In his book, Soul Searching (2005), Christian Smith studied the religious beliefs and practices of 13-17 year old teenagers. In his new book, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, he examines the religious orientations of 18-23 year olds who are in the earlier years of the period called “emerging adulthood.” He describes this as a new phase of life built upon the social trends of delaying marriage and settling into a profession; beginning college, then perhaps stopping and resuming with different goals in mind. He suggests that parents are more willing to prolong financial support to their children. These trends have created a psychological orientation of flexibility, maximizing options and postponing commitments. I believe the examination of such trends in relationship to social class needs greater development than it has so far.
Smith’s analysis is based on data from the third wave of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), based on a representative telephone survey of nearly 3300 youths followed by personal interviews with 267 of them. In Chapter One we meet Brad, June, and Amanda whose stories "serve as illustrative references for numerous more general points and themes” developed in the book. In the second chapter he identifies 32 traits of emerging adults in regard to matters such as independence, complexity, resources, relationships, morality and the future, and outlines their implications for religiosity. Using the General Social Survey in Chapter Three, he compares emerging adults to those of other age cohorts. Delving into NSYR (Chapter Four) he looks at statistical data regarding religious affiliations and switching; religious attitudes, practices, beliefs, and experiences; religion and social relationships as well as the relationship between religion and science, and public life. Chapter Five draws on quotations from the interviews to reflect the cultural structures that shape emerging adults assumptions, thoughts and habits.
In Chapter Six he proposes a typology of emerging adults’ approaches to religion as well as case studies to illustrate the types. Fifteen percent are Committed Traditionalists who actively practice and articulate the contents of their religion which is more connected to personal piety than social justice. Selective Adherents (30 percent) personally customize their religious beliefs and practices. He notes the prominence of “cultural” Jews and Catholics in this type. The Spiritually Open (15 percent) are somewhat interested in spiritual and religious matters. The Religiously Indifferent (25 percent) are invested in other areas of life. The Religiously Disconnected (5 percent) tend to come from nonreligious backgrounds. The Irreligious (10 percent) tend to look like the new atheists; to them religion makes no sense.
In the seventh chapter he re-interviews some of the people from the first book to assess developmental changes in their lives. In Chapter Eight he examines how factors from the teenage years correlate with religious differences during emerging adulthood. Higher levels of parental religiosity, personal prayer, religious salience and scripture reading support higher religiosity in the emerging adult years He notes that there is much religious continuity and stability, but also that most change is in the direction of religious decline. The final chapter discusses the findings and their implications situating them in the broader context of the lives of emerging adults in the United States today. In general, religion is seen to have a positive effect on other dimensions in the lives of emerging adults.
Smith constructs religion according to a conservative Protestant paradigm. His measures of high religiosity favor biblical literalism, fundamentalist devotional practices, and unquestioning assent to beliefs. This may reveal why Mainline Protestant, Jewish and Catholic young adults are portrayed as particularly non-devoted. He is critical of “selective believers,” suggesting that the main difference between them and the religiously indifferent is that the latter have no guilt about doing what they please. Yet Wuthnow (2007) says that young adults are by nature “tinkerers.” They do not merely receive something as it is but rather must interact with it and customize it, making it their own. There is a complexity about the religious landscape that is missing from Souls in Transition. Religious devotion is defined as an all or nothing acceptance of what comes down from on high. It portrays religion as a static object rather than as a dynamic process.
The case studies seem like caricatures of certain types of young adults and the range is somewhat limited. The author places significant stress on sexual attitudes yet in neither book do we encounter a gay or lesbian teen or young adult. I would like to have seen a case presenting young adults seriously struggling with tensions between modern knowledge and the traditions of their faith or in the words of Paul Tillich between doubt and ultimate concern.
The book suggests that emerging adults in this sample tend to be focused on micro forces. They are concerned about taking care of themselves. The nuclear family seems to be more important than other institutions. Religion is an appendage. Social responsibility is an option that might be considered when individuals can afford it but not part of building an essential common good.
Yet, I do not interpret the religious state of emerging adults portrayed in this book with pessimism Fifteen percent are devoted, 30 percent are selective believers and another 15 percent are religiously open. That tells me that 60 percent are open to some form of religious engagement. This scenario presents a challenge to the imagination and creativity of religious leaders. How they respond will influence the trajectory of this sample in the second half of emerging adulthood.