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Souls in Transition

John Muether

Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, viii + 355 pages, $24.95.

The 2005 publication of Christian Smith's study of teenage American spirituality, Soul Searching, was particularly noteworthy for the introduction of a new phrase in the lexicon of American religion. "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" was Smith's term for the vague and vacuous spirituality that had become the de facto religion of American teens. (See Gregory Reynolds' review, "Soul Searching: Religion among the Teens" Ordained Servant 16 [2007]: 136-39.)

Four years later sociologist Smith (having migrated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill to the University of Notre Dame) released a follow-up study, along with Patricia Snell, his associate at the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Notre Dame. As thoroughly researched as the teen survey, the premise behind this present work is the identification of a demographic group that describes a new phase in the course of American life: "emerging adults" (ca. eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds). Smith and Snell seek to study the younger half of this demographic (and may devote their attention to "older emerging adults" in a further study).

Four factors shape the character of this new demographic:

  1. The growth in higher education: many college graduates are pressured to add years of graduate school to their undergraduate degrees.
  2. A delay in marriage: in the past half-century the median age for marriage rose from twenty to nearly twenty-six. As a result, more adults experience an unprecedented number of years as singles.
  3. Changes in the global economy: as life-long careers yield to frequent job changes and the need for new training, the effect has been to push young adults into a "general psychological orientation of maximizing options and postponing commitments" (5).
  4. Increasing willingness of parents to extend support to their children beyond college years.

All of this has meant that the transition to adulthood today is "more complex, disjointed, and confusing than in the past decades" (6). From this complexity arise six basic religious expressions among emerging adults:

  1. Committed Traditionalists: strong religious faith that is actively practiced (15 percent of the population)
  2. Selective Adherents: belief in parts of a religious tradition but neglect or rejection of other parts (30 percent)
  3. Spiritually Open: mild interest in some spiritual matters (15 percent)
  4. Religiously Indifferent: neither practicing nor opposed to religion (25 percent)
  5. Religiously Disconnected: little or no exposure to religion (5 percent)
  6. Irreligiously Skeptical: openly antagonistic to religion (10 percent)

An important conclusion of this survey is the authors' observation that emerging adults are equally or perhaps even more religious than their baby boomer counterparts. "We see little evidence," the authors write, "of massive secularization among America's emerging adults" (102). Here they are joining the chorus of voices that have come to dismiss as a discredited sociological theory the once reigning dogma that modernity inevitably leads to secularization.

Another surprising feature is that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, for all its centrality in the previous study, makes but a cameo appearance in the shape of the spirituality of this demographic. It is "still alive and well among the 18-23 year old set," but its effects are somewhat qualified because religious attitudes and practices have more "variety and originality." So if the mindset of this group is not secularist, its spirituality is at least subjective and pluralistic.

It this regard Souls in Transition invites comparison with another recent and ambitious work by an equally prolific sociologist of religion. In 2007 Princeton University's Robert Wuthnow published After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton University Press), wherein he makes similar observations about delayed adulthood and the ensuing religious uncertainty. Wuthnow also documents how young adults are leaning on a variety of sources in making religious commitments, among the most powerful being the Internet. As a result, they become religious "tinkerers," and religious institutions have declining relevance in the shape of post-boomer spirituality. Wuthnow's prescription for congregations to flourish is their adaptation to these changing cultural conditions, which is hardly a formula for a countercultural approach.

Smith and Snell point their readers in a different direction. They underscore the importance of two institutions that endure in their faith-shaping effects, even in the midst of intense cultural pluralism. The first is the family. In the face of "one of the most pervasive and powerful myths about children in America," the authors boldly assert that when it comes to religion, parents are "hugely important" for "young adults" and parental influence still "trumps" the role of peers: "In the long run, who and what parents were and are for their children when it comes to religious faith and practice are much more likely to 'stick' with them, even into emerging adulthood, than who and what their teenage friends were" (285).

Perhaps even more surprising is the role of the church, and this insight is worth quoting at length:

The empirical evidence tells us that it does in fact matter for emerging adult religious outcomes whether or not youth have had nonparental adults in their religious congregations to whom they could turn for help and support.... It matters whether or not teenagers have participated in adult-taught religious education classes, such as Sunday school. Adult engagement with, role modeling for, and formation of youth simply matters a great deal for how they turn out after they leave the teenage years. So stated negatively, when adults who have bought into the common myths and stereotypes as a result disengage from the lives of teenagers who are on the road to emerging adulthood, these teenagers are forced to travel that road either alone or only with peers and, more likely than not, end up less religiously committed and practicing as emerging adults. (285)

Out of the mouths of social scientists! For parents who weary in their task of Christian nurture, for Sunday school teachers who fear they have become "irrelevant," for sessions that are tempted to regard their efforts with young people as in vain, Souls in Transition offers impressive sociological evidence to the contrary.

John Muether
Reformed Theological Seminary
Orlando, Florida

Ordained Servant Online, March 2011.

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