The research of University of Notre Dame's Christian Smith on the religious lives of today's adolescents corroborates my experience as a college professor and pastor who interacts with a lot of young people today. And, I listen to their music and watch the movies they watch (as much as possible) and app some of the apps they app. (I'm paying attention.) The campus pastor in me has never died! (I was redeemed on a university campus, and was an American Baptist campus pastor at Michigan State University from 1981-1992.)
Smith has a research trilogy - Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2009; here we learned of the not-so-awe-inspiring Moralistic Therapeutic Deism), Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (2010), and Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (2011). Anyone wanting to understand young adults today must read these books. And remember:
1. First: understand.
2. Second: evaluate.
Because evaluation without understanding is absurd and has evil consequences.
Where are today's emerging adults at when it comes to religion and spirituality? Here are highlights from Souls in Transition, Chapter 5 - "The Cultural Structures of Emerging Adult Religion." Note: Smith knows better than to box emerging adults in. His research gives us broad strokes that cover most of the canvas. He writes: "The majority of emerging adults gives voice to certain thematic perspectives when speaking about religion and spirituality. These reflect prevailing cultural structures governing their assumptions, categories, outlooks, habits, and thought." (K3024)
WARNING: This information is for understanding, not judging (not judgmentalism; not criticizing).
PREVAILING AND LESS COMMONLY VOICED RELIGIOUS CULTURAL THEMES
Religion is Not Threatening Because It's Not a Big Deal
For many emerging adults the topic of religion is not threatening. "They generally seem happy to talk about religion, if it happens to come up." Religion "is simply not a big deal, not something of central importance that most would expect to recurrently come up in discussions. So it is also not particularly threatening or controversial." (K3045)
Some Have No Experience with Religion and Spirituality
A small subset of emerging adults "are so disconnected from anything religious that they simply have no opinions or beliefs about religion. It is not that they are antagonistic about or dismissive of religion, or are being lazy in their answers to interviewers' questions. They simply have lived lives involving such little first-hand experience of religion or spirituality that they literally do not know or think much at all about it or hold any particular views about God, faith, church, or anything else related. When asked, they simply do not have much to say." (K 3051-3055)
Religion Is Mostly a Matter of Indifference
"Religion is fine. But for most emerging adults, it just doesn't matter that much." (K3061)
My observation is that many emerging adults want to talk about life's Big Questions. A lot of students tell their friends about my MCCC philosophy courses, and they enroll in them. A small percentage tell their parents to take my classes, and some do. This is happening this semester.
The Shared Central Principles of Religion Are Good
"Ultimately, most emerging adults say, all religions actually share the same core principles, at least those that are important. All religions teach belief in God and the need to be a good person. These things are what really matters. At heart, in this way all religions are essentially the same, the majority of emerging adults claim, because all religions share the same basic beliefs and values. Therefore, anybody who follows any particular religion is ultimately just like any other religious person following any other religion." (K3078-3082)
My understanding is that while most emerging adults believe all religions are saying the same basic things, this belief is passively accepted and remains mostly unexamined. As to whether or not the claim is true, see, e.g., Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World.
Religious Particularities Are Peripheral
"It is fine if different religions want to emphasize specific customs or beliefs or ceremonies, if some people want to do that. But none of the particularities of any religion, emerging adults think, are really what is important or valuable about it." (K3103-3104)
A Smaller Theme Is: "Actually, MY Religion Is true
"Some emerging adults genuinely believe that their religious faith is true, that other beliefs and world-views may have elements of truth but that their own religion expresses the best, most complete understanding of religious truth and reality." (K3131-3132)
Religion Is For Making Good People
"The real point of religion, ultimately, in the eyes of most emerging adults, is to help people be good, to live good lives." (K3143)
Religious Congregations Are Elementary Schools of Morals
It's OK to be part of a religious group for a while. But once "elementary school" is finished we move on, and away from religious organizations.
Your Family's Religious Beliefs Are Associated with Dependence
"Independent persons do not keep doing all the things that belong to their earlier dependence. Therefore—not that emerging adults normally consciously think about it in these terms—learning to stand on one’s own two feet means, among other things, getting some distance from one’s family’s faith and religious congregation." (K3188-3190)
A Smaller Number Believe Their Faith "Is Really Important to Me"
"A certain set of emerging adults are more serious about and committed to their religion than most, in a particular way that they persistently describe as “my faith”—as in, “My faith is this, my faith is that, I’m really into my faith.”" (K3208)
Religious Groups Are not A Place of Real Belonging
We all need to connect. The connecting place for most emerging adults is not some religious group, like the church. Smith writes:
"Do emerging adults feel a strong sense of belonging in any religious congregation— if they even have one—or in some other religious group? Nah, not really, actually not very much at all." (K3233-3234)
Friends Hardly Talk About Religion
"Whatever subjects friends do talk about, religious beliefs and interests are simply not among them—beyond perhaps finding out that someone else is, say, Catholic or Jewish. For most emerging adults, that is because religion is simply not important or relevant enough to everyday life to warrant any real discussion. In that, religion is like favorite family recipes: people often have them and may even love them, but they don’t necessarily want to discuss them." (K3259)
Religious Beliefs Are Cognitive Assents, Not Life Drivers
"Most emerging adults have religious beliefs. They believe in God. They probably believe in an afterlife. They may even believe in Jesus. But those religious ideas are for the most part abstract agreements that have been mentally checked off and filed away. They are not what emerging adults organize their lives around." (K3275)
And... What about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? (MTD)
Followers of MTD believe the following:
First, a God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
Second, God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
Third, the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
Fourth, God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
Fifth, good people go to heaven when they die.
Smith writes: "That was the dominant religious worldview the earlier survey found was held by most American teenagers, ages 13–17." (K3299)
And: "The latest wave of research reveals that MTD is still alive and well among 18- to 23-year-old American youth." (Ib.)