Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Different View of Teenagers Leaving

When I reexamined the National Survey of Youth and Religion (NSYR) publications for why youth lose their faith, I discovered that I had overlooked one of the books: Lisa D. Pearce and Melinda Lunquist Denton, A Faith of Their Own (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). Dissatisfied with previous four NSYR categories (devoted, regulars, sporadic, and disengaged) that accounted for only 63% of the surveyed youth, the authors take a very different look at the relationship of adolescents to their faith. They divide youth into five classes regardless of their formal affiliation based on the content of their faith, their conduct, and the centrality of their faith.The classes all have labels that start with an a:

The abiders (22% of wave one and 20% of wave two) are those who report high levels of practice, belief and centrality.

The adapters (28% of wave one and 20% of wave two) are basically those who take a smorgasbord approach to religion. They strongly believe but are not particularly committed to any denomination and are eclectic in their religious practices.

The assenters (30% of wave one and 31% of wave two) are basically those who are involved in a denomination but religion is not particularly important to them. For them their church is something of a social club.

The avoiders (17% of wave one and 24% of wave two) are those who vaguely believe but are not really interested in religion.

The atheists (3% of wave one and 5% of wave two) actively do not believe in God.

The various percentages at any given wave imply more stability than is actually there. On the individual level a fair number of individuals changed groups between waves. The most stable group is actually the abiders, 85% of whom stay in that category between waves. If abiders changed groups they were more likely to switch to assenters. The next most stable group is the avoiders, 84% of whom stayed in the same category. If avoiders changed category, they were more likely to become atheists. Two thirds (67%) of assenters stayed in their category between waves; if they changed, they were more likely to become atheists though they might become anything. Adapters were almost as stable (65%), and while they might become anything were most likely to become assenters. The least stable category were atheist (52%); almost half of them became something else, with becoming avoiders being the most likely change although they could become almost anything.

In general, youth only moved one or two categories between waves but could end up moving almost anywhere. There is an exception to that rule though: Abiders did not become avoiders or atheists and vice versa.

Abiders tended to have the most desirable sociological outcomes.

Where do Latter-day Saint youth fit into this picture?

Because at the end of wave three 56% of Latter-day Saints were in the devoted category, I would guess that at least that many would be in the abiders category. Beyond that, I could not locate enough information to determine any percentages. When we talk about Latter-day Saint youth losing their faith, we seem to be talking about them becoming either avoiders or atheists.

This study seems to suggest that youth do not just go from being active committed Latter-day Saints to non-believers. Rather they first go through a stage where it is either no longer important to them or that they start picking and choosing what parts they will accept. When Latter-day Saints start to see the Church as some sort of social club or take a smorgasbord approach to religion they are moving off safe ground.