AP Poll: Religion a vital part of young Americans’ lives, and leads to more happiness

Among America’s young people, godliness contributes to happiness.

An extensive survey by The Associated Press and MTV found that people aged 13 to 24 who describe themselves as very spiritual or religious tend to be happier than those who don’t.

When it comes to spirituality, American young people also are remarkably tolerant — nearly 7 in 10 say that while they follow their own religious or spiritual beliefs, others might be true as well.

On the whole, the poll found religion is a vital part of the lives of many young Americans, although with significant pockets that attach little or no importance to faith.

Forty-four percent say religion and spirituality is at least very important to them, 21 percent responded it is somewhat important, 20 percent say it plays a small part in their lives and 14 percent say it does not play any role.

Among races, African-Americans are most likely to describe religion as being the single most important thing in their lives. Females are slightly more religious than males, and the South is the most religious region, the survey said.

The poll’s mission was to figure out what makes young people happy. And it appears religion helps.

Eighty percent of those who call religion or spirituality the most important thing in their lives say they are happy, while 60 percent of those who say faith is not important to them consider themselves happy.

“If you believe God is helping you, then everything else isn’t as important and you can trust that there’s somebody there for you no matter what,” said Molly Luksik, a 21-year-old ballet dancer in Chicago and a Roman Catholic who attends Mass weekly. “Just going to church and everything … it’s very calming, and everyone is nice.”

Sociologists have long drawn a connection between happiness and the sense of community inherent to most religious practice. Lisa Pearce, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, said religion can indeed contribute to happiness, but she cautioned that the converse also can hold true.

“It’s easier for kids who are happy and have things going well in their life to find the time and energy to participate in religion,” said Pearce, co-principal investigator for the National Study of Youth and Religion. “It could be kids who have bad experiences in church end up leaving and being unhappy with religion.”

The poll also asked young people to choose between two statements about their views of other faiths.

Sixty-eight percent agree with the statement, “I follow my own religious and spiritual beliefs, but I think that other religious beliefs could be true as well.” Thirty-one percent choose, “I strongly believe that my religious beliefs are true and universal, and that other religious beliefs are not right.”

The latter statement is more likely to be the position of young teens — 13 to 17 — and those who attend religious services weekly.

However, tolerance is the rule overall. That doesn’t surprise the Rev. Paul Raushenbush, associate dean for religious life at Princeton University and author of “Teen Spirit: One World, Many Faiths.”

Young people eat lunch and play soccer with peers from other belief backgrounds, while adults tend to self-segregate with others of like mind, he said. Sweeping immigration reform in 1965 transformed America into the world’s most religiously diverse nation, and young people grew up with the second generation of the immigrant wave, he noted.

“This shows that it doesn’t require a lack of conviction in your own faith tradition to think someone else might have a similar type of conviction in their own,” Raushenbush said. “There is no sense of, ‘This diminishes my faith.’”

Traci Laichter, 14, went to Jewish preschool. Her grandparents are Holocaust survivors. Her family keeps kosher and displays a mezuzah — a little box holding verses from the Torah — on the door of their suburban Las Vegas home.

Her faith is strong and she believes it will last, but that doesn’t mean she thinks other faiths are devoid of truth.

“I believe whatever you believe is true to you and it really shouldn’t matter what other people think,” she said.

About 75 percent of those surveyed say God or a higher power has some impact on their happiness. At the same time, 90 percent believe happiness is at least partly under their own control.

“I think you do have control over how you are going to feel on a particular day,” said David Mueller of Lockport, New York, a 20-year-old college student who attends an evangelical Christian megachurch called The Chapel.

“When it comes to events in your whole life, it’s already somewhat laid out for you,” he said. “You can stray off to another path. But where God wants you to go, you are going to get there.”

The AP-MTV poll was conducted by Knowledge Networks Inc. from April 16 to 23, and involved online interviews with 1,280 people aged 13 to 24. It had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

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