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Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults

Christian Smith with Patricia Snell
Published by Oxford University Press in 2009

The November, 2009 Christianity Today webinar featuring Christian Smith discussing his most recent book provided a rich example of his argument. In this session Smith discussed the content and implications of his findings thoughtfully and articulately while online participants watched, listened and had the opportunity to post real-time questions that showed up in a sidebar on the screen. Although the questioning started slowly, it quickly gained momentum and before long the “ask the expert” questions morphed into a parallel commentary on the topic of his book and all things related. Ever the teacher, Smith observed wryly about the phenomena the viewers were experiencing: “remember ‘back-channelness’ and crazy multitasking are ‘emergent-adultish’ too.” Perhaps even more than providing context, this incident is illustrative of the fact that one of the characteristics attributed to “twenty-somethings” is that they are adept at defining their own reality—they are responsible for shaping their own truth. Thus, participants had no misgivings about matching their relatively random and mostly unmeasured thoughts and ideas with the carefully conceived scholarship that is Smith’s work.

While this work may fall roughly into the genre of generational literature that has gained so much attention in recent years (for example, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable than Ever Before; Millennials Rising:The Next Great Generation; The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation is Shaking Up the Workplace, and so on), the high level of analytical and research sophistication places it in a category of its own. The basis of this report is the data collected most recently from the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). This longitudinal investigation has followed a group of 18-23 year-olds since they were 13-17. The sample reported on includes 2,458 individuals who participated through a survey process and 230 who were interviewed personally.

Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults is a follow-up of Smith’s earlier research reported in the widely acclaimed Soul Searching: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, published in 2005, also by Oxford Press. The purpose of the current volume is to investigate the question, “What happens in the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers when they start to grow up, end high school, and begin to leave home to launch their own new adult lives?” (3). The adolescents who were studied in the earlier work are now in the first half of the decade from 18-29 that has been labeled “emerging adulthood” and which is characterized by:

intense identity exploration, instability, a focus on the self, feeling in limbo or in transition or in between, and a sense of possibilities, opportunities, and unparalleled hope…often accompanied…by large doses of transience, confusion, anxiety, self-obsession, melodrama, conflict, disappointment, and sometimes emotional devastation. (6)

The book reports, analyzes, and interprets an impressive array of both qualitative and quantitative data. This mixed-method approach provides for a rich, fascinating, and compelling, if challenging to digest, reading experience. The very readable manuscript moves from extensive individual case studies of representative interview subjects to the reporting, analysis, and interpretation of the extensive data collection. This approach helps to place a very human face on what might otherwise be interpreted by some as lifeless social-scientific data. More importantly, the illustrative benefit of the case studies aids the reader, especially the uninitiated one, in understanding the picture that is being presented more fully.

The authors do a commendable job identifying a number of themes prevalent among emerging adults, some of which have been prominent in other generational literature offerings. Reminiscent of Arthur Levine’s When Dreams and Heroes Died,1 Smith observes that even in the midst of often difficult personal circumstances, most emerging adults have a great deal of optimism regarding their own futures. The author recounts a number of themes of relativity that seem indicative of the growing influence of postmodernism on the contemporary conscience. In Smith’s words, emerging adults “are doubtful that an identifiable, objective, shared reality might exist across and around all people that can serve as a reliable reference point for rational deliberation and argument” (45). Because of this, moral reasoning follows a simple formula—one need only follow one’s heart to know what is right or wrong. Similarly, the content of personal beliefs comes from within and constraint or influence from external authorities is generally unwelcome. Strong notions of obligation and accountability are countercultural. And, on the subject of culture, most would hold to a view that as there are few moral absolutes, thus, cultural values are equally subjective. For those whose life’s work involves educating this generation, it may not be surprising that most see education only for its instrumental value. This understanding surely helps to explain the oft-observed student resistance to being forced to study things that do not have anything to do with what they plan to do for a job.

The themes mentioned here give a taste of what is covered in the book but in terms of numbers represent only a fraction of those discovered and discussed by Smith. The scope of ideas proposed is amazing and many of the themes carry with them very troubling implications which are worthy of serious attention from anyone who has an interest in, sense of responsibility for, or commitment to guiding and nurturing the next generation. Souls in Transition is likely to be eye-opening for those whose primary frame of reference is the American evangelical subculture. Quite simply, Smith’s work will challenge any notion that these individuals have that most young adults think like they do.

Despite findings that today’s emerging adults are generally less religious than older adults, they still tend to have about the same levels of belief in an afterlife, a literal view of the Bible and the likelihood of being religiously liberal (91-92). These findings are not entirely inconsistent with the results of the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) study, The Spiritual Lives of College Students: A National Study of College Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose,2  which indicates a continuing interest in spirituality even if there is a diminishing of—at least during the college years—participation in some religious forms. The HERI study indicates that 76 percent of the college students in their national sample are “searching for meaning and purpose in life” while only 47 percent “seek out opportunities to help [themselves] grow spiritually.” And, while 79 percent indicate a belief in God, only 40 percent“ follow religious teachings in everyday life.”3 Although the samples in the two studies are very different, these findings seem to be consistent with the characterization of emerging adults as formulating their own forms and expectations of religious life.

One of the most hopeful aspects of Smith’s work is his emphasis on the benefits of a strong, well-grounded faith. He labels the 15 percent who fall in this category as “committed traditionalists” and defines this group as:

…embrac[ing] a strong religious faith, whose beliefs they can reasonably well articulate and which they actively practice. Personal commitment to faith is a significant part of their identities and moral reasoning and they are at least somewhat regularly involved in some religious group. (166)

This group is characterized not just by their beliefs but also have better parental relationships, more likelihood of higher educational attainment, participate more in volunteer activities, give financially, and be concerned for the poor.

A lesson of this book which is both encouraging and troubling is that individuals tend to stay fairly close to their teenage faith trajectories. Perhaps not surprisingly, the best predictor of meaningful faith in emerging adulthood is meaningful teenage faith. Thus, there is great benefit in seeking to understand the elements that tend to relate to strong faith commitments in adolescence. The most important factor is parental influence. Quite simply put, Smith’s research finds that parental faith and practice is highly influential in the religious orientation of their children, both as teenagers and later as emerging adults. Additionally, personal devotional practices and religious experiences were also found to be critically important faith factors.

Finally, in an observation that is more puzzling than troubling, the copy-editorial quality of the book simply does not match the standard of research and writing contained therein. While the book is skillfully written, the text is peppered with small errors of the “typo” variety; the kind that when found in a student paper, one assumes is the result of a final draft having been rushed. This weakness is perhaps made more apparent because of the fine work that this volume represents. And because it is not what one anticipates from a publisher with the reputation and high standards and history of Oxford Press. However, it should be noted that this carelessness in editing is in contrast to the incredibly thorough and thoughtful research which makes up this outstanding and important work. Smith’s work represents an important contribution to our understanding of American religious life, human development and contemporary social trends and this volume will be a valued resource for anyone whose interests, work, or study touches these realms.

Cite this article
Timothy W. Herrmann, “Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:4 , 488-491


  1. Arthur Levine, When Dreams and Heroes Died: A Portrait of Today’s College Student (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; New York: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1980).
  2. The Spiritual Lives of College Students: A National Study of College Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose(Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, nd).
  3. Ibid., 5.

Timothy W. Herrmann

Taylor University
Timothy W. Herrmann, Higher Education and Student Development,Taylor University