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The complex ‘mosaics’ of teenagers and religion

The schoolhouse has often served as contested space in persistent American tussles over the separation of church and state. At the same time, the schoolhouse — especially the public high school — is a common space where adolescent Americans assemble and engage with each other across lines of race, ethnicity, gender, economic class, culture, and religious adherence.

As multiple court rulings have made clear, it is not the job of public schools to proselytize or promote a creed. Still, it is the school’s job to teach history, art and music, literature and geography, and in doing so, to foster an understanding of the influence and inspiration of religious texts and people in defining countries and cultures, in creating great works of art, and in advancing social justice as well as, sadly, fostering violent conflict.

For the better part of two decades, the National Study of Youth and Religion has published an impressive deposit of research into the influence of religion and spirituality on forming the lives of American teenagers, ages 13 to 17. It is not a study of religion-and-school issues, rather of religion as a dimension in the lives of adolescents.

The NSYR findings, based on four rounds of telephone surveys and hundreds of face-to-face interviews, serve as wider context for EdNC’s series on “The Adolescent Experience of Faith’’ in North Carolina that appeared this week, and will continue in 2018. 

The first major outpouring of NSYR findings came in the book, Soul Searching, published in 2005, by Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton. Smith, who began this research while on the sociology faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, now directs a center on religion and society at The University of Notre Dame. Denton is on the faculty of the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“There is no way to summarize the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers as a whole because they encompass a sweeping range on a variety of religious variables — from total religious obliviousness and indifference to intense religious passion and commitment,” they write. “Religiously, American teens are complicated and ‘all over the map.’”

Among their principal, and provocative, conclusions are:

  • Religion is a “significant presence’’ in many teenagers’ lives, and most have not dropped out of religious congregations. “Contrary to many popular assumptions and stereotypes, the character of teenage religiosity in the United States is extraordinarily conventional.”
  • Very few U.S. teens appear to pursue a personal “spiritual but not religious’’ path.
  • Parents remain the single most important social influence in the spiritual lives of teenagers.
  • And yet, teenagers generally have a “weak’’ understanding of religious beliefs. “Most U.S. teens have a difficult to impossible time explaining what they believe, what is means and what the implications are for their lives.” Many teens have adopted a sense of religion as a general belief in God and a desire for personal well-being.
  • “Highly religious teenagers appear to be doing better in life than less religious teenagers.”

In 2011, further NSYR findings were published in the book, A Faith of Their Own, co-authored by Denton and Lisa D. Pearce, a sociologist at UNC-Chapel Hill. They use the metaphor of a “tile mosaic’’ to describe how an individual’s religiosity is a composite of “content, conduct and centrality.” They outline five “religious profiles’’ of American young people:

  • About one in five are “abiders’’ who are highly religious and consistent practitioners.
  • About three in 10 are “assenters’’ who are religiously in the “middle of the road,” believers but not strong on spiritual or social activities.
  • About one in four are “adapters’’ for whom religion is central, who perform service to others, while varying in public religious practice.
  • About one in four are “avoiders’’ who express belief in a “distant impersonal God’’ and have low levels of religious conduct.
  • About one in 20 are “atheists’’ who do not believe in God.

Pearce and Denton stress the importance of “social scaffolding’’ — by parents, peers, and religious institutions — in the process of adolescents strengthening “their internal sense of being.” They offer gentle advice that adults “leave room’’ for youth to grapple with the complexity of the mosaics of religious belief and practice. And they write:

“Youth seem to thrive when they feel loved for who they are and trusted to explore their own beliefs, especially when they have role models from whom to draw advice and support.”

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.