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Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers [Hardcover]

by Christian Smith, Melina Lundquist Denton
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)

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Book Description

February 24, 2005 019518095X 978-0195180954
In innumerable discussions and activities dedicated to better understanding and helping teenagers, one aspect of teenage life is curiously overlooked. Very few such efforts pay serious attention to the role of religion and spirituality in the lives of American adolescents. But many teenagers are very involved in religion. Surveys reveal that 35% attend religious services weekly and another 15% attend at least monthly. 60% say that religious faith is important in their lives. 40% report that they pray daily. 25% say that they have been "born again." Teenagers feel good about the congregations they belong to. Some say that faith provides them with guidance and resources for knowing how to live well. What is going on in the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers? What do they actually believe? What religious practices do they engage in? Do they expect to remain loyal to the faith of their parents? Or are they abandoning traditional religious institutions in search of a new, more authentic "spirituality"? This book attempts to answer these and related questions as definitively as possible. It reports the findings of The National Study of Youth and Religion, the largest and most detailed such study ever undertaken. The NYSR conducted a nationwide telephone survey of teens and significant caregivers, as well as nearly 300 in-depth face-to-face interviews with a sample of the population that was surveyed. The results show that religion and spirituality are indeed very significant in the lives of many American teenagers. Among many other discoveries, they find that teenagers are far more influenced by the religious beliefs and practices of their parents and caregivers than commonly thought. They refute the conventional wisdom that teens are "spiritual but not religious." And they confirm that greater religiosity is significantly associated with more positive adolescent life outcomes. This eagerly-awaited volume not only provides an unprecedented understanding of adolescent religion and spirituality but, because teenagers serve as bellwethers for possible future trends, it affords an important and distinctive window through which to observe and assess the current state and future direction of American religion as a whole.

Frequently Bought Together

Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers + Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults + Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Encyclopedic in scope and exhaustive in detail, this study offers an impressive array of data, statistics and concluding hypotheses about American teenage religious identity, with appendixes explaining methodology and extensive endnotes. Sociologists of religion at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Smith and Denton cover a range of topics: e.g., "mapping" religious affiliations, creating new categories to describe teenage spirituality, exploring why Catholic teens are largely apathetic. All the book's findings derive from interviews conducted with teenagers for the National Study of Youth and Religion. Interestingly and against popular belief, Smith and Denton conclude that the "spiritual but not religious" affiliation thought to be widespread among young adults is actually rare among Americans under 18, and that the greatest influence shaping teens' religious beliefs is their parents. Despite the personal tone adopted in the first chapter and the topic's wide appeal, readers should be prepared to wade through lengthy presentations of research findings. Most helpful are summaries appearing in bullet form within several chapters, providing accessible and succinct overviews of the raw information and statistics. Regardless of whether this research will be "a catalyst for many soul-searching conversations in various communities and organizations" among parents and pastors, scholars will surely agree that this study advances the conversation about contemporary adolescent spirituality. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"We strongly recommend this book to those interested in the religiousity of American teenagers. Social scientists, religious leaders, youth leaders, and parents will find this an enlightening read."--Brigham Young University Studies

"This book is, quite simply, the best book ever on the best study ever on the topic of adolescents and religion. It is exemplary social science, combining the best of qualitative and quantitative methods, not only empirically strong but theoretically rich."--Journal of Adolescent Research

"Let this book challenge you as parents and church leaders to evaluate what you are teaching the rising generation. More importantly, let it challenge you to examine your beliefs and practices and the teaching of the church." --Equip for Ministry

"For scholars as well as parents, teachers, relatives, mentors, and other persons interested in the well-being of teens, this is and will likely be the definitive book on teens and religion for years to come."--Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion

"This survey is 'the largest and most comprehensive and detaile study of American teenage religion and spirituality conducted to date.' All major religions and two, what the authors refer to as 'minority religious traditions, Mormonism and Judaism,' are covered...In the meantime, this book does place Mormons and Jews in context to the majority US religions and that is a valuable beginning."--Community, the Jewish Community Federation (KY) newspaper

"This book is a landmark study of the religious attitudes and practices of American teenagers. While the study demonstrates that there is a strong correlation between religious commitment and positive social behavior, there are also disturbing trends related to this theologically illiterate generation of teens who primarily think of God as their private butler. The authors offer a number of concrete suggestions in a concluding postscript that will be of value to youth workers and religious communities. Drawing on a national survey of teens and their significant caregivers, as well as several hundred in-depth interviews, this book is the most comprehensive study of teenage religiosity that has ever been done."--Donald E. Miller, author of Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium

