Teenagers and religion

Once again, I am plugging the work of another relative. This time, it’s my dad, Romney Biddulph. He has written the following very interesting book review of a new study on teenagers and religion. One of the key issues is why LDS teenagers show the “highest degree of religious vitality and salience.”

By Romney Biddulph

An interesting book is being published this month: The Religious Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). The principal author is Christian Smith, Distinguished Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Sociology, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The research focus was why “mainline” Protestant and Catholic teenagers lack religious and spiritual vitality. Those teens were compared with LDS, evangelical, and African American teens who displayed greater spirituality. In fact, a chapter in his book (entitled “Mormon Envy”) examines why “in nearly every area, using a variety of measures, Mormon young people showed the highest degree of religious vitality and salience”. The research demonstrates that highly religious teenagers meet life’s challenges much better than less religious teens.

The authors conclude this is due to “core theological convictions that add up to a consequential faith.” A consequential faith enables teenagers to overcome the ennui pervading much of American religion. That LDS youth can overcome this pervasive inertia the authors attribute to:

  1. A creed to believe. This is accomplished by (early morning and released time) seminary, which allows LDS youth to relate to God in a meaningful way. LDS youth espouse a God who is conscious, rational, responsive, dependable, and has a life-encompassing scope. LDS youth have an image of a powerful, personal, morally concerned God. The more distant, cosmic images of God do not engender meaningfulness in “mainstream” Protestant or Catholic youth. 72% of LDS youth reported sharing their religious beliefs with someone not of their faith, twice the rate of the Protestant or Catholic youth.
  2. A place to belong. The LDS family and extended family give LDS youth a place to belong. The large LDS family and peers in the high school seminary tithe, practice family home evening, and shun alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. LDS young people are raised to believe that their faith makes them unusual in ways that actually matter, that they have been “set apart” by God for a special witness.
  3. A call to live out. Youth of other faiths have little opportunity to “tithe their life” by proselytizing and service missions. LDS youth stand out in the authors’ study of 3,370 teenagers, not because they think religion helps them do what they want, but because of their desire to do what God wants. LDS teens had a more developed view of a “morally significant universe”, which is a sense that their life is “inescapably bound up to a larger framework of consequence.” “A morally significant universe has a telos, an end, goal, and standard, by which one knows where one is and to where one is headed. . . . In a morally significant universe, actions really do embody and reflect bigger challenges, struggles, failures, and victories – and all things really are finally going somewhere important.” LDS missionary experiences train young people, thus providing leadership for the Church in the future.
  4. A hope to hold onto. LDS doctrine teaches youth that the Earth has a definite “end time.” God is working towards a goal in which the hope of the faithful will be consummated. The Mormon emphasis on progressing toward becoming like God provides LDS youth with a theology that “goes somewhere.” End time (eschatology) doctrine provides LDS youth with an understanding of how their current moral choices and religious practices (fast offering, Sabbath-keeping, worship, chastity, etc.) factor into their eventual judgment.

The authors urge youth ministers from mainstream Protestant and Catholic denominations to teach the “skills of spiritual resistance” which LDS youth exhibit, by developing an understandable, meaningful creed, a spiritually fulfilling “place to belong”, opportunities to live out a religious calling to develop future leadership, and to emphasize doctrine which holds out hope for young people.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

6 thoughts on “Teenagers and religion

  1. Wow! What a great post and find Geoff. Kudos to you and your dad on that. It looks like Amazon will be getting more of my business as well. The book sounds like an excellent read. Thanks.

  2. The authors urge youth ministers from mainstream Protestant and Catholic denominations to teach the “skills of spiritual resistance” which LDS youth exhibit, by developing an understandable, meaningful creed …”

    The genius of the 13 Articles of Faith is that they provide a distinct, understandable and memorizable set of basic beliefs for LDS teenagers to cling to and share with others. On more than one occasion I’ve heard of situations where LDS youth and youth of other denominations have been encouraged to share their beliefs, and the LDS youth were able to use the 13 Articles of Faith to quickly get a synopsis of Mormon beliefs across to others.

  3. I wonder what the author of the book has to say about the importance of community and fellowship. Our ward (which shares a building with Bro. Biddulph’s ward) has a very small YM/YW group. In some ways, this is a blessing, as the youth receive a lot of individual attention from their leaders. On the other hand, they have relatively little support from each other compared to other wards (speaking not of the quality of their relationships, but rather of the number of peers and frequency of contact). Surely this is a factor in teen religious involvement and spirituality. It is for adults.

  4. The book’s author did not address Sunday School, or youth groups because they are common to the denominations studied.

    However, the author did cite early morning seminary as a distinguishing factor for young LDS people: “Students typically arrive at school together, as if to reinforce their identity as Mormons before the school day begins, and to remind one another that they are not alone in their faith; they have each another to hold them accountable to the Church.

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