As children become adolescents, their cognitive abilities and social environments expand and allow for more abstract questioning and consequent understanding of religious ideas. Such developmental change is certainly one of the reasons why most religious decision making, including conversion and apostasy (i.e., the renunciation of a religious faith), takes place before the age of 19.
Rather than becoming increasingly engaged in religious pursuits, however, religious awareness and understanding appears to stutter during the transition from childhood into adolescence. The theory is that as children move into adolescence, experiences that were once interpreted as evidence of God's nearness or guidance are now given a more secular interpretation. Cognitive attributions of God also change during adolescence, in that school-age children tend to experience God more in situations of fear, loneliness, and emergencies, while adolescents identify more internal difficulties as the source of their experiencing God. Thus, children progress from a concrete, separate, and external experience of God to a more abstract, general, and internalized experience during adolescence. Adolescents' conceptualizations of God are also qualitatively different from those of children. Descriptions of God tend to include more symbolism, suggesting that there exists a progression of cognitive abilities that allow children to use such representations more freely with age. As children get older, the way they talk about God tends to change from the concrete mode of thinking to reflect more abstraction, conceptualization, and symbolization. This transformation in thinking allows adolescents to cognitively process "things spiritual" in a way that differs from childhood. Such qualitative change in thinking, however, often leaves the adolescent consumed with doubt; doubt about the authenticity and/or origins of their faith (e.g., church, parents), and about their capacity to come to their own conclusions about faith and God without the guidance of these foundations.
Empirical studies on the function of religious doubt further inform the proposition of the adolescent as theologian. For example, although religious doubt during adolescence is not accurately defined by the presence of consistent internal (e.g., cognitive maturation) or external (e.g., peer influence) factors, there is some indication that doubts tend to hang together in a general "doubt syndrome." Furthermore, there is some correlation between the extent of one's religious doubts and the integrative complexity of thinking about those doubts. The questions remain as to whether the adolescent theologian extends the psychological energy necessary for both deep and complex doubt, and whether such doubt always results in disengagement from religious faith. In most cases, the religious doubt expressed by the typical adolescent is not so much a denial of a specific teaching or spiritual leadership as it is an expression of a more general tendency to question and wonder about things.
The presence of doubt related to religious beliefs during adolescence is not purely an intellectual exercise. Estimates are that upward of one-half of children in North America under 12 years of age attend religious gatherings at least once a month (the majority being weekly attendees), while only one in three 13- to 18-year-olds attend with the same regularity. Such privatization of belief among youth around the world may be linked to a decrease in the social prominence of religion in pluralistic societies (e.g., Australia). Thus, although adolescents have the potential to experience God and their religious faith in ways that are qualitatively more complex and dynamic than that of their childhood counterparts, many adolescents consider their theological options from a distance. It may be that many young theologians make intentional use of a prodigal experience, a religious running away, that includes exercising the freedom to abandon behavioral elements of their faith (e.g., church attendance) as part of their theological journey.
DISSONANCE AND RELIGIOUS DECISION MAKING
Taken together, the considerations above on atheism, religious doubt, and temporary abandonment support the proposition that the period of adolescence is ripe for both religious embracing and/or religious rebellion, risks that all theologians must be willing to take as they seek to increase their understanding of God.