Soul Searching 2: The Rebellious Teen?


As we continue our trip through Christian Smith’s Soul Searching, a word about the research methodology itself. I thought the method of research for this work was really quite thorough. Here is Smith’s description of the research process:

In this book, we report the findings from research conducted by the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR; see From July 2002 to March 2003, the NSYR conducted a national, random digit-dial telephone survey of U.S. households containing at least one teenager age 13–17, surveying one household parent for about 30 minutes and one randomly selected household teen for about 50 minutes. Then, in the spring and summer of 2003, 17 trained project researchers conducted 267 in-depth, face-to-face interviews with a subsample of telephone survey respondents in 45 states. (Kindle Locations 138-143).

I add this only to say that in case anyone thought this was a simplistic survey, it seems to me to be well done. My summary of it, however, may come across as simplistic, and that is why you should read the book for yourself if you’re interested.

So, today I wanted to highlight some statistics about the beliefs of the parents of American teens, and if teens are really all that different from their parents in their beliefs. These first three tables show how parents of religious teens identify themselves within their own traditions. This is a different question than we looked at on Tuesday, which focused on the specific denomination of teens. This table shows the percentage of all U.S. adults. Protestant Fundamentalists, for example, represent 9% off all religious parents of teens in the U.S. (Numbers don’t add to 100% because of rounding.)

Protestant Tradition Identity All U.S. Parents
  • Fundamentalist
  • Evangelical
  • Mainline
  • Theologically Liberal
  • Charismatic Christian
  • Pentecostal Christian
  • Other Protestant Identity
Catholic Tradition Identity All U.S. Parents
  • Traditional Catholic
  • Moderate Catholic
  • Liberal Catholic
  • Other Catholic Identity
Jewish Tradition Identity All U.S. Parents
  • Orthodox Jew
  • Conservative Jew
  • Reform Jew
  • Other Jewish Identity

In this data, we see that there is a fairly even spread among Protestant and Catholic parents along the spectrum of overarching religious tradition. There is a greater separation in the Jewish tradition with Reform Jews more than doubling the number of Orthodox and Conservative Jews combined.

For some reason, Charismatics and Pentecostals seem to want to differentiate themselves from one another. I’m not entirely familiar with the inner-workings of these traditions, so maybe someone can help me understand the subtleties leading to this differentiation. Is Charismatic a description of a general theological outlook and Pentecostal a more specific “denominational” identity? One could then be a charismatic Evangelical, charismatic Presbyterian, or charismatic Anglican, and not be a Pentecostal. Taken has a whole, it is fascinating to me that almost 25% of parents are part of this branch of the church. I’m reminded of Michael Spencer’s essay, The Coming Evangelical Collapse, where he predicted that the majority report in the future Evangelicalism would be that of the Charismatics.

This last table is showing us how parents identify themselves along the spectrum of conservative to liberal.

Compared to other religious Americans, parent view of self as religiously All U.S. Parents
  • Very Conservative
  • Conservative
  • Moderate
  • Liberal
  • Very Liberal
  • Has not thought much about this
  • Don’t know/refused/not religious

Most religious parents see themselves and “conservative,” with “moderate” being a little behind that. The “very conservative” and “very liberal” wings are both significantly smaller self-identified groups. Still, religiously speaking, most parents see themselves to be on the “middle to right” side of the spectrum.

How do teens view their beliefs as compared to their parents? I won’t reproduce the table, but this is what Smith says…

According to NSYR data shown in table 4, about three in four religious teens in the United States consider their own religious beliefs somewhat or very similar to their parents; they are more similar to mother’s than to father’s beliefs (teen similarity to parent religion for nonreligious teens is examined in chapter 3). Only 6 percent of teens consider their religious beliefs very different from that of their mother and 11 percent very different from that of their father. And not all who reported “very different” for this question are rebellious, antireligious teens of religiously devout parents. Fully 37 percent of teens whose beliefs are very different from their mother’s and 45 percent whose beliefs are very different from their father’s report on another question that their own religious faith is very or extremely important to them in their daily lives. They appear to hold firm to their own faith but apparently simply don’t agree with their parents on most religious matters. (Kindle Locations 744-751)

According to the statistics, 75% of religious teens consider their beliefs to be like their parents. This is fascinating because what it means is that most of the time, parents raise kids like themselves. Of course, this does not answer the question of the content of that belief – that is for later chapters – but it should give parents both encouragement and warning. Your teens are learning from you. They will likely believe what they know you believe.

There are a lot of factors that go into teen religious belief. Parents seem to be the most important, but how a kid is accepted and mentored in the church setting is also very important. Over the next couple of posts, we’ll look closer at the relationship between parental and teen belief. We’ll look at the statistical relationship between teen religiosity and how they feel about their parents and their churches. Eventually, we’ll get to the big chapter, “Therapeutic Moral Deism,” that examines more specifically the content of American teen religious belief.

(Sorry for the spread out look to the tables. I made them in a different app, and translating them over didn’t go so well.)