Research has been conducted, namely the National Study of Youth and Religion, that contains a huge amount of data about teenagers and their religion, or lack thereof. Drilling down into the data, researchers have come to various conclusions about how teens view religion and God.
Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, two sociologists at the University of North Carolina, have been trying to make sense out of the study. They have also conducted follow-up interviews.
One conclusion they have drawn is that teens who are more highly religious, in other words who attend church regularly and pray frequently, handle significant life issues better than teens who are not so religious.
The researchers are quick to point out, however, that they do not necessarily attribute the more positive life outcomes to the religious practices, since no causal relationship can be proved.
Nevertheless, evangelicals pounce upon research such as this as evidence that having a good life is dependent upon being a good Christian.
Many church leaders are also heartened by the fact that, according to the study, 86 percent of teenagers in America identify themselves as Christians.
But pollster and researcher George Barna points out that, although a vast majority of American youths say they believe in God, the nature of that belief may not be what evangelicals are hoping for. A striking majority of teens who believe in God and call themselves Christian are apparently not of the evangelical variety.
In fact, most church-going teens believe that the god of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and other non-mainstream religions is actually the same god with different names. Most evangelicals believe that God is only interested in Christians. Everyone else goes to Hell by default.
What’s even more alarming to evangelical Christians is that the majority of church-going teens take the so-called truths of the bible with a grain of salt. Most believe the stories of the bible are just that, stories to enhance spirituality. The divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, absolute truth, all the orthodox views of Christianity held by evangelicals are viewed as quaint by most Christian teens.
Barna also found that only four percent of American teens can be called evangelical Christians. That’s down from 10 percent in 1995.
One might have expected an upward trend in that figure given the huge shift to the right this country took after last year’s presidential election. But that might have been an aberration. Every poll taken recently clearly indicates right-wing candidates, including our president, would lose handily if elections were held today.
The Agape Press, a fundamentalist Christian publication, laments what the deeper poll data indicate. One editorial grumbled, “Unless Christian leaders want to contemplate a future - much like that unfolding in Europe - in which their youth abandon Christianity in droves, there must be a brutally honest re-examination of how we do church.”
They have churches in Europe, too. Perhaps American youths are just able to see things more clearly than their fundamentalist elders would like.
Many European countries enjoy as much, or more, freedom as we do in the Land of Liberty. Many have less crime. Most have a more highly-educated public, because their schools do a better job and because the general mentality is that education is important.
It’s difficult to reconcile a lower crime rate and more education with decreased morality, but apparently, evangelicals consider Europeans to be less moral than Americans. Maybe it’s because they have more nude beaches.
At any rate, a case can be made that it’s a positive development that teens are seeing through the nonsensical rhetoric of the evangelists. Perhaps it means that, while holding on to Christian-based ethics, the future leaders of America won’t be hamstrung by the antediluvian belief system that guides American policy today.
And given that the research shows that, while teens who live the Christian life handle their problems better, they do not have to give up their common sense to enjoy the benefits.