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Lisa D. Pearce Headshot
Melinda Lundquist Denton Headshot

What Being Religious Really Means To Young People

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RELIGION AND YOUTH

Are you religious? What criteria come to mind in answering that question? When evaluating how "religious" someone is, social scientists and the general public tend to rely on the frequency of religious activities, strength or type of religious beliefs, relative importance of religion in one's life, or some average of these aspects of religious life.

However, in reality it is very difficult to measure someone's overall religiousness, religiosity or how religious she is on some sort of scale. Although it is common to hear one person describe another as "religious" or "not religious," what exactly does that mean?

Certainly, some people are highly religious in all three of the above aspects and some are not religious at all. In our study of young people in the United States (The National Study of Youth and Religion), we find that 20 percent are highly religious in all aspects and only five percent are not religious at all. This leaves 75 percent of the population as more difficult to classify.

One person might feel extremely close to God and believe religion inspires his or her life, but never attend religious services. Another person may attend religious services regularly, and yet feel distant from God or not prioritize religion over other dimensions of life. Not everyone would agree which of these two individuals is "more religious" because we possess varied schematics for how different aspects of religiousness meld together and compare to each other.

Perhaps the problem is assuming that religiousness runs from low to high on a continuum; that it can be easily summarized with a single measure like IQ or temperature. In our recent book, we offer an alternate way of classifying religiousness: a set of profiles of religiousness based on common patterns in how individuals combine their religious beliefs, practices and salience.

One unique profile of religiousness fitting 20 percent of 16- to 21-year-olds in the U.S. is that of the "Adapters." They have strong belief in and connection to a personal God. Religion is inspirational to them, but Adapters are not the most regularly involved in churches, temples or mosques. This may be by choice, but in our study these are often economically disadvantaged youth who face barriers to regular religious involvement like lack of transportation or inflexible work schedules.

One of our study participants who fits the Adapter profile well is Diego*, a young Latino man who sees himself as very religious, describes God as "a father figure who is always there for me" and prays daily. About his faith, Diego says, "I take it for what it is. I don't follow it to the core. And, I think God understands me like that." He says, "I would like to go to church more, but I don't know if it's the first thing on my list." There are issues of poverty and alcoholism in Diego's home that have made it difficult for him to attend Mass regularly. He also finds youth group frustrating because he views the leaders as out of touch with the kind of support he and his peers need.

There are numerous reasons Adapters may not be heavily engaged in religious institutions. Just because someone does not attend religious services regularly does not necessarily mean that their beliefs, private religious practices or the importance of faith in their life are significantly unlike those who do.

Another interesting profile of religiousness is characterized by some belief in God, but rare religious practice and little value placed on religion. This is the style of religiousness for 24 percent of 16- to 21-year-olds in the U.S. We label them "Avoiders," for they seem to avoid either a religious or irreligious identity.

Brandon is an Avoider. He says that religion "never came up" in his family of origin. He did attend a church youth group with friends several years back. He learned that God exists and "sits back and watches out for you." Brandon has not been back to church and does not care to. He says, "I believe in religion, but I just don't choose to go down that path."

Few would consider Brandon to be religious. He himself says, "I am not religious." However, Brandon is unlike youth who have no belief in God. In contrast to the Avoiders, we find a small group of 16- to 21-year-olds (5 percent) who can clearly articulate why they do not believe in God and express confidence in this view. These youth, who we call Atheists in our book, typically have parents who are atheist and highly educated.

Interestingly, we find that on certain outcomes, such as happiness and self-reported health, Atheists report doing as well as those who have religious profiles that mix strong beliefs with frequent practice and a high importance placed on religion. Atheists do, however, use alcohol, smoke and engage in sexual activity more than other youth -- behaviors shown to negatively affect health on average.

Much prior research using a low-to-high measure of religiousness suggests it is correlated with individual health and well-being. As one goes up (or down) so does the other. The relative well-being of the small percent of Atheists in the population, however, is obscured in large-scale studies by the much larger group of Avoiders -- those with some level of belief, but no active practice -- who tend to have poorer health and well-being than Atheists.

Perhaps it is not just the presence (versus absence) of religion in one's life that leads to perceived happiness and health. It is possible that having a well articulated system of belief or meaning (whether religious or irreligious) also contributes to well-being.

So, the next time you size up someone's religiousness, think about the three aspects of religiosity discussed here and how they are uniquely combined. It is not just a matter of being religious (or not). For most people, religious identities are personal mixes of different aspects of religion with varying levels of priority. These distinctive profiles of religiousness deserve more consideration than quick placement on an over-simplified scale from low to high.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of our research participants.

Lisa D. Pearce is an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Melinda Lundquist Denton is an assistant professor of sociology at Clemson University.

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