On the other hand, 112 teens spoke about "personally feeling, being, getting, or being made happy" because of religion. And that was simply the number of teens who mentioned such words in connection to religion. Teens used the specific phrase "feel happy" more than 2,000 times!

Smith and Denton said: "What our interviews almost never uncovered among teens was a view that religion summons people to embrace an obedience to truth regardless of the personal consequences or rewards."

'Heaven and Stuff'
The final characteristic of the prevailing religious view among American teens was deism. It is "about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one's affairs -- especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance. He is often described by teens as 'watching over everything from above.'"

In fact, most teenagers' beliefs about God and their own religious faith were so vague as to be almost incomprehensible. Smith and Denton found "the vast majority of [teens] to be incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives." The vast majority of these churchgoing youth, they said, "simply could not express themselves on matters of God, faith, religion, or spiritual life."

Consider the response in one interview, when a 17-year-old Presbyterian boy was asked to describe his Christian beliefs: "Um [pause], I don't know, I just, uh, just like anybody else I guess. There's nothing really to say, I don't know, just the Presbyterian beliefs. Just like I believe in all the sin and stuff and going to heaven and stuff, life after life."

Or this 13-year-old Catholic girl: "I'm not sure, not sure, I can't remember what I believe. Oh, mm-mm, yeah, like Jesus and God and them guys. That he is alive and watching over us."

Smith and Denton reminded the readers of Soul Searching that "these were not throw-away comments of teens, these were their main answers to our key questions about their basic personal religious beliefs."

Some parents might be tempted to think, "Well, my teenager can't articulate much of anything at his age." But Soul Searching insisted that the problem was not related to their age. "Many of the youth we interviewed were quite conversant when it came to their views on salient issues in their lives about which they had been educated and had practice discussing, such as the dangers of drug abuse and [sexually transmitted diseases]."

And these kids were not stupid, as if knowing details of their own faith was somehow beyond their intellectual capacity. "In the end, many teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were," the researchers noted in Soul Searching.

A Parasitic Faith
Smith and Denton are careful not to overstate their case about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism by implying that it is in any sense an official religion competing with Christianity, and thus successfully proselytizing America's teenagers. Instead, their description is of a phenomenon that is more insidious, and they sounded more like science fiction writers than social scientists.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism "is simply colonizing many established religious traditions and congregations in the United States," and "becoming the new spirit living in the old body. Its typical embrace and practice is de facto, functional, practical, and tacit, not formal or acknowledged as a distinctive religion."