"American teenagers can embody adults' highest hopes and most gripping fears." That statement introduces an important new study on the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. Led by principal investigator Christian Smith, a group of researchers has conducted a massive study of American adolescents and their religious beliefs.

The group's findings are published in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, recently published by Oxford University Press. Smith and his colleagues conducted their research through the National Study of Youth and Religion, located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The data and analysis produced by this research project provide an interesting perspective into the beliefs and practices of American teenagers.

The prevailing stereotype of the American adolescent is of a young person who is likely to be in conscious rebellion against all forms of authority--starting with parents. One of the most important findings in this massive study is the fact that the vast majority of American teenagers identify strongly with the religious beliefs and practices of their parents. Evidently, today's teenagers do not see themselves as rebels against the faith of their parents.

This is a quintessentially American study, and the teenagers interviewed in this project--more than 3,000 in total--appear, if anything, to be fully representative of the nation at large. The very idea of adolescence is a modern invention, isolating a period of life between childhood and adulthood that is understood to be a time of experimentation, self-actualization, and struggle. In essence, we have developed a concept of adolescence that gives young persons incredible, indeed almost adult-like freedom, but without adult responsibility and demands.

Beyond this, America has gone through periodic spasms of concern over its adolescence. In retrospect, many of these anxieties were well grounded. Nevertheless, Christian Smith and his fellow researchers found that most American teenagers appear to be highly functional, even if they experience the normal pangs and perplexities of adolescence. Most remarkably, the researchers found that these young people have a "highly conventional" set of religious convictions.

Given the scope of this sociological project, the teenagers studied included Christians--both Protestant and Roman Catholic--as well as Jewish teenagers and Mormons. As expected, the analysis is not truly theological in character, but sociological, focusing on religion as a social phenomenon and individual choice. In the main, the researchers found that "there are a significant number of adolescents in the United States for whom religion and spirituality are important if not defining features of their lives." Yet, the range of different levels of involvement and belief was very large, encompassing those only marginally connected to their faith and other whose lives are pervasively entwined with faith commitments.

Many observers will be surprised by the finding that "very few American adolescents appear to be caught up in the much-discussed phenomenon of 'spiritual seeking' by 'spiritual but not religious' seekers on a quest for higher meaning." The researchers had expected to find a much larger percentage of young people fitting the "spiritual but not religious" profile, but this was simply not reflected in the lives of the young people interviewed for this project. To the contrary, most appeared to be very conventional in their commitments and beliefs. As Smith and his team discovered, "Contrary to popular perceptions, the vast majority of American adolescents are not spiritual seekers or questers of the type most often described by journalists and some scholars, but are instead mostly oriented toward and engaged in conventional religious traditions and communities." It may be that the "spiritual but not religious" profile is more commonly found among the baby boomers and the children of the 70s and the early 1980s.