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TitleSoul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers
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LanguageEnglish
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Page 1

Soul Searching:
The Religious and

Spiritual Lives
of American Teenagers

CHRISTIAN SMITH

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS

Page 2

SOUL SEARCHING

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god, religion, whatever 167

them actually share the same deeper religious faith: Moralistic Therapeutic
Deism. What is there to have conflict about?

One way to gauge people’s interest in different matters is to track their
language use. What do people talk about? How often do they use different
kinds of key words and phrases? The idea behind this approach is that peo-
ple’s discourse roughly reflects their concerns and interests. We used this
method as one means of assessing U.S. teenagers’ relative orientations to re-
ligious and therapeutic concerns. We systematically counted in our interview
transcripts the number of teenagers who made reference to specific subjects
or phrases of interest. We found, first, that relatively few U.S. teenagers made
reference to a variety of historically central religious and theological ideas.
The following list shows the number of teenagers who explicitly mentioned
these concepts in their interviews:

47 personally sinning or being a sinner
13 obeying God or the church
12 religious repentance or repenting from wrongdoing
9 expressing love for God
8 righteousness, divine or human
7 resurrection or rising again of Jesus
6 giving glory to or glorifying God
6 salvation
5 resurrection of the dead on the Last Day
5 the kingdom of God (2 Christian, 3 Mormon)
5 keeping Sabbath (of 18 Jewish interviews)17

4 discipleship or being a religious disciple
4 God as Trinity
4 keeping Kosher (of 18 Jewish interviews)
3 the grace of God
3 the Bible as holy
3 honoring God in life
3 loving one’s neighbor
3 observing high holy days (of 18 Jewish interviews)
2 God as holy or reflecting holiness
2 the justice of God
0 self-discipline
0 working for social justice
0 justification or being justified
0 sanctification or being sanctified

When teenagers talked in their interviews about grace, they were usually talk-
ing about the television show Will and Grace, not about God’s grace. When
teenagers discussed honor, they were almost always talking about taking hon-
ors courses or making the honor role at school, very rarely about honoring
God with their lives. When teens mentioned being justified, they almost al-

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168 s o u l s e a r c h i n g

ways meant having a reason for doing something behaviorally questionable,
not having their relationship with God made right.

For comparison with these tallies on religious terms, we also counted the
number of teens who made reference to the key therapeutic ideas of feeling
happy, good, better, and fulfilled. What we found, as shown in the following
list, is that U.S. teenagers were much more likely to talk in terms broadly
related to therapeutic concerns than in the religious terms examined above:

112 personally feeling, being, getting, or being made happy
99 feeling good about oneself or life
92 feeling better about oneself or life
26 being or feeling personally satisfied or enjoying life satisfaction
21 being or feeling personally fulfilled

Note that these are not total number of times that teenagers used a word or
phrase, but simply the number of teens who used them. In fact, our teenagers
used the single, specific phrase to “feel happy” well more than 2,000 times.
In short, our teen interview transcripts reveal clearly that the language that
dominates U.S. adolescent interests and thinking about life, including reli-
gious and spiritual life, is primarily about personally feeling good and being
happy. That is what defines the dominant epistemological framework and
evaluative standard for most contemporary U.S. teenagers—and probably for
most of their baby boomer parents. This, we think, has major implications
for religious faiths seriously attempting to pass on the established beliefs and
practices of their historical traditions.

What we are theorizing here, in other words, is the very real existence of
a shared American religion that is analogous to the American civil religion
that Robert Bellah astutely described in 1967,18 yet that operates at an en-
tirely different level than civil religion. It is not uncommon for people to think
of the United States as containing a variety of diverse religions that coexist
more or less harmoniously: Protestant, Catholic, Jew; Freewill Baptist, Irish
Catholic, Conservative Judaism, Reformed Presbyterian, Latter Day Saint,
and so on. But the reality is actually more complicated than that. “Religion”
in the United States in fact separates itself out and operates at multiple levels
in different ways. American religion is most obvious at the level of formal
organizations, the plane on which denominations, seminaries, religious con-
gregations, publishing houses, and other religious organizations operate. But
religion also often operates distinctively at a level below the organizational
plane, at the level of individual belief and practice. Here religious faith is
often eclectic, idiosyncratic, and syncretistic, inconsistently—from the per-
spective of most organized religious traditions, at least—mixing together el-
ements as diverse as belief in infant baptism, interest in horoscope predictions,
and the collection of religious kitsch. This is the dimension that some scholars
have called “lived religion” or “popular religion.”19 Beyond these two levels,
Bellah’s major contribution in 1967 was to reveal civil religion operating at
yet another level, above the plane of formal religious organizations. Bellah
very insightfully showed how religious symbols and discourse, appropriated

