A “PROFOUND” lack of curiosity about religion, faith, or God was evident in interviews with teenagers explored in a report from the charity Youthscape, published this week.
Researchers detected, in addition to “spiritual apathy”, a fear that questions might cause offence, a reiteration of the sentiment that “we are all the same,” and a “passive engagement” with God, in which young people believed that “God has to come to me.”
The authors of the report No Questions Asked argue that an apologetics approach may not be effective for this generation, given that curiosity must first be “sparked”, and that there is evidence of a “turn to the practical” and away from propositional statements.
The report draws on interviews in Luton with 16 young people between the ages of 16 and 19, carried out in 2016. Half were at a Roman Catholic school and half at a further-education college. Six were Christian, three were Muslim, and seven identified as “No Religion”. The authors acknowledge that “generalisable conclusions” cannot be made, but suggest that many of the findings resonate with both earlier studies and their own experience in youth work.
A key finding was a “profound lack of questioning around God, faith, and religion”. Among the interviewees cited as an example of “spiritual apathy” was Rachel, who grew up in a Christian home, and spoke of a personal faith. When asked “Has there ever been a moment where you have had a question about your own faith, where you’re, like, ‘If God was here face to face with me right now, this is what I’d want to ask you?’” she replied: “No, I don’t think so”. The researchers detected among the teenagers “a sense in which God, faith, and religion are neither offensive nor something to be passionate about.”
Despite this, all 16 of them believed in a higher power. “They were passionately committed to the fair and equal treatment of all people, regardless of belief or religion, and demonstrated a sensitive and nuanced understanding of religion as
a positive force which can be misrepresented by individuals,” Phoebe Hill, head of research at Youthscape, writes.
Fourteen of the 16 had prayed, and, for some, perceptions about the answering of their prayers, or not, had been transformative, taken as proof of the existence or not of God. Brook, whose grandfather died despite her prayers, remarked: “[God] didn’t really give me, like, the faith to believe in him.”
Prayer, death, and the afterlife were prominent themes in interviews — “these aren’t often the starting point we have previously used when talking to young people about religion” — and the authors argue for “safe spaces” where teenagers can “discuss, reflect, and grieve”. Another of the findings was that the term “spiritual” was, on the whole, “unhelpful”: most of those interviewed did not know what it meant, or associated it with spirits and ghosts.
Interviewers detected an anxiety about saying “the wrong thing”, highlighting differences, or risking division or tension. Many interviewees expressed the sentiment that “We are all the same”. Personal experience was “paramount” for interviewees: interviewers detected “a sense . . . that unless you experience something, it’s not worth debating or questioning; questioning is futile”; and a shift in concepts of proof: “It is less about facts or testimonies or historical accuracy, but about personal experience.” Among the practical recommendations is a suggestion that youth workers may need to move away from a “teacher” to a “fellow-learner” position, and a recovery of “ancient practices”, including praying the Ignatian examen.
Many interviewees commented positively on the process, and asked whether the researchers would return. “For some of them, it was the first time they had ever really thought about what they believed, and had been given the opportunity to discuss their beliefs openly without judgement,” Mrs Hill notes.