The majority of youths in the world say they are spiritual and think religion and spirituality are both positive, according to an extensive, first-of-its-kind survey.
Fifty-seven percent of young people (ages 12-25) see themselves as being spiritual, reported the survey by Search Institute's Center for Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence that was sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation.
The research surveyed more than 7,000 young people from a wide range of cultural and religious backgrounds, spanning 17 countries and six continents. It took two years to complete the study that offers one of the first snapshots of spiritual development across multiple countries and traditions.
"We have spent two years listening to youth ages 12 to 25 from many countries and traditions talk about spiritual development and its role in their lives," reflected Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, co-director of the Center for Spiritual Development, in a statement. "Many young people are keenly interested in these issues, but relatively few have opportunities to talk with others about the things that really matter to them."
The survey found that about one in three youths consider themselves "very" or "pretty" spiritual, but this varied vastly across countries. The high was in the United States where 52 percent of the youth self-described themselves as "very" or "pretty" spiritual, and in Thailand where 50 percent gave this same response.
In contrast, Australia had the low of 23 percent youth who said they were highly spiritual. Almost half of the youth surveyed in Australia (47 percent) indicated that they are not spiritual, compared to only 12 percent in Thailand and about 20 percent in Canada, India, Ukraine, and the United States.
Religion and being spiritual are related but different, according to the world's youth. Respondents are still most likely to say they are both spiritual and religious (34 percent). Nearly a quarter (23 percent) say they are spiritual, but not religious.
One in five of the youths indicated they don't know.
American youths' response was slightly different. They were more likely to say they are both spiritual and religious (43 percent) than the world's youth in general (34 percent). A comparable number to international youths said they are just spiritual (27 percent).
Being spiritual, for this young generation, most often is associated with believing in God (36 percent), followed by believing there is a purpose to life (32 percent), and then being true to one's inner self (26 percent).
But the most popular definition for being spiritual differed across countries and culture.
Indian youths were more likely to say being true to one's inner self (38 percent) is being spiritual more so than believing in God (33 percent).
Whereas in Canada, the youths said being spiritual is believing in God (52 percent) and then believing there is a purpose to life (48 percent). Also, more than a quarter of the participants from Canada (28 percent) said spirituality involves having a deep sense of inner peace or happiness, which was unique to Canadian youths.
Meanwhile young people in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States all defined spirituality first and foremost as believing there is a purpose to life. Believing in God was ranked second at 33 percent for youths in the United States.
In focus groups, some young people expressed the differences they see between spirituality, religion, and religious institutions.
"Spiritual is something one experiences in your own being. Religion is, well, your religion," said a 15-year-old girl from South Africa. "Most of our religion is forced - the do's and don'ts. Being spiritual means standing on a mountain with the wind blowing through your hair, and the feeling of being free."
Another 15-year-old girl from Australia said, "'Religious' is kind of knowing the things in your head, but 'spiritual' is knowing them in your heart."
Most of those surveyed perceived being spiritual is good (72 percent) as well as being religious (67 percent). About one in four youths around the world see being spiritual or religious as neither good nor bad.
When it comes to spiritual help, most young people said they turn to their family (44 percent) and friends (15 percent). Only 14 percent of youth indicated that their religious institution helps them the most.
Nearly one in five youth (18 percent) said they have no one to help them regarding their spiritual lives.
The proportion of youth who said no one helps them increases to 38 percent in the United Kingdom and 37 percent in Australia. Only 4 percent of youth in Cameroon said no one helps them spiritually.
Don Ratcliff, Wheaton College's Price-LeBar Professor of Christian Education and an advisor to the Center for Spiritual Development, reflected on the research study: "I am impressed that while church attendance decreased for most teenagers, a large majority still affirm belief in God and a spiritual dimension to life, as well as believing in life after death," in a statement released Friday.
Ratcliff hopes that this study will lead to additional research related to the reasons for the decline in church attendance that may have roots in childhood as well as adolescent years.