[Paleopsych] The National Opinion Survey on Youth and Religion: Are Non-Religious Teenagers Really Deficient in Almost Every Imaginable Way?

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The National Opinion Survey on Youth and Religion: Are Non-Religious
Teenagers Really Deficient in Almost Every Imaginable Way?
March 21, 2005

By Andrew Levison

There are some public opinion studies whose conclusions are so easily
misinterpreted - and whose effects can be so potentially destructive -
that they really ought to have consumer warning labels attached.

Here's a prime example. There is a short item that is now showing up in
newspapers across the country that says "according to an important new

     "devout [teens]... are better off in emotional health, academic
success, community involvement, concern for others, trust of adults and
avoidance of risky behavior [then their nonreligious counterparts]".

Now that's a pretty hefty assertion. But it's downright tepid compared
with the following summary of the data by one of the survey's authors:

    "...on every measure of life outcome-relationship with family, doing
well at school, avoiding risk behaviors, everything-highly religious
teens are doing much better than non-religious kids. It's just a
remarkable observable difference...Highly religious American teens are
happier and healthier. They are doing better in school, they have more
hopeful futures, they get along with their parents better. Name a social
outcome that you care about, and the highly religious kids are doing

Wow. Now that is one humongous whopper of a conclusion. If the data
actually demonstrate what this summary seems to be asserting, it could
easily be used to argue that secular parents are profoundly and even
horribly damaging their teenagers' lives and futures by denying them
religion, even if these parents do teach their kids sound moral and
ethical principles. It could equally be used to justify allowing public
schools to introduce a substantial amount of religious activity and
instruction, not for any specifically religious reasons, but simply "in
the best interests of the kids."

So quick, let's slap on that consumer warning label before this thing
gets totally out of hand:

     Warning: the opinion survey cited above does not contain any data
that directly compares a sample of devout American teenagers with a
comparable group of non-religious teenagers who have been taught to
respect basic American moral and social values but who do not happen to
believe in a supreme being or attend church services. As a result, the
data cannot be used to draw any conclusions whatsoever about (a) the
relative benefits of teaching secular or religious morality as a
child-rearing strategy (b) the relative performance of religious and
non-religious teen-agers, (as defined above) on any measures of positive
social outcomes or (c) the potential benefits of introducing any
specifically theological, as opposed to general moral and ethical,
instruction in the public schools.

There, that ought to help keep things under control until we get this
thing straightened out. To the extent that it gets out to the honest
editorialists and commentators, this warning label could seriously help
to limit the spread of the most blatant and damaging misinterpretations
of the Youth and Religion study.

But what the heck is actually going on here anyway? What data does the
study -- just published as "Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual
Life of American Teenagers" - actually present on this subject and what
conclusions can properly be drawn from it?

The problem is not that the study was improperly conducted or that it is
slanted to further a conservative religious political agenda. Quite the
contrary, the survey, part of a 6 year National Project on Youth and
Religion funded by the Lilly Endowment and headquartered at UNC-Chapel
Hill, is a carefully structured combination of a very large telephone
survey of 3,290 teenagers (ages 13-17) conducted over a 9 month period
from July 2002 to April 2003 as well as 276 extensive personal
interviews. In fact, the study's research design and methodology are far
more rigorous then that of many if not most commercial opinion surveys.

Equally, the authors of the study -- led by Dr. Christian Smith,
Associate Chair of Sociology at UNC-Chapel Hill -- are primarily
concerned with understanding and combating what they perceive as a
deeply disturbing superficiality and self-involved materialism in modern
teenagers' religious outlook. This concern leads them to seriously
condemn the corrosive effects of "consumer-driven capitalism" (their
words) and modern advertising, bringing them at times close to the views
of liberal observers of American religion like Alan Wolfe and even
Thomas Frank, author of "What Happened to Kansas?". To be sure, the
Youth and Religion study -- like the overall 6 year project itself -- is
unabashedly aimed at supporting the work of adult church and religious
youth group leaders in their ministry with teen-agers. But it is also
clearly not deliberately designed to promote a conservative
crypto-theocratic agenda.

But what the Youth and Religion study does indeed reflect, however, is a
strongly "theocentric" perspective - a point of view that sees religion
as central and non-religion as simply its lack or absence. In setting up
the categories for the comparison of religious and non-religious
teenagers, the study defines four basic "ideal types". The first is of
the "devoted" or devout religious teen - one who attends religious
service weekly, is actively involved in a religious youth group, prays
and reads scripture frequently and feels deep faith and closeness to
God. The other three categories - The "regulars", the "sporadic" and the
"disengaged", in contrast, are simply defined by the increasing absence
of these particular characteristics of the first, "devoted" group.

The result is that the most non-religious category - the "disengaged" -
does not define a coherent social group of any kind but rather a
heterogeneous grab-bag of adolescents whose only shared characteristic
is that they are not at all devout. As a consequence, this approach
mixes together two kinds of non-religious adolescents who are really
quite distinct.

