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kids these days

Crisis of Faith

Adolescents often find themselves at a spiritual crossroads

I once knew a mother whose six-year-old surprised her by informing her that he prayed frequently. He said that whenever he got into a jam, he would go upstairs and hide in the guest room, where he would ask God to help him out. Once, when his father yelled at him, he retreated to his special place and prayed, “Let me not be seen.” Although the father did find him, the boy reported that his dad lost his bad mood. God, he said, went “brrinnng” and made everything okay.

My own son, around the same age, was less religious but nevertheless spiritual. While we were walking across a meadow one summer night several years after my father’s death, he pointed to a big star directly overhead and said, “That’s your daddy. He’s watching over you.”

Such charming acts reveal a naïve faith that is common to childhood. They demonstrate a sense of security—a belief that the universe is good and the powers that be are caring. But with the advent of adolescence come severe tests for this naïve faith. Teens notice that bad things happen to good people, that science and religion often appear to conflict, and that many different religious traditions claim to offer the only path to enlightenment. How can these young people use their newfound reasoning capacities to develop a faith that can accept paradox and take on the complex challenges of adulthood?

The answer isn’t clear, and indeed the development of faith in the teen years is not guaranteed. Many let faith weaken, or they abandon it altogether, leaving only commonplace diversions such as sports, dating, and music to animate and inspire. Other adolescents embrace a narrow, dogmatic faith that conquers reason by rejecting it.

Still others, however, do begin to develop a mature, positive faith. They learn to integrate faith and reason by allowing the two to operate on different levels and serve different functions. Their faith comes to frame their questions about meaning—questions such as “How are we meant to live?” and “Who or what is ultimately in control?” and “Why be moral?”—and reason helps them respond to those questions. Faith and reason become allies, not enemies. Once that happens, religion is not simply a matter of believing or of obsessively following a formula. Mature, positive faith is a matter of who we are, what we stand for, and how we choose to live.

It is worth noting as well that this kind of faith respects the spiritual beliefs of others. A few months ago I put a bumper sticker on my car reading “One nation, many faiths.” Later I found that someone had scraped it off, leaving a messy white square. The experience reminded me of just how important respect is. Any faith that really matters will refrain from scraping off the faith of others. Most adolescents begin to understand this.

Mature, positive faith is espoused by all the great religious traditions, or at least was by their founders. Maintaining ties with any of these traditions can help adolescents develop their own mature, positive faith. Some may become inspired by the life of Muhammad (“Peace be upon him,” as the Muslim faithful would add). Or the symbol of the trinity may show them the way to universal love (an experience for many of the Christian faithful). They may seek to honor their covenant with G-D (as the Jewish faithful do). Or they may begin to understand what it means to “wake up” and become free of selfish desire (as the Buddhist faithful put it).

This, then, may be the single best way we can help adolescents develop a mature, positive faith: by supporting their involvement in a positive faith tradition. Of course, that usually means we need to have a good spiritual understanding ourselves—and be ourselves actively involved. To nurture young faith, we should first attend to our own.

W. GEORGE SCARLETT is deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and coauthor of the first-ever chapter on spiritual development in the Handbook of Child Psychology. He is also an ordained Episcopal deacon.

  © 2007 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155