats remain part of the picture nonetheless.20


Adults in the United States over the past many decades have recurrently emphasized what separates teenagers from grown-ups, highlighting things that make each of them different and seemingly unable to relate to each other. But our conversations with ordinary teenagers around the country made clear to us, to the contrary, that in most cases teenage religion and spirituality in the United States are much better understood as largely reflecting the world of adult religion, especially parental religion, and are in strong continuity with it. Few teenagers today are rejecting or reacting against the adult religion into which they are being socialized. Rather, most are living out their religious lives in very conventional and accommodating ways. The religion and spirituality of most teenagers actually strike us as very powerfully reflecting the contours, priorities, expectations, and structures of the larger adult world into which adolescents are being socialized. In many ways, religion is simply happily absorbed by youth, largely, one might say, by osmosis, as one 16-year-old white Catholic boy from Pennsylvania stated so well: “Yeah, religion (p.171) affects my life a lot, but you just really don't think about it as much. It just comes natural I guess after a while.”

However, it appears that only a minority of U.S. teenagers are naturally absorbing by osmosis the traditional substantive content and character of the religious traditions to which they claim to belong. For, it appears to us, another popular religious faith, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, is colonizing 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 interpersonal niceness. Exactly how this process is affecting American Judaism and Mormonism we refrain here from further commenting on, as these faiths and cultures are not our primary fields of expertise. Other, more accomplished scholars in those areas will have to examine and evaluate these possibilities in greater depth. 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 to the actual historical Christian tradition,21 but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity's misbegotten stepcousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. It is not so much that U.S. Christianity is being secularized. Rather more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.


(1.) Anna Freud, “Adolescence,” in Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, vol. 13 (New York: International Universities Press, 1958), p. 275; also see G. Stanley Hall, Adolescence (New York: Appleton, 1904); Peter Blos, On Adolescence: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation (New York: Free Press, 1962). A number of recent popular books on youth reflect the same sampling bias, such that their subjects are hardly representative of the average or typical youth. For example, see Mary Pipher, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994); William Pollack, Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood (New York: Henry Holt, 1998); Daniel Kindlon and Michael Thompson, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (New York: Ballantine Books, 2000).

(2.) This standard account of contemporary youth religion has roots going back at least to concerns in the 1960s and 1970s about how the generation gap was undermining the religion of youth. See, for instance, C. Ellis Nelson, “Symposium on Our Divided Society, a Challenge to Religious Education: Can Protestantism Make It with the 'Now' Generation?,” Religious Education 64 (1969): 376–383; James Kimball, “A Generation Apart: The Gap and the Church,” Dialogue 5 (1970): 35–39.

(3.) See, for example, Elinor Burkett, Another Planet: A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School (New York: HarperCollins, 2001); Marcel Danesi, My Son Is an Alien: A Cultural Portrait of Today's Youth (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003); Donna Gaines, Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids (Chicago: Uni (p.320) versity of Chicago Press, 1990); Ron Powers, “The Apocalypse of Adolescence,” Atlantic Monthly 289, no. 3 (March 2002): 58–74; Newton Minow, Abandoned in the Wasteland (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995); Alexandra Parsons and Iain Parsons, Making It from 12 to 20: How to Survive Your Teens (London: Judy Piatkus, 1991); James Gardner, The Turbulent Teens: Understanding, Helping, Surviving (Carson, CA: Jalmar Press, 1993); Cheryl Dellasega, Surviving Ophelia: Mothers Share Their Wisdom in Navigating the Tumultuous Teenage Years (New York: Perseus Books, 2001).

(4.) Hence the felt need for the book by Sabrina Solin Weil, We're Not Monsters: Teens Speak Out about Teens in Trouble (New York: HarperCollins, 2002). See also Ron Powers, “The Apocalypse of Adolescence,” Atlantic Monthly 289, no. 3 (March 2002): 58–74; Cliff Linedecker, Killer Kids (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993); Charles Ewing, Kids Who Kill (New York: Avon, 1992).

(5.) In recent decades, many more solid studies of nonclinical adolescent populations have cast doubt on the storm and stress stereotype, emphasizing instead the diversity of adolescents' experiences, the lack of inevitability in any youth outcome, and the relative low levels of intense turmoil in teenagers' lives. See, for example, S. I. Powers, Stuart Hauser, and L. A. Kilner, “Adolescent Mental Health,” American Psychologist 44 (1989): 200–208; M. P. Rutter, P. Graham, O. Chadwick, and W. Yule, “Adolescent Turmoil: Fact or Fiction?,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17 (1976): 35–56. According to Stuart Hauser and Mary Kay Bowlds, only about 10 to 20 percent of adolescents manifest severe emotional disturbance, approximately the same percentage as in the adult population. “Stress, Coping, and Adaptation,” in S. Shirley Feldman and Glen Elliott, eds., At the Threshold: The Developing Adolescent (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990). Laurence Steinberg writes that only between 5 and 10 percent of families experience dramatic decline in the quality of parent-child relationships during the teenage years. “Autonomy, Conflict, and Harmony in the Family Relationship,” in S. Shirley Feldman and Glen Elliott, eds., At the Threshold: The Developing Adolescent (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. 260. A scholarly consensus has emerged, therefore, that most American youth and their families do not experience adolescence as an unavoidably distressing period of intense psychosocial turmoil. Adolescence does involve major changes for youth and their families, but most negotiate these changes fairly successfully. Sustained teenage rebellion against, conflict with, and alienation from parents and traditional social institutions are not only not inevitable, they are not the adolescent norm.

