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

Christian Smith with Patricia Snell
New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009



In Souls in Transition, Smith and Snell claim that “emerging adulthood,” which they define as the ages from 18 to 23-years-old, is a separate and distinct developmental phase of life in 21st Century America that comes after adolescence but before true adulthood. Those who are in this particular developmental phase in life during this particular time in history in this particular culture often share many traits and characteristics that differ from previous generations in regard to their views on religion and morality. It is important for adults to understand these commonalities in order to better relate to and engage with emerging adults. 



Near the end of the book’s introduction, the authors explain the organization of Souls in Transition in detail (nearly three full pages of explanation). They paint the overall picture by writing, “The story of American emerging adult religion and spirituality unfolds in the following chapters in a particular sequence that moves from the very specific to the more general and then back to the more specific. The chapters move back and forth between primary reliance on qualitative interview data and quantitative survey evidence.”[1]

The first chapter, entitled “Brad, June, and Amanda, “begins with very specific instances, telling the stories of three particular case studies, drawn from interviews, of individual emerging adults whose experiences illustrate some of this book’s major themes.”[2] This chapter is followed by nine more: “The Cultural Worlds of Emerging Adults,” “Emerging Adult Religion in Life Course and Historical Perspective,” “Religious Affiliations, Practices, Beliefs, Experiences, and More,” “The Cultural Structures of Emerging Adult Religion,” “Six Major Religious Types,” “The Teenagers from Soul Searching Five Years Later,” “Religious Trajectories from the Teenage Years,” “Religious Faith and Emerging Adult Life Outcomes,” and “Making Some Sense of It All,” which attempts to offer some interpretation and advice. The final forty-seven pages contain two appendices filled with “Additional Tables and Figures” and “Research Methodology,” as well as “Notes” and an index.



 “Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of many books, including Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Do Not Give Away More Money; Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Winner of the 2005 ‘Distinguished Book Award’ from Christianity Today), and Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture. Patricia Snell is Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame.

The first major presupposition of the authors is that emerging adulthood is a developmental stage in 21st Century America, distinct from adolescence or adulthood. The second presupposition is that interviews and surveys are effective ways to gather information about how religion and spirituality play out in the lives emerging adults, in other words that emerging adults are self-aware enough to accurately report on their own beliefs and actions. The emerging adults surveyed and interviewed in Soul Transitions are at the third point of measurement (between the ages of 13 and 23) in the study. This means that these emerging adults have been surveyed once as young adolescents, again as older adolescents, and finally as emerging adults. This has allowed for the authors and their colleagues to observe the evolution of the subjects’ views on religion, morality, and other aspects of life.

Finally, the authors presuppose that historical studies done on earlier generations of 18 to 23-year-olds were accurate and adequate in their portrayals of the religious, spiritual, and moral views of their subjects. This presupposition causes the authors to conclude that earlier generations of young adults did not share many of the religious or spiritual traits and characteristics of today’s emerging adults, resulting in the authors seeing today’s emerging adults as something new and different, something never seen before.



As serious academics, Smith and Snell do not interject their own religious beliefs into this book, which is based solely upon data and interviews. It has been published elsewhere (including in books by Smith) that Christian Smith, who at one time self-identified as an Evangelical Protestant, later converted to Roman Catholicism. After the publishing of Souls in Transition, Smith has written several books and articles about his reasons for converting. Co-author Patricia Snell’s personal religious beliefs and practices are not reported anywhere that can be found.

Regardless of their personal beliefs, the authors in no way impose their own religious thoughts and practices upon those expressed by the subjects of their study. The authors are reporting, not confessing or evangelizing. That being said, the authors are certainly familiar enough with mainstream interdenominational Christian beliefs that they are able to note when the expressed beliefs and actions of certain subjects seem inconsistent with those beliefs or even inconsistent with other beliefs held by the same subject. For instance, in discussing an emerging adult named “Brad,” the authors ask how Brad can be convinced that gay marriage is biblically wrong while disregarding traditional church teachings against premarital heterosexual sex. In order to ask this question, the authors must be familiar enough with “traditional church teachings” not only notice, but perhaps even to feel uncomfortable with, the inconstancies in Brad’s stated beliefs and his claim to derive those beliefs from the Bible and the church. These types of inconsistencies are noted again and again in Souls in Transition.



The authors of Souls in Transition do not seem to be intent on convincing readers, who would likely be academics or collegiate ministers, of anything in particular. Smith and Snell are, for the most part, simply presenting stories told to them by numerous emerging adults and reporting upon the findings of extensive nationwide surveys and studies. They are providing information, not necessarily making an argument. They write: “As a whole, this book offers readers a large quantity of statistical data and life narratives, as well as analysis, interpretation, and explanation of that evidence. To assimilate and make sense of it all may require some digesting and reflection. Overall, this book intends to provide the most comprehensive and reliable understanding and explanation of the lives of emerging adults in the United States today, particularly their religious and spiritual lives.”[3]



Souls in Transition is a scholarly academic tome of 350 large pages completely filled with small print, statistical tables, and graphs. It reads very much like a textbook, which is probably its most typical use. In most cases it would not serve as a good book for a Sunday school class or book group, but rather as a resource for serious academic study. Souls in Transition, while extremely dense, does, however, offer an enormous amount of information that may be of great value to anyone interested in walking alongside emerging adults as they navigate their lives, especially their spiritual lives, in the early 21st century. Perhaps the most valuable contribution of this book is not that it gives an exhaustive picture of the thinking of emerging adults (this is impossible) but that it helps academics, collegiate ministers, and others to know what questions may be worthwhile to ask and what conversations to engage in with emerging adults. These questions and discussions can help the reader to understand why these emerging adults may believe and say some of the things they do.

This book is also of value because it presents findings that seemingly contradict the writings of most other authors regarding the level of spiritual or religious interest on the part of emerging adults. Whereas it is “a quite common belief” about “emerging adults nowadays… that they are very interested in matters spiritual,” the results of the extensive study being reported and interpreted by the authors of Souls in Transition show that “a solid majority of emerging adults simply are not that interested in matters religious or spiritual.”[4] They report that, “most emerging adults are okay with talking about religion as a topic, although they are largely indifferent to it—religion is just not that important to most of them. Furthermore, among emerging adults, religious beliefs do not seem to be important, action-driving commitments, but rather mental assents to ideas that have few obvious consequences.”[5] Considering that these findings contradict what most other books on the topic claim, this book adds a different perspective to the ongoing conversation being had by those readers who seek to engage with emerging adults.

[Review by Teri McDowell Ott]

[1] Smith, Souls in Transition, 7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 295.

[5] Ibid., 286.