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Choosing Their Religion

Today’s teens can program their iPods to play only the songs they like, bypassing record-company executives and radio programmers. With TiVo they are in control of what they watch and when, no longer at the mercy of TV executives and advertisers. Meanwhile, they’re getting their news from Internet blogs that tell them basically what they want to hear, no longer relying on traditional news channels layered with editors.

It’s hardly a surprise, then, that many teens are forming their religious worldviews with the same mentality—by picking and choosing among things they like and leaving the "hard" stuff behind, largely without the benefit of traditional gatekeepers such as teachers and pastors.

That is one of the disturbing results uncovered by sociologist Christian Smith of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who headed 2004’s National Study of Youth and Religion, which surveyed more than 3,300 13- to 17-year-olds throughout the country.

I Consume, Therefore I Am
Smith, who also co-authored Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, said that a primary driver of teens’ pick-and-choose religious beliefs is a society that sees people as little more than consumers. It’s a culture in which personal choice is supreme and what’s right for you is right, period. While it’s one thing to buy corn flakes that way, such thinking has dire implications when framing theology.

"Religion becomes one product among many others existing to satisfy people’s subjectively defined needs, tastes, and wants," Smith wrote. "Religious adherents thus become spiritual consumers uniquely authorized as autonomous individuals to pick and choose in the religious market whatever products they may find satisfying or fulfilling at the moment."

Do Non-Linear Media Encourage Non-Linear Theology?
Today’s teens, perhaps more than any previous generation, have been profoundly affected by the rise of digital communications. This is more than a technological issue, although that’s certainly an element of it. It’s also a matter of how teens gain knowledge and who controls the flow of information.

The pre-digital world tended toward centralized control. A few TV networks determined what our common culture would be. Telephones were not mobile, and one monolithic phone company monopolized the industry. And, of course, there was no such thing as a personal computer, never mind the Internet, e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging and all the other things that come with today’s digital climate. Choices were limited.

That "linear" age is gone, and the way teens interact with today’s decentralized digital media affects the way they look at the world. Modern communications are non-linear, disjointed, image-based and entertainment-centered. The information they pass along is unregulated and unevaluated. If, as Marshall McLuhan stated more than 40 years ago, "the medium is the message," then the message is this: anything goes.

This mind-set has subtly affected the way teens look at religious claims, creating, according to Smith, an "open market with a congestion of ideas and information that have not been reviewed, judged and sorted by evaluating authorities. … Discernment is left up to the individual." The problem isn’t independent thought, but the wholesale rejection of conventional wisdom and the input of elders.

"I don’t really follow anything too much. Not like I’m following everything to a T, but like, I do have basic principles and morals and stuff." —a 16-year-old Wisconsin girl

Embracing "Benign Whateverism"
This "religion" is many things, but one thing it is not is Christianity. Smith has dubbed it "moralistic therapeutic deism."

"A lot of these teens are formally members of specific denominations and traditions, but there’s something else going on in their actual lived experience of beliefs," he said. Indeed, they don’t understand classic Christian doctrines such as sin, grace and justification. Often, Smith found, they can talk adequately about God but can barely address Jesus. "When teenagers talked in their interviews about grace, they were usually talking about the television show Will & Grace, not about God’s grace."

On the White Horse Inn radio show Smith explained, "It’s not really Christianity. It’s the belief that God’s out there, but he’s not too involved in our lives. God wants us to be nice [the moralistic part]. Our goal in life is to be happy [the therapeutic part]. I can call on God to solve my problems and troubles, but otherwise He doesn’t need to be too involved in my life [the deistic part]." In fact, among the more than 3,300 teens who participated in Smith’s nationwide survey, the specific phrase "feel happy" appeared more than 2,000 times.

People living the theology of moralistic therapeutic deism seek first to fulfill their own needs. For that reason, Smith’s survey finds that teens are loath to judge anyone or anything else—a religious philosophy he calls "benign whateverism."

"They see religion as generally good for people," Smith told "It doesn’t hurt you—at the very least, if you enjoy it, it can produce positive results and help you be moral. Good people go to heaven." Ultimately, though, religion is not that important to them.

What Message Are We Sending?
Smith believes that teens absorb this "what works for me" view of religion from the adults around them, often in their own homes.

"Parents can sometimes play into this," he said. "They want Billy to go to church because it’ll keep him away from doing drugs. That’s an empirical fact, but whether that’s the reason Billy should be going to church is another matter. Theological tradition appears to be disintegrating. People’s ability to speak the basic language of their own faith is pretty weak. There’s an immense challenge for churches and religious organizations to teach, ’Here’s what we believe, here’s how to talk about it, here’s why it matters.’"

Nearly half the teens surveyed said they had worn jewelry or clothing with a religious message, and nearly half listened to religious music. But the idea of religion making moral claims on people’s lives is largely a foreign concept.

He warned, "It is not so much that U.S. Christianity is being secularized. Rather more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith."

An Openness to Truth
Smith found, however, that there is very little outright hostility to religion among today’s teens. They are quite open to religious truth claims if presented clearly and honestly. In other words, they’re not explicitly rebelling against or rejecting religion. For the most part, they just don’t know better and have absorbed the surrounding culture’s dubious religious worldviews.

He also found a solid core of teens—about 8 percent—who are rock-solid in their faith. They know what they believe and why they believe it. It affects the way they live.

The solution is to help our teens sort through the many competing worldviews and measure this claim against that. But to be able to do so, they must also understand the exclusivity and authenticity of their own faith. One thing that surprised Smith was how inarticulate teens are when it comes to discussing faith issues. Many could quite clearly explain things ranging from popular culture to moral issues such as drug use or premarital sex. When it came to religious beliefs, however, they were at a loss for words since what they believe is so nebulous to start with.

Finally, we must stress that Christianity is not about avoiding this or doing that. It is about a one-to-one relationship with the Creator of the universe. If we get that right, everything else should flow from it. Focus on the Family created, an interactive Christian worldview website for older teens and college students. Parents of adolescents should check it out. Or log on together. It could help them strike a decisive blow against "benign whateverism."

Simpson Keeps What Works, Loses What Cramps Her Style
It’s easier for teens to fall into that trap when entertainers model a pick-and-choose spirituality. Jessica Simpson, the daughter of a Baptist youth minister, told Glamour, "My spirituality has grown, though my thoughts on religion have changed. Now I might take encouragement from a Buddhist in certain situations, whereas when I was younger, I would have said, ’No, what would Jesus do?’"

Simpson’s pragmatic compromises also led her to proclaim, "I want to show my body, and that’s OK because God gave me my body … I definitely want to turn heads." She proceeded to do just that as bikini-clad Daisy Duke in the Dukes of Hazzard movie. Judging from Simpson’s willingness to play an immodest tease, 1 Timothy 2:9 and Romans 14:21 are among the cast-off verses that no longer fit her lifestyle.

Published June 2005