(6.) See, for instance, Steve Rabey, In Search of Authentic Faith: How Emerging Generations Are Transforming the Church (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2001); Tom Beaudoin, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000); William Mahedy and Janet Bernardi, A Generation Alone: Xers Making a Place in the World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994); George Barna, Baby Busters: The Disillusioned Generation (Chicago: Northfield, 1994); Tony Jones, Postmodern Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001); Jimmy Long, Generating Hope: A Strategy for Reaching the Postmodern Generation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997).

(7.) Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Praxis (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

(8.) Thanks to Kenda Dean for first putting this point to us in these terms.

(9.) Many observers, in our view, unhelpfully confuse a belief that one religion is true and others are less true or untrue with intolerance per se. It is possible to be a (p.321) religious particularist theologically and remain behaviorally very tolerant of differences, just as it is possible to be a religious pluralist or relativist and relate quite intolerantly toward those who disagree. For elaboration regarding conservative Protestants, see Christian Smith, Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

(10.) Nicholas Townsend, The Package Deal: Marriage, Work, and Fatherhood in Men's Lives (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), pp. 66–67.

(11.) Despite all of this, see Robert Lane, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

(12.) In David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000). For example, Brooks writes, “Bobos are uncomfortable with universal moral laws that purport to regulate pleasure. Bobos prefer more prosaic self-control regimes. The things that are forbidden are unhealthy and unsafe. The things that are encouraged are enriching and calorie burning. In other words, [they] regulate [their] carnal desires with health codes instead of moral codes” (p. 216).

(13.) See, for a somewhat related analysis, Douglas Porpora, Landscapes of the Soul: The Loss of Moral Meaning in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

(14.) For a larger theoretical framework, see Glen H. Elder, “The Life Course and Human Development,” in Richard M. Lerner, ed., Handbook of Child Psychology, Volume 1: Theoretical Models of Human Development (New York: Wiley, 2000), pp. 939–991; G. O. Hagestad and B. L. Neugarten, “Age and the Life Course,” in Robert Binstock and Ethel Shanas, eds., Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1985), pp. 46–61; Linda George, “Sociological Perspectives on Life Transitions,” Annual Review of Sociology 19 (1993): 353–373. For an interesting comparative case study of cultural scripts informing the role of the self in adolescent education, see Gerald Letendre, Learning to Be Adolescent: Growing Up in U.S. and Japanese Middle Schools (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

(15.) There is a strong connection between this vision of morality and the “emotivism” described by Alasdair MacIntyre in his 1982 book, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press). Note, too, the parallels with Nancy Ammerman's “Golden Rule Christianity” (in David Hall, ed., Lived Religion in America [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997], pp. 196–216).

(16.) For more on the therapeutic in culture, see James Nolan, The Therapeutic State: Justifying Government at Century's End (New York: New York University Press, 1998); Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966); Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Warner Books, 1979); James Hunter, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age without Good or Evil (New York: Basic Books, 2000); Joel Shuman and Keith Meador, Heal Thyself: Spirituality, Medicine, and the Distortion of Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Andrew Polsky, The Rise of the Therapeutic State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991); John S. Rice, A Disease of One's Own: Psychotherapy, Addiction, and the Emergence of Co-Dependency (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1996); Ronald Dworkin, The Rise of the Imperial Self (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996); Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1976); Daniel Yankelovich, New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down (New York: Bantam Books, 1981); James Nolan, Reinventing Justice: The American Drug Court Movement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).


(17.) Four other Jewish teenagers mentioned Sabbath specifically to say that they do not keep or observe the Sabbath. Three Jewish teens mentioned keeping Kosher to say that they do not.

(18.) Robert Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus (winter 1967): 1–21.

(19.) See, for example, David Hall, Lived Religion in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997); Erling Jorstad, Popular Religion in America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993).

(20.) For an explanation about how such status differentiations and cultural constructions of difference are essential to the making of human identities, see Christian Smith et al., American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

(21.) As specified by numerous, defining historical creeds and confessions, including the Apostle's Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, the Athanasian Creed, Canons of the Council of Orange, the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Augsburg Confession, the Canons of Dort, the Scots Confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, the First London Confession of Faith, the Schleitheim Articles, the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church, Documents of the Second Vatican Council, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.