Soul Searching 11: It Helps Me Do What I Want

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Of all the themes uncovered in Christian Smith’s research, this next one is one of those that seems to me to be a particularly American way of viewing religion. The majority of American teens view religion as something that helps you accomplish your goals. It has a pragmatic value for making you feel good and resolving your problems. Religion does this, according to teens, not by making external moral demands for change, but God is like a cosmic genie that helps you when you ask, and give you comfort when you need it. In this way, it is God’s responsibility to help humans, not humans’ responsibility to respond to their Creator.

I think the most obvious causes for this is what sociologists have identified as the parental use of religion for pro-social outcomes with their children. That is, parents use religion as a way to create desired behaviors in their kids. When I was a youth pastor, I saw this from some parents all the time to help their kids be more healthy, safe, and successful in life. I had one father in particular accuse me of not being supportive of parents because I would not go along with the legalism he wanted to impose on the entire group. 

In fleshing out this point, the author quotes sociologist Nicholas Townsend,

For many people in the United States, religious observance is imposed on them as children, dropped when they are young adults, and resumed once they become parents. Parents of young children enlist religion as a source of values to inoculate their children against danger. …The men I talked to . . . equated “high morals” with not using drugs and with wearing a seat-belt, rather than with a thirsting after righteousness, sacrificing for the common good, or speaking truth to power. (Kindle Locations 3172-3178)

This has been precisely my observation after serving as a pastor for the last decade. The fact that most 20-somethings fall away from church only to miraculously reappear when they have children strongly indicates that far too many Christians view religion merely as a moralistic tool to teach values. They don’t see Jesus as the way God has chosen to disclose himself to humanity for the reordering of all creation.

According to Smith, the vast majority of teens have whole heartedly adopted this instrumental view of religion.

What we hardly ever heard from teens was that religion is about significantly transforming people into, not what they feel like being, but what they are supposed to be, what God or their ethical tradition wants them to be. (Kindle Locations 3182-3184)


On the one end, there is a minority of youth, fewer than 10 percent, who are either so disconnected from anything religious that they simply have no opinion, or who merely suspect that religion could not accomplish much of value for anyone. Religion is not something one can use to accomplish anything important; religion is just an incomprehensible thing that some people do for reasons unknown. Such teens express sentiments like, “I have no idea what religious people think they are doing” and “I don’t see religion has any point, it’s just whatever.” (Kindle Locations 3196-3200)

In these two quotes, we see two sides of the same problem. Teens view religion as practically helpful, or practically unhelpful. In either case, religion is viewed through the lens of what it can accomplish for me in my everyday life. Religion is valid only when, or if, it “works”. What it says about our Creator, our purpose, our relationship to our Creator, and an overarching vision for humanity is all rather pointless if it doesn’t help me get that raise or pass the algebra test. (Side note: this is why the Prosperity Gospel movement is so popular. It is simply the clearest expression of this self-centered, moralistic, materialistic, and pragmatic American religion.)

I leave you with this…

On the other end, there is a very small minority of teenagers, mostly conservative Protestants and Mormons, who are devoted to following their religious faiths and who can speak in at least fragments of terms other than that of individual instrumental benefits.

  • One 15-year-old white conservative Protestant girl from Indiana, for instance, explained that religion shapes everything she does and pushes her “to want to be who I can be just for the kingdom of God.” This was one of only two Christian teens we interviewed who referred to “the kingdom of God.”
  • One 16-year-old white Mormon girl from Utah told us, “I want to be like Christ and try to live that way, and I think that changes the goal.”
  • A 14-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from Delaware explained that praying and reading the Bible are important to him because he needs them “to live for God.”
  • One 17-year-old white conservative Protestant girl from California explained that when she does good things “I’ve glorified God in some way.”
  • A 15-year-old white conservative Protestant girl from Georgia spoke of God as in charge of “everything that goes on in my life and his will in my life is for my own good and for his own glory. He is a compassionate, loving God, but can be wrathful against his enemies, both judging and loving at the same time. Even God’s enemies bring him glory. That he defeats them and protects his own brings him glory.”
  • One 13-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from Kentucky talked about the need to “have Christ in your heart and live every day for him.”
  • A 16-year-old black Protestant boy from North Carolina said, “I try to do everything the Bible says to do, that’s what I try to govern myself by, the Bible.”
  • One 13-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from California said, “My religious practices strengthen my spiritual walk and make me more of the person God would want me to be.”
  • And a 13-year-old white mainline Protestant girl from Colorado described how, before she came to faith, she took part in any poor behavior she wanted to, but that when she “got saved” that “changed the type of person I am, it changed my mind, so now it’s just like I don’t want to do that stuff.”

Whatever anyone thinks of the theologies and spiritualities represented in these statements, they nonetheless illustrate something of a departure from the individualistic instrumentalism that dominates U.S. teen religion by making God and not individuals the center of religious faith. But such statements and the religious outlooks they convey are rare among U.S. teenagers. (Kindle Locations 3200-3218)

In your experience, how accurate are these observations by Smith and his team?

(Soul Searching, Full Series)