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The National Opinion Survey on Youth and Religion -- Are Non-Religious Teenagers Really Deficient in Almost Every Imaginable Way?

By Andrew Levison

There are some public opinion studies whose conclusions are so easily misinterpreted – and whose effects can be so potentially destructive – that they really ought to have consumer warning labels attached.

Here’s a prime example. There is a short item that is now showing up in newspapers across the country that says “according to an important new survey”:

“devout [teens]… are better off in emotional health, academic success, community involvement, concern for others, trust of adults and avoidance of risky behavior [then their nonreligious counterparts]”.

Now that’s a pretty hefty assertion. But it’s downright tepid compared with the following summary of the data by one of the survey’s authors:

…on every measure of life outcome—relationship with family, doing well at school, avoiding risk behaviors, everything—highly religious teens are doing much better than non-religious kids. It's just a remarkable observable difference…Highly religious American teens are happier and healthier. They are doing better in school, they have more hopeful futures, they get along with their parents better. Name a social outcome that you care about, and the highly religious kids are doing better.

Wow. Now that is one humongous whopper of a conclusion. If the data actually demonstrate what this summary seems to be asserting, it could easily be used to argue that secular parents are profoundly and even horribly damaging their teenagers’ lives and futures by denying them religion, even if these parents do teach their kids sound moral and ethical principles. It could equally be used to justify allowing public schools to introduce a substantial amount of religious activity and instruction, not for any specifically religious reasons, but simply “in the best interests of the kids.”

So quick, let’s slap on that consumer warning label before this thing gets totally out of hand:

Warning: the opinion survey cited above does not contain any data that directly compares a sample of devout American teenagers with a comparable group of non-religious teenagers who have been taught to respect basic American moral and social values but who do not happen to believe in a supreme being or attend church services. As a result, the data cannot be used to draw any conclusions whatsoever about (a) the relative benefits of teaching secular or religious morality as a child-rearing strategy (b) the relative performance of religious and non-religious teen-agers, (as defined above) on any measures of positive social outcomes or (c) the potential benefits of introducing any specifically theological, as opposed to general moral and ethical, instruction in the public schools.

There, that ought to help keep things under control until we get this thing straightened out. To the extent that it gets out to the honest editorialists and commentators, this warning label could seriously help to limit the spread of the most blatant and damaging misinterpretations of the Youth and Religion study.

But what the heck is actually going on here anyway? What data does the study -- just published as “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Life of American Teenagers” – actually present on this subject and what conclusions can properly be drawn from it?

The problem is not that the study was improperly conducted or that it is slanted to further a conservative religious political agenda. Quite the contrary, the survey, part of a 6 year National Project on Youth and Religion funded by the Lilly Endowment and headquartered at UNC-Chapel Hill, is a carefully structured combination of a very large telephone survey of 3,290 teenagers (ages 13-17) conducted over a 9 month period from July 2002 to April 2003 as well as 276 extensive personal interviews. In fact, the study’s research design and methodology are far more rigorous then that of many if not most commercial opinion surveys.

Equally, the authors of the study -- led by Dr. Christian Smith, Associate Chair of Sociology at UNC-Chapel Hill -- are primarily concerned with understanding and combating what they perceive as a deeply disturbing superficiality and self-involved materialism in modern teenagers’ religious outlook. This concern leads them to seriously condemn the corrosive effects of “consumer-driven capitalism” (their words) and modern advertising, bringing them at times close to the views of liberal observers of American religion like Alan Wolfe and even Thomas Frank, author of “What Happened to Kansas?”. To be sure, the Youth and Religion study -- like the overall 6 year project itself -- is unabashedly aimed at supporting the work of adult church and religious youth group leaders in their ministry with teen-agers. But it is also clearly not deliberately designed to promote a conservative crypto-theocratic agenda.

But what the Youth and Religion study does indeed reflect, however, is a strongly “theocentric” perspective – a point of view that sees religion as central and non-religion as simply its lack or absence. In setting up the categories for the comparison of religious and non-religious teenagers, the study defines four basic “ideal types”. The first is of the “devoted” or devout religious teen – one who attends religious service weekly, is actively involved in a religious youth group, prays and reads scripture frequently and feels deep faith and closeness to God. The other three categories – The “regulars”, the “sporadic” and the “disengaged”, in contrast, are simply defined by the increasing absence of these particular characteristics of the first, “devoted” group.

The result is that the most non-religious category – the “disengaged” – does not define a coherent social group of any kind but rather a heterogeneous grab-bag of adolescents whose only shared characteristic is that they are not at all devout. As a consequence, this approach mixes together two kinds of non-religious adolescents who are really quite distinct.

