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"God, Religion . . . Whatever"

Last week this article was circulating around youth leaders and other interested parties in our area, written by Ed Vitagliano, news editor for the AFA's Journal, an article from their January 2006 edition. Vitagliano mostly only provides a summary of ideas from the study/book listed below, which I guess is why I found myself agreeing with the article, since I gather otherwise Ed and I wouldn't have many similar views on things.

Anyway - this article talks about conclusions drawn from a study - the National Study of Youth and Religion. I don't know much about the study or the accuracy of it or any of those details, but the conclusions ring pretty true to me.

The main premise, forwarded by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, is that for many youth, their faith can be summed up as Moralist Therapeutic Deism." I'd like to read the full book, but Vitagliano's article seems to highlight some compelling ideas.

Quotes from the article:
Moralistic: "First, they explained, the religious beliefs of many teens are moralistic because they see faith as being essentially related to mere human goodness. In other words, kids believe "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."
And that's where religion fits in. "Most U.S. teens think that one of religion's primary functions is to help people be good," said Soul Searching."

Therapeutic: "In their interviews, the researchers logged the number of teens who mentioned certain key phrases . . . For example, only 47 mentioned "personally sinning or being a sinner," and the numbers trailed off dramatically after that. Next on the list: Only 13 mentioned "obeying God or the church." Concepts such as "the kingdom of God" or "the grace of God" were even less frequently mentioned by only five teens and three teens, respectively.
On the other hand, 112 teens spoke about "personally feeling, being, getting, or being made happy" because of religion. And that was simply the number of teens who mentioned such words in connection to religion. Teens used the specific phrase "feel happy" more than 2,000 times!"

Deism: "It 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.'"
In fact, most teenagers' beliefs about God and their own religious faith were so vague as to be almost incomprehensible. Smith and Denton found "the vast majority of [teens] to be incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives." Consider the response in one interview . . . this 13-year-old Catholic girl: "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.""

Smith and Denton insist that this sample response is typical, not unusual, in the findings.

I certainly know many young people who can articulate their faith in fantastic ways. But I'll admit that I work primarily with our Conference Youth - youth who are more involved and active than the average teenager already. But in my own congregation, I have witnessed something like this Moralistic Therapeuticc Deism. I would describe it as the Classic Children's Sermon Responses: God, Jesus, Go to Church - carried over and never developed in older youth. Indeed, on occasions when my older youth have come up for children's time as a joke, they basically give the same answers as the 5-year-olds give.

What do you think?


LutheranChik said…
I think we do a grave disservice to young people by not engaging their critical thinking skills and giving them the tools for developing a deeper spirituality. IMHO a lot of churches drop the ball on religious formation, and keep young people (and adults!) in this state of infantile thinking regarding faith issues...basically you've got 18-year-olds and 48-year-olds walking around with a five-year-old's Bible Comix level of biblical knowledge, moral decision-making, etc.
Jeff Nelson said…
One of my seminary professors summed it up well: 'I believe what my pastor told me...when I was 12.' One could lower that age easily.

I worry about these issues. The church I serve has no established high school youth program. Part of it has been out of frustration that no youth have attended in the past. That can be chalked up to a variety of things, at least some of which have to do with parents not wanting to drive them and being up to their eyeballs in extracurricular school functions (some of which meet Sunday mornings). This is as much a church vs. culture thing as it is an internal church concern.
John said…
This is interesting. I wonder how the results would change if the age bracket was expanded. Many of these theological views are common to 20-somethings.

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