Souls in Transition – Does Religion Make a Difference?

Does religion matter when it comes to how emerging adults live? Does your religion make a difference in your everyday choices?

This is the theme of the ninth chapter of Souls in Transition. In previous chapters emerging adults had been divided into religious groups: conservative Protestant, mainline Protestant, black Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, other religion and not religious. But the research found that being in any one of these groups did not greatly increase or decrease the probability of living differently compared to others in a different group.

Yet there are differences in how emerging adults live when the focus is shifted not to religious traditions but to differences in religious commitment and practices. In other words, how committed you are, not the group you are in, is what makes the difference. From this, they found four types of emerging adults:

1. The Devoted – Attend religious services weekly or more, faith is very important in daily life, feel very close to God, pray a few times each week or more, read scripture a few times each month.

2. The Regular – Attend religious services 2-3 times a month, faith ranges from very to not very important in life, closeness to God, prayer and scripture reading are variable, but less religious than the Devoted.

3. The Sporadic – Attend religious services a few times a year, faith ranges from somewhat to not very important, closeness to God, prayer and scripture reading vary

4. The Disengaged – never attend religious services, or do so very rarely, faith is not very important, feel only somewhat close to God or less, pray 1-2 times a month, read scripture 1-2 times a month or less.

For almost every specific practice the researchers studied, the Devoted live very differently from the Disengaged, with the Regular and Sporadic somewhere in between. For example, the Devoted have better relationship with parents, give and volunteer more, care more for poor and elderly and racial unity, drink and smoke less, are depressed less often and are more likely to feel like life has meaning. They look at many other practices, but you get the idea.

So what does this mean? They conclude that “religion still matters in ways that make a difference in a variety of relationships, attitudes, experiences, and behaviors, even among 18- to 23-year-olds, and especially the most highly religious” (276).

It is significant to me that they had to change the groupings of emerging adults for this chapter. What this seems to indicate is that it doesn’t matter what religion the person is for how they live, what matters is how devoted they are. So a committed Jew and a committed conservative Protestant live more similarly than a committed conservative Protestant and a not committed conservative Protestant.

These findings reminds me that making a decision to believe in Jesus Christ is merely a first step. It is a vitally important step, but the life of discipleship is a long and difficult one. In other words, belief in terms of assenting to the truth that Jesus is Lord, is the beginning. Allowing that belief to become a trust that transforms you in your life is the next step.

Of course, we do not want to remove grace from the equation. Simply not living in these admirable ways does not mean one is not saved. Certainly many who truly believe and hope in Jesus Christ would live more like the disengaged then the devoted. Interestingly, throughout the book has been a subtle emphasis on community: who you surround yourself influences you. The encouragement is that if we take the time to be part of a community, to pursue the journey of faith together, we will grow as Christians.

The obvious question, and this is a question I have been asked often, is why do non-Christians live better than Christians if Christianity is unique? What happens to sincere followers of other religions? This is a huge question that would require a long, many-sided answer. To be as simple as possible, I love this quote from Tim Keller’s amazing book The Reason for God:

The Biblical doctrine of the universal image of God, therefore, leads Christians to expect non-believers will be better than any of their mistaken beliefs could make them. The Biblical doctrine of universal sinfulness also leads Christians to expect believers will be worse in practice than their orthodox beliefs should make them…Christians, then, should expect to find nonbelievers who are much nicer, kinder, wiser, and better than they are. Why? Christian believers are not accepted by God because of their moral performance, wisdom, or virtue, but because of Christ’s work on their behalf (The Reason for God, 19)

Of course people of all religions and no religion at all will live moral lives. That is admirable. But we are reminded that we are not saved by our good works, or lack thereof, but by grace alone.

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