One group is the children of secular parents who have been taught and
accept American cultures' basic moral and ethical standards but who do
not believe in a supreme being or attend church. These teenagers'
parents take their kids to soccer practices and scout meetings and
themselves attend PTA and neighborhood association meetings but do not
show up at Sunday morning services. When asked, these parents will often
say that "We seriously thought about joining the church for the kids
benefit because they do teach many good values over there. But we just
felt it was hypocritical to make the kids accept beliefs and doctrines
that we don't really believe or practice ourselves" These parents
frequently encourage and participate with their kids in civic
voluntarism, from after-school tutoring to Habitat for Humanity, Meals
on Wheels and Hands on America. Over the last 30 years, young people
from families like these have played a major role in literally tens of
thousands of local and national environmental volunteer projects which
more conservative religious groups avoided because of the environmental
movements' reliance on scientific modes of thought and methods of
investigation. These are the kind of teens who grew up watching Sesame
Street, Nature, and re-runs of Star Trek starring Captain Jean-Luc

The other, and very distinct, group of teenagers is composed of the vast
numbers of "Rebellious" teens who actively reject some or even most of
mainstream society's rules, norms and values. These teenagers come in
kaleidoscopic variety -- Gangstas, Punks, Goths, Dopers, Drop-outs,
Bikers, Slackers, Skinheads, Losers, Ravers, Weirdos, Cokeheads,
Junkies, Thrill-seekers, Risk-takers, Pill-poppers, Shit-kickers and
dozens of other rebellious subcultures of the teenage social
environment. These young people - of whom there are vast numbers - have
three basic traits in common: they tend not to be religious, they tend
to repeatedly break social rules or violate the laws, and (being
teenagers) they tend to constantly get caught, racking up a wildly
disproportionate share of all recorded youthful infractions of municipal
laws and school regulations.

There may be some specific research objectives for which it makes sense
to lump these rebellious teens together with the first group into a
single catch-all category called the "non-religious". But, for a
productive national discussion of the differences between religious and
non-religious teenagers, it certainly seems more logical to consider the
two groups separately. Combining the two groups simply insures that the
rebellious group's extremely low average scores on almost any measure of
social adjustment will pull down the overall average of the two groups,
making the first group, as well as the rebels, appear to be deeply
inferior in comparison to a highly supervised and rigorously socialized
group like committed religious teens who are active participants in
organized Church youth activities.

And this is, of course, exactly what happens in the Religion and Youth
survey. On variable after variable measuring obedience to rules,
compliance with social norms and general social adjustment- variables
like the number of arrests, number of driving tickets, frequency of
expulsions, level of sexual activity, use of drugs, quality of
self-image, relationship with parents, participation in volunteer
activities, level of school grades and so on - the mixed group of
"non-religious" teenagers invariably appears inferior to the devout.

The obvious question that continually hovers over the proceedings,
however, is whether the first group alone might actually score as high
or even higher then the religious group on some or all of these
measures. But, quite remarkably, there is not one single piece of data
in the entire study that is designed to answer that question.
On the contrary, in fact, the most troubling feature of the study is the
very deeply-imbedded presumption that healthy, productive non-religious
teenagers and morally responsible secular parents are so relatively
scarce in American society that they need not be considered as a
distinct or significant social group.

This overall attitude is most dramatically evident in two long personal
profiles that are the most vivid and specific portrait the book contains
of non-religious teens. One of the two teens portrayed is a drug dealer
who smokes marijuana, drinks alcohol, uses crystal meth, has withdrawal
symptoms, was expelled from high school, has been in jail and watches
porn videos. The teen's father is "a biker who drinks and sends Raymond
soft-porn backgrounds for his computer".

The other non-religious teenager, on the contrary, is described as an
"earnest, caring, hardworking, affable adolescent, the kind most adults
would enjoy and admire". But as the profile continues, however, it
emerges that he once attempted suicide, and has difficult relations with
his parents -- a mother he describes as "really new-age-y, into a lot of
weird, crazy things" and a father who is a "hard-ass" who "worked so
much I hardly ever saw him."

Despite his extreme lack of parental guidance and support, the 17
year-old non-religious teen expresses a wide variety of admirable moral
and ethical sentiments. But the interviewer subsequently comments that
"lacking recourse to ground his moral commitments in, say, divine
command or natural law, Steve finds himself...possessing few coherent,
rational grounds for explaining, justifying and defending those
standards...Of course, nobody expects a 17 year old to be an articulate
moral philosopher. But the apparent lack of clear bearings or firm
anchors in Steve's moral reasoning are conspicuous and perhaps

These two profiles, which the authors refer back to at a number of other
points in the study, illustrate an unstated but evident tendency to
consistently visualize non-religious teenagers as either mired in
delinquency and social pathology or as basically confused and adrift,
lacking clear parental moral guidance and unconsciously yearning for the
clarity and certainty religious faith would provide.

The authors do warn that the two profiles they offer are not actually
meant to typify all non-religious adolescents and their parents, but the
only broad generalization the book actually does offer about healthy
non-religious teens and their families reflects the same basic view:

     "Although there are certainly many well-adjusted American
adolescents who do not attend religious services regularly, as a whole,
low-attending American teens, like the non-religious teens, appear to
reflect some likely signs of family strain and general civic and
organizational disconnection"

In fact, in all of the data from the 3,200 telephone surveys, 276 face
to face interviews, and scores of regressions and statistical tables,
the social categories of morally responsible non-religious parents and
decent, law-abiding and successful non-religious teens hover like
ghostly, unseen presences. One senses their existence somewhere in the
underlying data, but nowhere are their numbers estimated and nowhere can
they be directly observed. In a book subtitled "The Religious and
Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers" one could be forgiven for
thinking that this represents a not inconsequential omission.


(Note: It is worth noting in advance one incorrect defense of the study
that will quickly occur to some readers - namely that it is proper to
lump "rebels" and "decent" non-religious teens together because it is
the lack of religion that causes the rebelliousness of the non-religious
young. As it happens, the authors of the Youth and Religion study
themselves provide a quite excellent review of the permissible kinds of
inferences their data allows, and they clearly label logic such as that
above as fallacious reasoning of the "the presence of many people on the
subway platform makes the trains arrive" variety)

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