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Professor recognized for writings

Aubrey Butts | Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Sociology professor Christian Smith recently received honors for his latest works, “What is a Person” and “Souls in Transition,” from top scholarly institutions, including “Choice” magazine and the Lilly Fellows Program.

Smith expressed gratitude when presented with his awards and praised the University for its contributions to his research.

“You spend years and years working on books, so it’s nice when someone thinks they’re worthwhile. I’m very happy for Notre Dame as well,” Smith said. “The University’s resources have been invaluable to my research.”

In addition to teaching sociology courses, Smith serves as Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society and the Director of the Center for Social Research.

Smith said he developed an interest in religion and the spiritual lives of youth early in his career.

“I was always interested in the field of religion,” he said. “In 2000, I began studying the religious and spiritual lives of teenagers. I find the lives of young people fascinating and a great way to understand culture and society.”

“Souls in Transition,” the winner of the 2011 Lilly Fellows Program Book Award, explores spirituality and religion during emerging adulthood, a time Smith defines as between 18 to 23 years of age.

“There’s a lot of freedom, opportunity and dangers during this limbo phase between the teenage years and young adulthood,” Smith said. “In the book, I look what happens to the lessons from childhood. Also, growing up in a pluralistic society, I wondered how teenagers would approach spirituality once leaving home and separating from their parents.”

While researching for his book, Smith discovered his findings supported previously established claims, while also validating obvious yet surprising explanations concerning the religious lives of young adults.

“We have known that going to church declines in this period. There’s not a decline in beliefs necessarily, but more so in public practice,” he said. “It should be obvious then, but the most important factor in shaping the lives of young people is their parents. It’s surprising because we tend to believe parents become less and less important, and this is not the case at all.”

Smith has brought his research to the Notre Dame community, hoping that residence staff and campus ministry can help students develop and sustain their spiritual lives during their undergraduate careers.

“I have presented my findings to all the rectors, and my main message is if you really want to reach young people with faith, then you have to engage them where they are in their lives,” Smith said. “Notre Dame can’t control what parents have taught, but they can continue to engage students in conversation.”

Smith’s other work, “What is a Person,” explores the question of personhood within a comprehensive framework informed by sociological and philosophical principles.

“I think social science gets human beings wrong in a lot of ways,” Smith said. “What it means to be a person is something very particular and complicated. If humans are persons, then social science needs to take personhood seriously rather than taking a reductionist view.”

Smith said he advocates a pluralist approach, a philosophical system recognizing the possibility of more than one ultimate principle.

“We need to develop a better theory of personhood that defends a humanistic view as human beings are special and worthy of dignity,” Smith said. “I think culture is moving away from this view, and it’s a big problem.”