One group is the children of secular parents who have been taught and accept American cultures’ basic moral and ethical standards but who do not believe in a supreme being or attend church. These teenagers’ parents take their kids to soccer practices and scout meetings and themselves attend PTA and neighborhood association meetings but do not show up at Sunday morning services. When asked, these parents will often say that “We seriously thought about joining the church for the kids benefit because they do teach many good values over there. But we just felt it was hypocritical to make the kids accept beliefs and doctrines that we don’t really believe or practice ourselves” These parents frequently encourage and participate with their kids in civic voluntarism, from after-school tutoring to Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels and Hands on America. Over the last 30 years, young people from families like these have played a major role in literally tens of thousands of local and national environmental volunteer projects which more conservative religious groups avoided because of the environmental movements’ reliance on scientific modes of thought and methods of investigation. These are the kind of teens who grew up watching Sesame Street, Nature, and re-runs of Star Trek starring Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

The other, and very distinct, group of teenagers is composed of the vast numbers of “Rebellious” teens who actively reject some or even most of mainstream society’s rules, norms and values. These teenagers come in kaleidoscopic variety -- Gangstas, Punks, Goths, Dopers, Drop-outs, Bikers, Slackers, Skinheads, Losers, Ravers, Weirdos, Cokeheads, Junkies, Thrill-seekers, Risk-takers, Pill-poppers, Shit-kickers and dozens of other rebellious subcultures of the teenage social environment. These young people – of whom there are vast numbers - have three basic traits in common: they tend not to be religious, they tend to repeatedly break social rules or violate the laws, and (being teenagers) they tend to constantly get caught, racking up a wildly disproportionate share of all recorded youthful infractions of municipal laws and school regulations.

There may be some specific research objectives for which it makes sense to lump these rebellious teens together with the first group into a single catch-all category called the “non-religious”. But, for a productive national discussion of the differences between religious and non-religious teenagers, it certainly seems more logical to consider the two groups separately. Combining the two groups simply insures that the rebellious group’s extremely low average scores on almost any measure of social adjustment will pull down the overall average of the two groups, making the first group, as well as the rebels, appear to be deeply inferior in comparison to a highly supervised and rigorously socialized group like committed religious teens who are active participants in organized Church youth activities.

And this is, of course, exactly what happens in the Religion and Youth survey. On variable after variable measuring obedience to rules, compliance with social norms and general social adjustment– variables like the number of arrests, number of driving tickets, frequency of expulsions, level of sexual activity, use of drugs, quality of self-image, relationship with parents, participation in volunteer activities, level of school grades and so on – the mixed group of “non-religious” teenagers invariably appears inferior to the devout.

The obvious question that continually hovers over the proceedings, however, is whether the first group alone might actually score as high or even higher then the religious group on some or all of these measures. But, quite remarkably, there is not one single piece of data in the entire study that is designed to answer that question.
On the contrary, in fact, the most troubling feature of the study is the very deeply-imbedded presumption that healthy, productive non-religious teenagers and morally responsible secular parents are so relatively scarce in American society that they need not be considered as a distinct or significant social group.

This overall attitude is most dramatically evident in two long personal profiles that are the most vivid and specific portrait the book contains of non-religious teens. One of the two teens portrayed is a drug dealer who smokes marijuana, drinks alcohol, uses crystal meth, has withdrawal symptoms, was expelled from high school, has been in jail and watches porn videos. The teen’s father is “a biker who drinks and sends Raymond soft-porn backgrounds for his computer”.

The other non-religious teenager, on the contrary, is described as an “earnest, caring, hardworking, affable adolescent, the kind most adults would enjoy and admire”. But as the profile continues, however, it emerges that he once attempted suicide, and has difficult relations with his parents -- a mother he describes as “really new-age-y, into a lot of weird, crazy things” and a father who is a “hard-ass” who “worked so much I hardly ever saw him.”

Despite his extreme lack of parental guidance and support, the 17 year-old non-religious teen expresses a wide variety of admirable moral and ethical sentiments. But the interviewer subsequently comments that “lacking recourse to ground his moral commitments in, say, divine command or natural law, Steve finds himself…possessing few coherent, rational grounds for explaining, justifying and defending those standards…Of course, nobody expects a 17 year old to be an articulate moral philosopher. But the apparent lack of clear bearings or firm anchors in Steve’s moral reasoning are conspicuous and perhaps worrisome.”

These two profiles, which the authors refer back to at a number of other points in the study, illustrate an unstated but evident tendency to consistently visualize non-religious teenagers as either mired in delinquency and social pathology or as basically confused and adrift, lacking clear parental moral guidance and unconsciously yearning for the clarity and certainty religious faith would provide.

The authors do warn that the two profiles they offer are not actually meant to typify all non-religious adolescents and their parents, but the only broad generalization the book actually does offer about healthy non-religious teens and their families reflects the same basic view:

“Although there are certainly many well-adjusted American adolescents who do not attend religious services regularly, as a whole, low-attending American teens, like the non-religious teens, appear to reflect some likely signs of family strain and general civic and organizational disconnection”

In fact, in all of the data from the 3,200 telephone surveys, 276 face to face interviews, and scores of regressions and statistical tables, the social categories of morally responsible non-religious parents and decent, law-abiding and successful non-religious teens hover like ghostly, unseen presences. One senses their existence somewhere in the underlying data, but nowhere are their numbers estimated and nowhere can they be directly observed. In a book subtitled “The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers” one could be forgiven for thinking that this represents a not inconsequential omission.

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(Note: It is worth noting in advance one incorrect defense of the study that will quickly occur to some readers – namely that it is proper to lump “rebels” and “decent” non-religious teens together because it is the lack of religion that causes the rebelliousness of the non-religious young. As it happens, the authors of the Youth and Religion study themselves provide a quite excellent review of the permissible kinds of inferences their data allows, and they clearly label logic such as that above as fallacious reasoning of the “the presence of many people on the subway platform makes the trains arrive” variety)