Children often begin to question their faith and spirituality when they reach the teen years. Jon Krause
As adolescents form values and ideals based on personal experiences, many question their religious beliefs more intensely
Updated June 13, 2017 11:07 a.m. ET
Thomas Ramey quit praying a few years ago when he was 16 years old because it didn’t seem to matter.
The 18-year-old, who was baptized and confirmed as a Methodist, doesn’t believe in an afterlife, but still believes in a God. He goes to church regularly because he likes playing in the youth band, volunteering and listening to people who have different opinions. “I doubt everything,” says Thomas, who plans to study engineering.
That is true of many teens, who grew up praying, going to houses of worship, and studying religious texts. As 6-year-olds, they were convinced there was a God and heaven and that everything in the Bible was true, for example. Now they aren’t so sure.
The teen brain grows rapidly, and with it the ability to think more abstractly and critically. In early adolescence, teens begin to establish their own ideals and recognize hypocrisy in people and institutions around them. They deal with heartbreak and social cliques, see suffering in the world and wonder if there is a God who cares. They are trying to figure out their place and how and if something like religion belongs.
Thomas Ramey began to question his beliefs about God and religion when he was about 16 years old. Photo: Lisa Ramey
Exploring such questions is the most important work a teen can do, says Lisa Miller, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Spiritual Child.” Research shows that adolescents with a strong personal spirituality are found to be 60% less likely to be severely depressed as teenagers, she says.
Andrew Zirschky, academic director of the Center for Youth Ministry Training in Brentwood, Tenn., says some children start doubting faith in middle school, when many of them begin preparing for confirmation and bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs.
“Right when kids are having the most doubts, we ask them to affirm their faith,” says Dr. Zirschky. Many plow ahead despite misgivings because they feel pressured to do so, he says, and because churches do a poor job of allowing faith and doubt to coexist. He asks sixth-graders to draw the image of God they had in first grade. It is often a white bearded figure sitting in the cloud. When he asks them to draw the image now, they draw hearts, and use words like “loving” or “All-knowing.”
“At some point, you have to doubt your previous understanding of who God is and replace it with a better one,” he tells them.
While teens doubt, they aren’t ready to give up on the idea of God and the importance of religion. A significant majority—84% of 13- to 17-year-olds believe in God, according to a National Study of Youth and Religion, a longitudinal survey of more than 3,000 teens conducted in 2002 and led by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and University of Notre Dame. Three years later, belief among the same teens, then 16- to 21-years-old, slipped to 78%.
Teens often see God as a cosmic therapist, solving problems and generally making people happier, but distant, says sociologist Patricia Snell Herzog, who worked on the study. A large majority believe religion is important, but many become less actively involved as they age through adolescence. “Religion is just there in the background,” says Dr. Herzog. “We describe it as the furniture of their life.”
Thomas Ramey was born and raised in Decatur Ala., part of the U.S. known as the Bible Belt. He went to Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church three times a week, twice on Sunday and every Wednesday. His mother, Lisa, taught Sunday school.
When he was 8 years old, and able to read, he received his first Bible, which he and his mother read together. “He always asked lots of questions,” says Mrs. Ramey. At 11, after weeks of studying, he was confirmed, and was a Chaplain aid for his Boy Scout troop, leading prayers before meals and at campouts. At that time, he says he believed in God and what the Bible said.
His views started changing in his midteens. His youth group had cliques. He was in the social outcasts group, he says, and he encountered some hostility from certain church leadership against some of his friends who were gay.
“When you see people behave in wrongful, hurtful, hypocritical ways, it’s kind of hard to believe that God cares,” he says.
Philip Galyon, the current youth minister, says teens in high school identify fallacies and hypocrisies. “They push back,” he says, and ask, “Why do people who say they are Christian treat other people poorly?” He remembers struggling when he was age 17 and his parents divorced. His father was a minister. “I thought why should I still believe this?” He wondered what good their faith did.
Thomas hit another hard stretch when he was about age 16 and three people close to him died, including a friend of the family who had dementia. Thomas and his mother visited often, helping the man’s wife care for him. “For weeks I prayed for God to kill this man so his wife wouldn’t have to see him in pain anymore,” he says. “He suffered and died in a terrible way.”
“Thomas is very compassionate,” says Mrs. Ramey. He stops in twice a week to help an elderly neighbor empty her trash and works in a soup kitchen.
Sometime after that, he quit praying. “If something bad is going to happen, it’s going to happen,” he says. “Deal with it head on. I am not going to sit there and say to God ‘Don’t let this happen and don’t let that happen.’”
Thomas still believes in God. The earth and solar system are too complex and fragile not to have something influencing and connecting everything, he says. “Whether whatever created us, loves us, is a different matter,” he says. He doubts there is an afterlife and isn’t troubled by that.
His strongest belief these days is in “the equality of all humans from birth to death, and that the only meaning we have in this world is that which we inject into it.”