PROVO – To most teenagers, religion is like the wallpaper in the dining room: it’s always been there, so why talk about it now?
But Mormon youth are different. They are the most intensely religious teens in the nation.
Those are the some of the observations Christian Smith, co-author of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, and two other prominent sociologists shared with faculty and students at Brigham Young University Thursday.
“Many [teenagers] seemed as if ours was the first time any adult had ever asked them what they believe,” Smith said. “Many were not familiar with the basics of their own religious beliefs. They were clueless.”
After years of comprehensive research on youth and religion, Smith joined sociologists John Bartkowski of Mississippi State University and Steve Vaisey of BYU to present their findings.
Their research is part of the first wave of the National Study of Youth and Religion.
Started in 2001, the study is the most extensive sociological research project on the topic to date, involving 3,370 telephone surveys and 267 personal interviews of teens.
The news so far: Religiously active teens fare better in life than their nonreligious counterparts, and their faith is powerfully shaped by their parents. Still, religion does not play a major role in the lives of most teens.
“Most U.S. teens are not religious rebels alienated from, or disgruntled with, the churches in which they are being raised,” Smith said. “But neither does religious faith and practice mean a heck of a lot to most teens . . . or connect much to the rest of their lives.”
But, Bartkowski added, LDS youth are not like most of their counterparts.
He followed Smith’s presentation with his own about the peculiarity of Mormon youth, saying their theology, history and lifestyle separate them from other teens.
“Most of what Smith said doesn’t apply to LDS kids,” said Bartkowski, who plans to publish his findings about LDS teen religiosity. “Active LDS teens can explain what they believe and why they believe it.”
A convert to Mormonism, Bartkowski did raise at least one concern with the LDS faith, calling it a rigorous religion that demands a lot from its members and sometimes results in “unworthy” members feeling ostracized.
Vaisey, a 2001 BYU graduate, followed Bartkowski with details of a study about moral cultures and moral intuitions that found teens sometimes have a hard time explaining their moral ideals.
A second wave of the national youth study is already under way and will focus this summer on re-interviewing teens first approached in 2002 and 2003.