Survey: Teenagers Greatly Influenced by Parents' Faith

"Teenage religiosity for the vast majority is highly conventional," said Christian Smith, who co-wrote Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. "That may mean that compared to previous generations, teenagers today are more conventional and bound to mainstream values and cultures compared to, say, the '60s. They seem pretty content just going with how they were raised."

The book, to be released in March by Oxford University Press, is the compilation of the first major finding by the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR).

The NYSR project involved a telephone survey of 3,300 randomly selected English and Spanish speaking American teenagers over a period of three years. Smith, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina and Chapel Hill, with the help of a team of researchers, also conducted 267 in-depth interviews with the youth.

Of those surveyed, 82 percent said they are affiliated with a religious congregation and 71 percent said they felt “extremely,” “very” or “somewhat” close to God. Sixty five percent also said they pray alone a few times a week or more, and sixty one percent said they “definitely” believe in divine miracles from God.

In a larger picture, the survey found that most teenagers are greatly influenced by that of their parents’: less than one third of one percent reported that they were part of “alternative” religions such as Wicca. Three fourth of the religious teens said their beliefs were somewhat or very similar to that of their parents, and only 6 and 11 percent of teens said their beliefs are very different from their mothers’ and father’s beliefs, respectively.

Smith, and Episcopalian with three children said to AP that the results gave him greater assurance that he plays a key role in the religious lives of his teenagers.

"After doing this research I feel more authorized as a parent to teach my kids," he said. "A lot of parents tell me, `My kid doesn't listen to me anyway.' It really just lets them off the hook."

At that light, Smith said the survey “speaks more broadly about the direction of American religion. God is something like a combination of Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist.”

Teens, like their American Baby Boomer parent generation, have a strong sense of religious identification, but are unsure of what the identification means in relation to their faith.

“What I find most interesting about the trend is the wide gap between religious knowledge on the part of most teens and their strong sense of religious identification and affiliation, as indicated by this survey,” said Mary Kupiec Cayton, a history professor at Miami University and a specialist in American spirituality.

“I agree that this trend isn't unique to teens: it increasingly characterizes how many American adults feel about religion as well,” Cayton said. “Contemporary Americans are often looking to religion to meet their personal needs for community and emotional comfort. ‘Belief’ seems to depend a great deal on the degree to which these needs get met.”

The survey also found that religious teenagers are more emotionally healthy, academically successful, involved in community and trusting than those who are not religious.