"Soul Searching is a bombshell, and one that is long overdue. It convincingly demonstrates that many of our assumptions about youth and religion in the U.S. are well off the mark. Instead of finding hostility toward religion, we meet young people from every corner of the culture who echo their parents religiosity to an astonishing degree-but this, as it turns out, is hardly a formula for vibrant faith. Soul Searching puts American religious communities on notice: if religion matters, then we had better stop exposing young people to faith and start teaching it to them. Anyone who lives or works with teenagers simply must read this book. You won't be able to sit still after you do."--Kenda Creasy Dean, author of Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church

"This is an extremely important book. In presenting the results from the most ambitious national study ever conducted among American teenagers about their religious and spiritual lives, it sheds new light from start to finish. I highly recommend it."--Robert Wuthnow, author of America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity

"This book is a rich resource that Christian educators, church officers, and parents need to be aware of." --Ordained Servant, A Journal of Church Officers

"Fills an enormous gap in our knowledge about young people. If there is one book to read outside your discipline this year it is Soul Searching."--Worship

"The most comprehensive and reliable research ever done on youth and religion. For the next 50 years writers on the topic will be referring to their book."--The Christian Century

"Smith and Denton's findings beg for a response from those working in youth ministry."--The Christian Century

"Demolishes the conventional wisdom....a must-read"--Andrew Greeley, National Catholic Reporter

"With a mixture of good news and bad news that punctures many stereotypes about adoloscent religious beliefs and behavior, this extensive study deserves attention for what it reveals across the full range of American religious groups."--Peter Steinfels, The New York Times

"Pioneering....a highly informative and provocative book....[that] is also readable, full of illuminating anecdotes and summaries from which the lively, often-touching personalities of teenagers emerge."--Chicago Tribune

"Youth groups, role models, service activities and cultural rituals of religious institutions all seem to help youth lead more healthy, moral and happy lives. This book goes a long way toward explaining the extent of this phenomenon and which religions seem to be accomplishing these benefits most."--New York Post

""Of course, it's not the point whether or not Smith and Denton believe in God. They believe in religion. They believe in teenagers. And for good reason. The data suggests that America would be better off if we all believed as they do."--The Revealer

"No book in recent memory has as much potential to transform the practice of youth ministry...[T]he results overturn nearly every piece of conventional wisdom about teens and faith."--Christianity Today

"Soul Searching represents social science at its very best."--Spiritus

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (February 24, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 019518095X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195180954
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #317,323 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, and the Center for Social Research at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of many books, including What is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up (Chicago 201); Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Do Not Give Away More Money (OUP 2008); Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (OUP 2005), Winner of the 2005 "Distinguished Book Award" from Christianity Today; and Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture (OUP 2003).

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
152 of 163 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Author April 1, 2005
In response to "Truth Seeker"'s review, a few basic points:

1. Muslims are not ignored in the book. The data include a full national sample of Muslim and other minority religion teens. As the book explains, however, because Muslim teens are so relatively few in number, only a handful show up in any national sample. Nevertheless, detailed attention is paid to Muslim (and Hindu and Buddhist) teens on pp. 315-317, based on the data we do have.

2. The analytical categories used (comparing conservative, mainline, and black Protestants with Catholics, LDS, and not religious) is state-of-the art method in the sociology of religion. These are the major religious traditions in the U.S., and most readers want to know how teens in those traditions are faring. Of course it is possible to focus on specific subgroups (e.g., Catholic school attenders) and get more highly specified results (see point #4 below), but the basic comparisons in the book are entirely valid and routinely employed in sociology of religion.

3. The book makes perfectly clear that the teens portrayed in the Catholic chapter are not "typical" Catholic teens, but representatives of those Catholic teens who are not doing well religiously. They are explicitly situated in the overall and clear finding that Catholic teens as a whole are not doing well religiously. Of course there are some very solid, committed Catholic teens, but they are not the norm, they are the minority. Whether or not (truth seeking) Catholic readers want to hear that unpleasant fact is another story. My request is simply: Don't shoot the messanger because of the message.

4. The NSYR ([...
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35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Non-Christian Nation August 4, 2005
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Christian Smith and Melinda Denton have produced a wonderful analysis of the religious condition of teenagers (ages 13-17) in the USA. They collected survey data on 3290 teenagers and then followed up with more extended interviews of 267 of those surveyed.

The initial survey gave an over all picture of the religious character of these teenagers including their affiliations, participation, beliefs and experiences. The interviews provided an in-depth exposure of what these teens really believe.

