Book Review: Soul Searching

Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith (now William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, University of Notre Dame) with Melinda Lundquist Denton (now Assistant Professor, College of Business and Behavioral Science, University of Clemson) is an important study of the spiritual lives of American teenagers. Not surprisingly, Smith and Denton find that teenagers are significantly influenced by the religious choices and practices of their parents and that the vast majority of American teens embrace some form of religious identity. Also not surprising is that fact that the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) church probably does the best job of anyone in influencing the religious beliefs and lifestyle of its teens.

Some surprises. One is how inarticulate most teens are about what they believe even though this appears to be meaningful (in contrast to articulacy about everything from current media stars to STDs). Also surprising is that the idea of being “spiritual but not religious” just doesn’t connect except for a very small minority–most embrace the beliefs of their parents. Another, and perhaps the most salient finding of the book, is that the predominant religious belief of American teens across various religious bodies and demographics is moralistic therapeutic deism. This is a religion that is about being a good person, having a god who helps us when we need it, but is removed from day to day life otherwise. The authors situate this within a four level schema of American religion–a very thought provoking insight:

  • American Civil Religion
  • Organizational Religion
  • Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
  • Individual Religion

Smith and Denton look at the effectiveness of several groups in influencing the beliefs of teens: Conservative Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, and no-religious identity specified. Mormons, Conservative Protestants, and the Black Church come out highest on most measures. Yet the inarticulacy of teens even from these traditions and the embrace of moralistic therapeutic deism suggest far more needs to be done to strengthen the formation of teens even in these traditions. They also observe the heavy competition religious bodies face in this task from other formative influences in teens lives: school, athletics, peer groups, and media.

Smith has a sequel titled Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford University Press. 2009) which looks at the collegiate population. My particular interest is his observations about what happens in this “transition”. Click here for my review of Souls in Transition with the Emerging Scholars Network.

From the desk of the editor . . .

Thank-you to Bob Trube for reviewing Soul SearchingAs you may remember, Soul Searching and it’s sequel Souls in Transition have greatly influenced the Emerging Scholars Network’s perspective on religious education and the role of campus ministries such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (e.g., Loving God in the Flesh in the Real World. Thomas B. Grosh IV), not to mention challenging me personally as a a parent of four “little women” (teenage twins, an eight year old, and a five year old).  A little more on moralistic therapeutic deism as offered by Smith with Denton in Soul Searching:

the combination of the Divine Butler and the Cosmic Therapist, a parasitic faith feeding on the doctrines and sensibilities of established religious traditions and expanding by mutating their theological substance to resemble its own distinctive image. Each one of us, but particularly parents and those in positions of teaching authority within the Body of Christ, carry responsibility for debunking Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and indwelling, articulating, and teaching the Biblical narrative in our home, community, school, etc. … Such a mission, directed by the Father and fueled by the Word and the Spirit, involves a critique, filtering, and alternative cultural framework to the media driven consumeristic society of our day from cradle to grave.

To fill in the details, I encourage you (if you have not already done such) to pick up a copy of the book and read pages 161 – 172. I’m really looking forward to any comments which you have offer and yes, don’t miss Bob‘s review of Souls in Transition. ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director of ESN, editor of ESN’s blog and Facebook Wall.


Note to all our readers: As we have done previously, ESN encourages you to read a book before you comment upon it 🙂 It’s our intention that reviews such as those offered by Bob will not only provide opportunity for dialogue by those who have read the material, but also serve as teasers — helping our readers discern what books to place in their personal and book discussion group queue. If you have books you desire to review and/or have reviewed, please email ESN.

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Bob Trube

Bob Trube is Associate Director of Faculty Ministry/Emerging Scholars Network, and Senior Area Director for InterVarsity's Graduate & Faculty Ministry team in the Ohio Valley (Ohio, West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania). He resides in Columbus, Ohio, with Marilyn and enjoys reading, gardening, choral singing, and plein air painting.

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    Howard Pepper commented on October 2, 2013 Reply

    I’m borderline on the preference that commenters have read the reviewed book. I read sections of it but some time ago, so won’t draw any conclusions about the book. However, since it is an area of extensive study for me, and some writing of my own, I will say a couple things about the topic of beliefs of teen and young adult Americans, as they relate to topics of the book.

    What is described as “moralistic therapeutic deism” I see as related to a typical developmental stage. I don’t recall (someone can comment) how Smith and Denton discuss the developmental process we all go through in varying ways. But maturation of the brain itself probably doesn’t always end in teen years, and certainly not the maturation of HOW we come to think and manage our mental/emotional/spiritual lives.

    I do find it pretty sad that American youth/students are so little challenged to think, to engage with serious thinkers, in general to have intellectual rigor in their education. I know from my own kids that they may get exposed to and expected to know (in one sense) more than I did in high school 40-some years ago. But its overall too technical and not enough “philosophical” or “classical” or “how to think” kinds of things… and these matters ARE relevant to both more ability to articulate one’s beliefs and more substance, maturity in those beliefs. (

    Having said this, I should add that I don’t see my “agenda” as strengthening traditional Christian beliefs in youth… rather I expect it would reinforce first “Enlightenment style” deism perhaps. And then, for Christian kids at least, it might lead them, as they further develop, toward the kind of model and thinking style required to treat both science and spiritual phenomena seriously and keep them properly integrated: most specifically but not exclusively, panentheism or “process thought”.

    • Tom Grosh IV commented on October 2, 2013 Reply

      Howard, Thank-you for your comment. How apt that you bring up being “borderline on the preference that commenters have read the reviewed book.” We must have an “intuitive connection.” This week I fell on the border with regard to posting the note. I am trying my best to avoid comments which rant and/or rave without familiarity/interaction with the book under review. I find this frustrating practice all too present in our culture and no less so in sites related to higher ed. Furthermore, I very much desire to encourage readers of the blog to interact with the “original text,” even share their “reading(s).”

      None-the-less, it is helpful to offer a comment which dialogs with the concepts/data explored in a given book and/or the understanding of the concepts/data as offered by the reviewer. Feel free to propose a nuanced script. I confess always being in the process of refining, with a hope of heading in the proper direction but no illusion of perfection. . . .

      As a parent, member of a number of communities (e.g., local congregation, extended family), campus minister, neighbor, being created in “the image of God,” I embrace the importance of “indwelling, articulating, and teaching the Biblical narrative in our home, community, school, etc. . . . Such a mission, directed by the Father and fueled by the Word and the Spirit, involves a critique, filtering, and alternative cultural framework to the media driven consumeristic society of our day from cradle to grave.”

      Although it may not be the case for everyone, I have learned the most from my parents (and others who have invested in my development) in seeing how their perspective/words/faith/calling engaged “challengers” and really played out in daily lives (both the ordinary and the extraordinary). This reality has significantly guided my understanding of Transforming Conversations (for a book review of a title on this topic offered by Bob Trube visit As I share above, Loving God in the Flesh in the Real World ( may be of interest. On a more personal level I share some of my story in “One More Day” ( The blessing of Eden’s life (eight year old daughter with a number of developmental delays) has inspired me to begin to take first steps in rewriting “One More Day” from the perspective of a family seeking “life together” in Christ as part of the people of God. To God be the glory!

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