Soul Searching 1: Mapping The Big Picture

51pZLoWv7lL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_For the last several weeks, one of the books I’ve been working through is Christian Smith’s Soul Searching (2005). The book is full of statistics and studies, and is interesting if you sort through the data. Smith does a good job of summarizing much of the material, and the book is a fairly easy read. I want to take some time for the near future to pull out some of the interesting findings. This is good stuff.

The book represents the work done by the National Study of Youth and Religion, a 2001-2005 research project done by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill looking into the spiritual and religious lives of American adolescents. The survey’s authors came to doubt the common impression that American teens do not have religious and spiritual lives. This research says otherwise, and this book brings out many of the interesting nuances of adolescent belief and practice.

In the chapter, “Mapping the Big Picture,” one of the most interesting findings is that America is not really religiously diverse. Christianity has been and remains the largest religious affiliation in the United States. (Kindle locations 690-697. Sorry, no page numbers.)

  • 75% of U.S. teens 13-17 self-identify as Christians.
  • 50% of teens are Protestant, and 25% are Catholic.
  • 16% consider themselves to be not religious (this doesn’t mean they claim to be atheists)
  • 7% of teens affiliate with one of the many minority U.S. religions
  • 2.5% Mormon
  • 1.5% Judaism
  • .6% Jehovah’s Witness
  • .5% Muslim
  • Eastern Orthodox, Buddhist, Pagan/Wiccan each represent .3%.
  • Hindus, Christian Science, Native American, Unitarian Universalist each represent .1%.
  • 2% don’t know what they are, or didn’t answer the question
  • 2.8% of teens claim to affiliate with two different faiths. (This seems convoluted to me, but later we’ll see how, for these teens, contradictory truth claims don’t seem to matter.)

Here’s what is interesting to me, despite all the talk about the rise of atheism and the “nones” among 20 somethings, teens are actually pretty religious, and the majority of those are Christian. These statistics don’t elaborate on the seriousness of teens’ faith, or their relative levels of involvement with their respective faith communities, but they do give us the broad landscape of their religiosity. In later posts, we’ll drill down on some of those more specific questions.

Smith interprets the data:

U.S. youth are not flocking in droves to “alternative” religions and spiritualities such as paganism and Wicca. Teenagers who are pagan or Wiccan represent fewer than one-third of 1 percent of U.S. teens. There are thus twice the number of Jehovah’s Witness teens as there are pagan and Wiccan teens. Second, it does not appear that American religion, at the adolescent level at least, is being profoundly diversified by new immigrant groups. (Kindle Locations 700-703).

So here’s my question, if American teens tend to be so specifically Christian, what is happening when they hit their 20’s? Why are we reading that so many Christian teens are abandoning their faith? Or are they? At the least, it would seem that religiosity and abiding, durable faith in Christ may not be the same thing.

One last statistics dump. Here’s the breakdown of self-identified Protestants among American teens by percentage.

Adventist 0.43 Free Methodist Church 0.03
Assemblies of God 0.71 Friends/Quaker 0.11
Baptist 17.3 Holiness 0.34
Bible Church 0.22 Independent/Nondenom 3.02
Brethren 0.21 Lutheran 3.54
Charismatic 0.04 Mennonite 0.12
Christian and Missionary Alliance 0.03 Methodist 4.74
Church of Christ 1.21 Missionary Church 0.04
Church of God 0.46 Nazarene, Church of the 0.09
Calvary Chapel 0.02 Pentecostal 1.82
Congregationalist 0.02 Presbyterian/Reformed 1.83
Disciples of Christ 0.06 United Church of Christ 0.09
Episcopalian 0.82 Vineyard Fellowship 0.02
Evangelical, Independent 0.31 Wesleyan Church 0.16
Evangelical Covenant 0.02 Just Protestant 0.18
Evangelical Free Church 0.07 Just Christian 12.58
Four Square 0.08 Don’t know/refused 3.01

Theologically and socially, there is overlap between some of these groups. Some are not significantly distinct from each other, though there are some differences. For instance, in my experience, Bible Church, Independent/Nondenom, and Independent Evangelical all tend to be the same thing in practice, but each might conceive itself to be a little different. It’s interesting to see how teens define themselves.


3 thoughts on “Soul Searching 1: Mapping The Big Picture

  1. We have been discussing this in our adult bible fellowship. We have come to the conclusion that its basically that they dont know the definition of a Christian. Its become synonymous with being a somewhat moral, deist, American. So if they are just polling the teens and asking what they are based off of a list, then this isnt a very accurate survey.

    • Christian Smith is the author that coined the term “Therapeutic Moral Deism” in this book. As we get through the data, it becomes clearer that what many teens are calling “Christian” really isn’t. There’s a lot more data to come.

Comments are closed.