As it turns out, the seeming wide-spread acceptance of religious life by teens (only 16% were "not religious") is largely to a vague, self-defined religion which the authors defined as: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The teens believed in a generally disinterested divine power who supervised a system to provide personal peace and prosperity for nice people, or perhaps to help them them be nice. They adhered to a religion that is helpful, but not entirely necessary. While there were those who could be described as believers in Christianity as defined by the Bible, and also those who denied any religion, the clear majority favored MTD.

The book is a "must read" for any who would like to better understand the status of the spiritual interests of youths. It also is valuable for all who would generally understand American culture. While the authors make no such claim, it is likely that the youths' view of religion is likely the common view of our age. At the least, it surely will be the increasingly dominant religion as these youths enter adult life.

For parents and youth workers who are interested in true spiritual life for their children, it shows the arena in which their own youths reside. It should stimulate good thinking and discussion of how properly to intervene in what turns out to be a huge spiritual void in the lives of professing spiritual/religious youths.

This is an excellent book.
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35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read November 19, 2004
I was fortunate to be able to read an advance copy of this book, which provides the most comprehensive treatement to date of the spiritual and religious lives of teenagers. The findings show a significantly different side of American teenagers than what we normally see on television and in the movies. If your views of teenagers are based on what you think you know about them from the news, TV shows and movies, you need to read this book and get a more accurate picture. I highly recommend this book for parents, youth ministers, and anyone who is interested in understanding the lives of teenagers today.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Must read for scholars studying youth November 18, 2004
This book is based on the most thorough survey of American teenagers that has ever been done. Funded by the Lilly Endowment, the author draws on extremely nuanced data that includes a national survey with teens and significant caregivers as well as in-depth interviews with a sample of the population that was surveyed. Although questions about religious behavior have been included on a variety of surveys, ranging from Gallup Polls to surveys of teenagers and drug use, there is no study that compares with this one in terms of the multidimensional character of the research. I highly recommend it.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Catholic Report Author September 24, 2005
I would like to add to Dr. Christian Smith's clarification, as one of the authors on the Catholic report on the data he mentions (authored by Ministry Training Source and published by the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry). Soul Searching is not anti-Catholic. The researchers used advanced research techniques to produce a truly representative sample, and consulted Catholic youth ministry leaders in the development of the survey. The authors make sure to point out that while Catholic youth are the most inarticulate about their faith, they are merely the leading edge of a trend much larger than any one denomination. I have been across the country sharing this data with Catholic youth ministry leaders, who find that the results ring true with their experiences.

While the comparisons among denominations are sometimes difficult, they are none the less helpful and important. Looking at the Catholic data without comparing to other denominations is important in and of itself, and I would encourage "Truth Seeker" to seek out the Catholic report and read it.

Soul Searching is an amazing work, which was undertaken by professional researchers with no bias. They have contributed greatly to our understanding of youth and religion and I thank them for their work. To suggest anything to the contrary is simply unfounded conjecture.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Our Teens Need Help
I highly recommend this book to anyone working with teenagers. It has a wealth of data and illustrations of issues the teenagers of America are facing today. Well-researched.
Published 4 months ago by Mike Bryant
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Job
Great information on why kids are leaving the church. Most of the information was already out there, but Christian Smith arranged it in a way that both made sense and opened eyes.
Published 5 months ago by Ronald Francis
5.0 out of 5 stars positive look at teenagers
So much food for thought for anyone who cares about young people and their religious connections. Confirms my belief that youth ministry is about families and involves the whole... Read more
Published 7 months ago by CAW18
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Book!
Excellent book on the topic of the spiritual lives of teenagers. Well researched! Antidotes really helped make the book readable.
Published 7 months ago by John Stodola
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and Informative Read
I've known about the phrase "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" for some time but it wasn't until recently that I learned that the phrase was coined by Smith and Denton in Soul... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Steven J. Kopp
5.0 out of 5 stars Soul Searching
A very well written insight into the current thinking of young people and their perception of their faith. Highly recommended.
Published 13 months ago by Nicholas P. Curran
2.0 out of 5 stars soul searching
This book wasn't what I thought it would be. It was full of statistical research and not enough reference to scripture.
Published 20 months ago by Starr
5.0 out of 5 stars Soul Searching
This book gave a broad and helpful overview of today's youth culture in the United States.
A great book for anyone who is involved in youth ministry! Read more
Published 20 months ago by Rev Kohn
5.0 out of 5 stars review from an orthodox Catholic 18 year old
As a devout Catholic teenager living in America, the spiritual lives of other teens around me has always been something of enormous interest. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Stephen
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating study
The book's first part, filled with detailed data, was very interesting. The rich interviews with hundreds of teenagers not only yield information about their thoughts and... Read more
Published on March 13, 2011 by Chaplain P
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