American Youth and Religion

I was inspired by Amos Yong’s review of “Global Religious Movements in Regional Context” at Sacred Tribes Journal to look up one of the authors, Christian Smith.

As a consequence I came across an interesting article about American Youth called Youth and Religion. It has interesting implications for youth ministers and Christians working with youth in America (PS. I have doubts that it is equally helpful for the UK, NZ and Australian contexts but it is still thought provoking).

Some excerpts:

Christian Smith is one of the leading sociologists of American religion on the scene today. The Stuart Chapin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Smith is the author or co-author of several acclaimed books, including American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving and Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want. His most recent project has been the massive National Study of Youth and Religion. Over the past five years, he and his team have conducted over 3,200 telephone surveys and over 250 in-depth, one-on-one interviews with American teenagers. Many of the findings, of extreme importance for youth workers, are available at


TJ: You found that, contrary to much that’s been written, American teenagers aren’t particularly influenced by postmodern-pluralistic culture, that they don’t claim to be ‘spiritual but not religious.’ If young people are really religiously conventional, why do you suppose many of us have this false perception of seeking?

CS: Good question. This view certainly seems to have created a major impression among many observers. This is probably partly a sampling problem: journalists, book authors, and other religion commentators often base their impressions and stories on small groups of ‘convenience sampled’ teenagers who may not well represent all of them.

TJ: Do you suspect that young adults between 18 and 22 (even the college students that you teach) are more influenced by postmodern cultural shifts like pluralism and globalization than the teenagers seem to be?

CS: Yes, I suspect it increases as teenagers move into young adulthood, especially among those who go to college—though we’re not sure yet how dramatic that change is. Still, it’s important to know that this normally isn’t the case among 13-17 year olds. In the summer of 2005, we’ll be re-surveying all of our teen survey respondents three years later and will know what changed as they grew older.


TJ: Now the bad news. Although most American teenagers are faithful, you say the faith they practice can best be described as ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.’ Can you take a sentence or two to unpack each of these terms?

CS: Yes, I am suggesting that MTD is the actual de facto functional religious faith of the majority of teenagers, regardless of their official affiliation.

By ‘moralistic’ I mean oriented toward being good and nice, in ways that assert certain moral claims (for example, ‘You should never have sex with someone you don’t really care about.’) in fairly arbitrary ways without their being integrated into any larger, coherent moral tradition.

By ‘therapeutic’ I mean being primarily concerned with one’s own happiness, good feeling, personal comfortability, and emotional wellbeing—in contrast to, say, a focus on glorifying God, learning obedience, or serving others.

Finally, by ‘deism’ I mean a view of God as normally distant and not involved in one’s life, except (as qualified by the ‘therapeutic’) if one has a problem one needs God to solve, one can call on God to fix it and make one feel better. In MTD, in other words, God functions as a combination divine butler and cosmic therapist.

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