For 15-year-old Judy Kim, a Korean-Canadian student at a Vancouver high school, Christian faith is an integral part of her life. Every week, Judy goes to church and Sunday school with her family. She also takes part in the Christian club at her school and attends Youth Kosta Christian camp during holidays.
“It’s really important to me,” she says. “I believe that Christianity is about being a better person and it helps me keep my priorities straight.”
Visit any church, temple or mosque and you’ll realize that there are many teenagers who feel the same way Judy does about their own religion. But according to a survey by Project Teen Canada, teenagers today are less likely to identify as religious compared to teenagers a decade ago. So which is it – is there a growing trend of youth placing less emphasis on organized religion, or is religion becoming even more central to teenagers’ lives?
The Project Teen Canada survey found that only 12 per cent of teenagers in 1984 identified themselves as atheists, but 24 years later in 2008 this number increased to 32 per cent. At the same time, their faith shifted, too. Fewer teens identify as Christian, and the popularity of other religions like Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism has increased.
A shift in beliefs
But the decline in the number of self-identified religious teenagers and the shifts in the types of religion they’re practicing are not the only changes taking place.
Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame who led the National Study of Youth and Religion, believes that teenagers are increasingly inarticulate when discussing their faith and what it means to them. Because the teenagers he studied were able to talk comfortably about other subjects, Smith suggests that this religious inarticulacy is caused by churches failing to religiously engage and educate youth.
According to Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociologist who has conducted a series of national surveys on youth and religion, teenagers today are less likely to be uncertain about their religious beliefs than in the past. Previously many teenagers would believe in a god, but not practice organized religion. Many now leave little room for ambiguity when it comes to the religion they practice – they either don’t believe in the existence of a god at all, or they make religion a major part of their lives.
Conflict between generations
For some, the decreasing popularity of religion among teenagers is a concern. One of these people is Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women & Families.
“Studies have proved that kids who are more religious are less likely to be involved in theft, vandalism or violence against others,” she says. Although she does acknowledge that if the quality of the parent-child relationship is statistically controlled for, the link between religion and good behavior is usually not as strong.
While many parents worry about the effects of their children growing up without the same religious values and beliefs they hold, for teens who don’t share their parent’s faith, coming clean can be a source of anxiety.
“Even though I go to temple with my parents, I really find it hard to connect or take an interest. But I’m afraid [of] what would happen if I told my parents I don’t believe in the same things they do,” says a grade 10 student at a West Vancouver high school who preferred to speak anonymously.
As more teens lose faith, situations like this may become increasingly common.
Efforts to increase youth engagement
For many churches, temples and mosques, increasing youth engagement is a key priority. Many have established youth groups where children, teenagers and young adults meet weekly to do activities and learn about their faith. These programs combine learning about and practicing religion with fun events like floor hockey.
Johannes Gebhardt, a pastoral apprentice, is in charge of the youth group at Reality Church. Though he has heard of the studies on the decline of youth interest in religion, in his personal experience, the 20 youth members of Reality Church are the most enthusiastic out of the 170-person congregation.
“They are more engaged because they need to be active, involved in something,” says Gebhardt. “Being involved is especially beneficial to at-risk youth: they get good role models and positive influences to turn their life around.”