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index 345

120, 260; devoted teenagers, 108–
115; disengaged teenagers, 86–107;
doubts about, 40–41, 68, 105;
experiences, 44–45, 68; ideal types,
219–221; inarticulate about, 27, 131–
133, 236, 260, 262; made fun of
because of, 59; not necessary for
being good, 155; practices, 27, 45–
50, 269; seekers, 72–86; service
attendance, 37–39, 66–67

Religious Right, 170
“religious tension” theory of sects, 215
Revolutionary era, U.S., 79
“Rhapsody in Blue,” 139
Ridenour, Fritz, 79, 81
risk-averse personalities, 234
risk behaviors, 4, 5, 218, 250
role models, 240, 243, 256
romance, romantic relationships, 15,

28, 130, 161, 194, 206
rosary, praying, 48
Rosh Hashanah, 49, 50, 246

Sabbath, 46, 47, 50, 59, 163, 205
Satanists, 84, 139
Saturday Night Live, 63
school, 12, 20, 28, 58, 59, 70, 90, 91,

130, 148, 153, 160, 161, 162, 183,
185, 189, 190, 201, 203, 204, 206,
236, 245, 247, 250, 255, 270;
cutting classes, 221, 222, 235;
dropping out, 250; grades, 222;
shootings at, 187; suspended or
expelled from, 222

science, 136
scripture, 54, 55, 70; reading 27, 45,

46, 47, 62, 220. See also the Bible
sex and sexuality, 14, 16, 23, 65, 66,

92, 98, 101, 115, 129, 144, 151,
155, 185, 187, 190, 197, 198, 203,
206, 219, 223, 224, 235, 237, 241,
254, 255; oral sex, 224; partners,
224; premarital, 24, 140, 194; in
movies, 23

shopping, 161
Simkhat Torah, 49, 50
The Simpsons, 142
skepticism, religious, 116

sleep deprivation, 190, 200
Smith, Joseph, 170
social capital, 240, 246, 256
social class, 273–277, 287, 288, 290
social justice, 149
social service projects, 113
social ties, 115
sociological imagination, 192
soup kitchens, 23
South, the, 290, 291
spirits, 136
“spiritual but not religious,” 7, 14, 26,

27, 71, 72, 73, 77–81, 260
spiritual experiences, 240, 242–243,

256, 262
spirituality, 5, 175
spiritual seekers and spiritual seeking,

5, 7, 27, 71, 72–86, 115, 127–129,
260, 266

sports, 22, 28, 116, 130, 148, 161,
162, 251, 255

STDs, 16, 101, 133, 187, 198, 255,
267

stealing, 156, 235, 236, 237
“storm and stress” model of

adolescence, 119, 120, 264, 270
“subcultural identity theory,” 215
suicide, 3, 11, 12, 17, 18, 93, 94, 187,

188
Sukkot, 49, 50
summer camp, 13, 53, 54, 69, 95, 113,

235, 248
Sunday school, 18, 46, 47, 53, 54, 69,

94, 100, 248
survey methodology, 292–301
syncretism, spiritual, 81–83

Taoists, 84
tattoos, 139, 140
Taylor, Charles, 267
Teen Coalition, 23
television, 15, 25, 28, 130, 161, 162,

177, 178, 179, 180, 185, 190, 200,
222, 223, 270

Ten Commandments, 132, 155, 163,
176

therapeutic individualism, 172–175,
191, 263

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346 index

Thornton, Arland, 237
tithing, 45
Tocqueville, Alexis, 244
“too religious,” 141–143, 254

United States Conference of Catholic
Bishops (USCCB), 213

urban-rural residence, 283, 284

vacation Bible school (VBS), 18, 23
vampires, 136
Vatican, the 202
Vatican II, 215
Vatican’s Sacred Congregation of the

Council, 212
video games, 223, 251
violence, 23
Virgin of Guadalupe, 48
volunteering, 27, 101, 202, 218, 229,

230, 231

Way of the Cross, 48
well-being, mental and emotional, 5
Wicca, 31, 32, 68, 78, 82, 266
witchcraft, 82
work, teen for pay, 28, 161
World War II, 184

yarmulkes, 59
Yom Kippur, 49, 50
Young Life, 95, 96
Youth Experience Success, 251, 256
youth group: religious, 13, 20, 50–53,

62, 68, 69, 108, 113, 114, 117, 210–
211, 256; youth minister or
ministry, 51, 52, 64, 113, 114, 115,
117, 243, 252, 256, 261, 269

youth retreat, 54, 69

Zakat, 241
Zen, 73, 78, 82

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