The majority of American teens believe in God and worship in conventional congregations, but their religious knowledge is remarkably shallow and they have a tough time expressing the difference that faith makes in their lives, a new survey says.
Still, the notably comprehensive National of Study of Youth and Religion concluded that "religion really does matter" to teens.
The research found that devout teens hold more traditional sexual and other values than their nonreligious counterparts and are better off in emotional health, academic success, community involvement, concern for others, trust of adults and avoidance of risky behavior.
The four-year effort was conducted by 133 researchers and consultants led by sociologist Christian Smith of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Smith reports the full results in the new book "Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers" (Oxford University Press), written with doctoral student Melinda Lundquist Denton. The book will be published next week.
Direction of religion
Smith says the material "is not just about teenagers. It speaks more broadly about the direction of American religion."
The project involved a telephone survey of 3,370 randomly selected English- and Spanish-speaking Americans, ages 13-17, followed by face-to-face interviews with 267 of the respondents in 45 states. With ongoing funding from the Lilly Endowment, researchers will continue to track the same teens through 2007.
While America is becoming a more diverse nation, at least 80 percent of teens still identify as Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Mormon or Jewish, with most teens adhering to their parents' faith tradition, the report said.
Substantial majorities said they: Were affiliated with a local congregation (82 percent); had few or no doubts about their beliefs in the past year (80 percent); felt "extremely," "very" or "somewhat" close to God (71 percent); prayed alone a few times a week or more often (65 percent); and "definitely" believed in divine miracles from God (61 percent). Fifty-two percent said they attended worship two to three times a month or more often.
On most of the measured criteria, Mormon youths -- whose church runs daily high school religion classes -- were the most engaged in practicing their faith, followed in order by evangelical Protestants, black Protestants, mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews.
Youth programs probed
An entire chapter of the book examines Catholic youths, described as fairly weak "on most measures of religious faith, belief, experience and practice." The problem is attributed largely to ineffective youth programs and "the relative religious laxity of their parents."
Among Jews, only 44 percent believed in a personal God who is involved in peoples' lives today, and 34 percent said they never pray alone.
Future reports from the researchers will provide more detail on teens from specific religious denominations.
Though the phone survey depicted broad affinity with religion, the face-to-face interviews found that many teens' religious knowledge was "meager, nebulous and often fallacious" and engagement with the substance of their traditions remarkably shallow. Most seemed hard put to express coherently their beliefs and what difference they make.
Detached from traditions
Many were so detached from the traditions of their faith, says the report, that they're virtually following a different creed in which an undemanding God exists mostly to solve problems and make people feel good. Truth in any absolute, theological sense, takes a back seat.
"God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist" who's on call as needed, Smith writes. He says the trend reflects tendencies among teens' Baby Boomer parents. The report speculates that poor educational and youth programs, and competition for teens' time from school, sports, friends and entertainment also are part of the picture.
In an interview, Smith -- an Episcopal layman with children ages 13, 11 and six -- said fellow parents should know that "teens are not from another planet. They're just people like everyone else. They're a lot more connected to the adult world, and listening to their parents, than people have any idea of."
No margin of error was released, though the response rate of 57 percent in the 2002-03 phone survey makes the results statistically significant, Smith said, with variations depending on the group being discussed.