BYU anthropology seminar focuses on religious identification of teens

The Manavu chapel is a building of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Sam Hardy said Latter-day Saint teenagers and teenagers from other religious traditions are leaving religion behind for various reasons. (Karina Andrew)

People are leaving religion faster than they are converting to religion, and that is especially true of teenagers, BYU professor of psychology Sam Hardy said in this week’s Department of Anthropology seminar.

His talk focused on religious identification of adolescents and how their religious identities change over time.

According to Hardy’s research in the upcoming study “Empty Churches,” there are several reasons teenagers leave church: they feel unaccepted or out of place in their religious communities, they feel their religious community is too intolerant or exclusive, or they have had repressive experiences with the religious community.  

Other factors teenagers leave church, Hardy said, include feelings of shame for not living the standards of the religion and intellectual skepticism and doubt. Hardy’s research also found that some adolescents stopped going to church because they felt their religion was inconvenient, irrelevant or antiscientific. Other adolescents reported their “deconversion” had to do with life challenges or disagreements with religion and religious leaders over doctrinal, moral or political issues.

To show the relevance of adolescents’ religious transitioning, Hardy cited several studies from the Pew Research Center: A 2015 study which found that 34% of adults have different religious identification than the one with which they were raised, and a 2014 study which found that about one third of people who grow up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leave the Church (with about half switching to other churches and half becoming nonreligious).  

When asked if understanding the reasons people leave the Church would help with retention, Hardy said, “If you know why people are (leaving) then you can predict it and make adjustments.”

In his forthcoming research paper, Hardy wrote that the reasons teenagers gave for leaving church can be understood through the concept of self-determination theory, which states that to be internally motivated, human beings have three basic needs that must be met: autonomy, relatedness and competence.

“You have to feel like you’re in control of your life. You have to feel like you’re connected and accepted, and you have to feel some efficacy or competence in what you do,” Hardy explained. He said that the more religious communities help fill these needs, the better.

Hardy emphasized the importance of parents setting expectations, nurturing their children, and being good examples of living the gospel, but then giving their kids some level of choice in their religious activity, to help fill the need for autonomy. “If you really pressure your kids to be religious, the data shows that that backfires,” he said. “You have to take a little bit of a risk with kids to be able to get an ideal adaptive outcome.”

Professor Sam Hardy addresses students at this week’s seminar hosted by the Department of Anthropology. Hardy’s talk was titled: “Religious Identification in Adolescence and Young Adulthood.”

Hardy gave the example of youth who decide they no longer want to attend church. He said it is more effective for parents to take an authoritative parenting style rather than an authoritarian parenting style, and parents should talk their children through “the why” behind church attendance and get them involved in the decision making, rather than simply tell them they have to go “because I said so.”

Hardy said parents who follow the authoritative parenting style risk the fact that children might use their freedom to make poor decisions, but the risk is worth it. He said allowing teens to exercise their agency is a mirror of God’s plan for all people to come to earth and be tested.

Going forward, Hardy said he’s interested in researching whether those who have grappled with religious questions have a deeper conversion than those who have grown up in the Church and never questioned.

“I have a feeling that to get to where you really internalize your religion, you have to grapple with it a little bit,” Hardy said. “I want to look at the various paths you can (take) to deep religiousness.”

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