I’m reading a fabulous book by Christian Smith on the religion of emerging adults called Souls in Transition, and I’m really enjoying learning not only how younger emerging adults (18-23) believe today but also how their beliefs have changed since they were teenagers. (He wrote a book on surveys from the same group a few years ago called Soul Searching.) As I’m reading, however, I’ve had a few significant questions come up with regards to the way their questions are being asked and interpreted.
First, many of those who identified as nonreligious as teenagers now say they see religion as more important to their life and that they’re attending religious services more. I’m curious how many of them are thinking of “religion” as actual religion in such questions vs. their non-religious views. For example, some might have gotten involved in a group for atheists and agnostics at college and might see their identity as someone who isn’t religious as more important than it used to be. (I know there was such a group at UNC, and I know people who were involved in it.) Should we then have some way to filter the non-religious doing truly religious things from the non-religious whose non-religion has become more important in their lives?
Secondly, the questions about both Jesus and heaven seem very imprecise in their wording. I realize most young adults aren’t theologians and that overly theological language could be confusion; however, I’m not sure if the questions, how they are asked, paint an accurate picture of emerging adults’ beliefs.
For example, they are asked if Jesus was “the son of God who was raised from the dead,” “an imporant human teacher but not the son of God,” or nonexistent to begin with. Those who said Jesus was the son of God are then assumed to believe Jesus was divine. This is a non sequitur, as many who would called Jesus God’s son would not necessarily say he himself was divine—the Arians of the 4th century, for example.
Similarly, when asked if they believe in heaven and who gets there, it feels assumed that Christians either are more conservative and believe in heaven or are more liberal and they don’t. There are no questions, however, about the resurrection of the dead or the recreation of all things. I think it’s probably a small number of emerging adults that would try to distinguish these sorts of beliefs from a belief in heaven, but I do feel the numbers are growing. I definitely knew many in college who, thanks to InterVarsity staff, began to see a somewhat different picture of life after death. To assume the options are “all people go to heaven,” “only good people go to heaven,” “only people whose sins are forgiven though faith in Jesus Christ go to heaven” or “there is no heaven,” are the only options is like asking Christians about the end times and only giving the option of a pre-tribulation, mid-trib, or post-trib rapture—when in reality many are postmillenialists, many are amillenialists, etc. I would probably answer such a question “there is no heaven,” because that’s not the way I explain my beliefs, but if I were interviewed, Christian Smith would have realized that he was probably making some assumptions about me he shouldn’t have.
All this to say, it seems to me that while these questions tell us a lot, if sociological questions are not asked with any theological sensitivity to the actual beliefs out there, we can make some wrong conclusions. Of course, I’m not a sociologist yet, and I don’t know if it might be important to not offer over-nuanced options as to not confuse respondents or encourage some sort of social desirability effect (if certain theological beliefs are thought be better in some way than others). So perhaps there is a reason why questions we asked like this. At the same time, I stand by my original perception that these questions are not precise enough to give us excellent data rather than good-ish data.
Maybe Christian Smith or some other clever person can come set us straight?