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How teens think about religion

January 06, 2009|By TERRY MATTINGLY / Scripps Howard News Service

When pollsters ask Americans the Eternal Question they almost always say, "I believe in God."

Ask young Americans about faith and the response is something like, "I believe in God and stuff." Finding the doctrinal meaning of "and stuff" is tricky.

"God made us and if you ask him for something I believe he gives it to you. Yeah, he hasn't let me down yet," said a 14-year-old Catholic from Pennsylvania, when researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton asked him why religion matters. "God is a spirit that grants you anything you want, but not anything bad."

The key is that this God -- part Divine Butler, part Cosmic Therapist -- watches from a safe distance.

"God's all around you, all the time," said a conservative Protestant girl, 17, from Florida. "He believes in forgiving people and what-not, and he's there to guide us, for somebody to talk to and help us through our problems. Of course, he doesn't talk back."

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If grown-ups roll their eyes at litanies such as these, most teens offer a chilly response that sums up their creeds -- "whatever."

Thus it was significant, in the Josephson Institute's latest Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth, that 48 percent of the students surveyed in 100 random public and private high schools said they had "never" violated their own "religious beliefs" during 2007. Other parts of this survey made headlines, especially its reports that a third of the students said they stole something from a store during the previous year, while 38 percent committed plagiarism, 64 percent cheated on a test and 83 percent lied to a parent about something important.

Few of these young people are "unbelievers" or, heaven forbid, "secularists," noted Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. The overwhelming majority of them -- like their parents -- would insist that they are practicing Christians, Jews, Muslims or whatever.

"Plenty of religious kids do steal and cheat and whatever," he said, responding to the Josephson survey. "They have in their heads some image of what 'religious' really looks like. For many -- not all -- young people, the meaning of that word is so vague it can mean almost anything or nothing whatsoever. The bar is set low and their take on religion certainly doesn't include concepts such as self sacrifice, repentance or self mortification."

These young people are religious, he stressed. They are simply practicing a new religion, one that Smith and Denton called "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." When crunched to its basics, this faith teaches that:

o A God exists who "created and orders the world" and watches over our lives.

o This God wants people to be good, nice and fair to one another, as taught by most major religions.

o The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good.

o God is rarely involved in daily life, except when needed to solve a problem.

o Good people go to heaven.

This is not a faith that can stand on its own, noted Smith, in a lecture at the Princeton Theological Seminary Institute for Youth Ministry. Instead, it is a "parasitic religion" that creates weakened, less rigid versions of other faiths -- such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. There may even, he noted, be "Nonreligious Moralistic Therapeutic Deists" in modern America.

When describing their beliefs, most young people say it's important to be kind to one another and to try to live a good life. There are few limitations on behavior, other than loose rules that say it is wrong to hurt other people, especially one's friends. "Don't be a jerk" is a common refrain.

Words such as "sanctification," "Trinity," "sin," "holiness" and "Eucharist" have little or no meaning. Most references to "grace" refer to the television show "Will and Grace." If teens mention being "justified," this almost always means that they think they have a good reason to do something that others consider questionable.

This faith, Smith explained, blends well with popular culture and media.

"It's a religion that works at the level of e-mail and texting and long hours talking on your cell phones," he said. "It's all about relationships. Your religion has to work with your friends and it has to bring you happiness. That's what really matters."

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. Contact him at tmattingly@cccu.org or www.tmatt.net

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