“What do we know about teenagers’ religiousness?”
That question is explored in a study conducted in Finland and reported in the international journal Education Inquiry (Sept. 2010). The report creates a portrait likely to resonate with the experience and observations of many parents, religious educators, and other interested adults in the United States.
Some may find that picture discouraging. For example, between the ages of 10–18, religious commitment to and confidence in the church decreases, religious activity declines, and God is viewed as somewhere “out there,” leaving the individual human being solely responsible for his or her life and well-being.
Others, however, may find the Finnish study and related data cited in the report reassuring, as together they describe a developmental naturalness and normalcy to this lack of religiousness in teens. “Many factors make teenagers sensitive to religious issues,” says the report. Together these factors represent “very natural developmental tasks in adolescence [and] all support the individual’s religious quest, which, in favorable circumstances, turns to religious motivation.”
“Many factors make teenagers sensitive to religious issues,” says the report. Together these factors represent “very natural developmental tasks in adolescence [and] all support the individual’s religious quest, which, in favorable circumstances, turns to religious motivation.”
The study, Teenage religion—religiousness among Finnish 8th and 9th graders, reported by Antti Räsänen*, examined religiousness among 617 Finnish eighth and ninth graders. The research questions concerned features of the image of God in adolescence.
The study examined religiousness using an instrument called the “RJT” or Religious Judgment Test, which follows a theory of religious judgment developed by Fritz Oser, a Swiss educator and psychologist. The theory outlines five variables or developmental stages to describe religiousness. To paraphrase from the report, which draws on several scholarly studies in summarizing the five stages of relationship between the human and God:
So what do we know about a teen’s religiousness? Most are at the third developmental stage outlined above, according to the results of the Finnish study.
A more complete description, reports Räsänen, “depends on the perspective under consideration. When we think about teenage religiousness from the point of view of the psychology of religion, the approach is individual and the question is, for the most part, which internal processes are regulating the individual’s religiousness.”
“Early childhood and puberty are the most crucial periods of an individual’s religious development,” the report says. It also notes the singular importance of “family religiousness” and “home upbringing” during the adolescent years.
Although rejection of “institutional” religion and religious practices may be the norm during the teen years, the young person does not find that a desirable place to settle. Notes the report: “Teenagers prefer mature spirituality, which is promising for their religious development in the future because the spirituality of an adult is often encapsulated in the conceptions that are learned in childhood or during adolescence.”
Absent positive influences growing up, however, a young person’s “religious development can come to a stop before an individual knows anything of a more broadminded and more mature image of God/spirituality,” says the report.
The critical question for adults—parents, persons in ministry, educators, mentors, etc.—becomes how to create those “favorable circumstances.” A good place to begin will be a holistic and developmentally appropriate understanding of the tasks of youth.
*Antti Räsänen is a Professor of Religious Education at the University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu Campus. A former classroom teacher, his main areas of specialization are Psychology of Religion, Religious Education, Teacher Training, Practical Theology and Childhood and Youth Research.
Jerry Ruff, Senior Writer and Editor
Saint Mary’s Research