Saturday, November 26, 2011

The New American Religion of Young Adults

Here are two interestingly related articles regarding young adults and their lack of religious schooling and background.  The first article I found over a year ago, and it's actually an article from 2005 that I found in The Christian Post.  The author, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., write of America's young people and their "moralistic therapeutic deism" --

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism--the New American Religion

When Christian Smith and his fellow researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took a close look at the religious beliefs held by American teenagers, they found that the faith held and described by most adolescents came down to something the researchers identified as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."

As described by Smith and his team, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of beliefs like these: 1. "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth." 2. "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions." 3. "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself." 4. "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem." 5. "Good people go to heaven when they die."

That, in sum, is the creed to which much adolescent faith can be reduced. After conducting more than 3,000 interviews with American adolescents, the researchers reported that, when it came to the most crucial questions of faith and beliefs, many adolescents responded with a shrug and "whatever."

As a matter of fact, the researchers, whose report is summarized in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers by Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, found that American teenagers are incredibly inarticulate about their religious beliefs, and most are virtually unable to offer any serious theological understanding. As Smith reports, "To the extent that the teens we interviewed did manage to articulate what they understood and believed religiously, it became clear that most religious teenagers either do not really comprehend what their own religious traditions say they are supposed to believe, or they do understand it and simply do not care to believe it. Either way, it is apparent that most religiously affiliated U.S. teens are not particularly interested in espousing and upholding the beliefs of their faith traditions, or that their communities of faith are failing in attempts to educate their youth, or both."

As the researchers explained, "For most teens, nobody has to do anything in life, including anything to do with religion. 'Whatever' is just fine, if that's what a person wants."

The casual "whatever" that marks so much of the American moral and theological landscapes--adolescent and otherwise--is a substitute for serious and responsible thinking. More importantly, it is a verbal cover for an embrace of relativism. Accordingly, "most religious teenager's opinions and views--one can hardly call them worldviews--are vague, limited, and often quite at variance with the actual teachings of their own religion."
And, here is a recent opinion piece by Peter Wehner I found at Commentary Magazine
Our Lack of Moral Vocabulary

Earlier this week, David Brooks wrote a fascinating column on young people’s moral lives, basing it on hundreds of in-depth interviews with young adults across America conducted by the eminent Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his team.

The results, according to Brooks, were “depressing” — not so much because of how they lived but because of “how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.” Asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life, what we find is “young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.” What Smith and his team found is an atmosphere of “extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism.” The reason, in part, is because they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to “cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading.”

This is part of a generations-long phenomenon. In his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom wrote, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” And the university, Bloom argued, is unwilling to offer a distinctive visage to young people. The guiding philosophy of the academy is there are no first principles, no coherent ways to interpret the world in which we live.

But this is merely a pose. No one, not even a liberal academic, is a true relativist. Scratch below the surface and you’ll find them to be (morally) judgmental toward those who want to discriminate based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. They will likely have strong (moral) views on criminalizing abortion, restricting marriage to one man and one woman, anthropogenic global warming, water-boarding terrorists, rendition, Israeli settlements, profits for oil companies, and cutting taxes for the rich. The left is adamant: women have a “right” to an abortion and gays have a “right” to marry. These rights are viewed as a priori and inviolate. And no one, not even a progressive liberal arts professor, is morally indifferent to someone who wants to rape his wife, molest his children, and steal his iPad. It is fashionable to insist we don’t want to “impose our values” on others or “legislate morality.” But the reality is we do so all the time, on an endless number of issues, and no civilization could survive without doing so. The question, really, is which moral standards do we aspire to? What is the ethical code we use to judge ourselves and others?


This didn’t arise ex nihilo. In the 1970s, influential figures in education like Sydney Simon and Lawrence Kohlberg argued for “values clarification” and “cognitive moral development,” believing the traditional moral education was essentially indoctrination –“undemocratic and unconstitutional.” (See this excellent 1978 Public Interest essay by William J. Bennett and Edwin J. DeLattre for more.) This was utter nonsense, of course; but it was also corrosive and had profound human and social consequences. You can’t promote ethical agnosticism and embrace nonjudgmentalism without there being moral ramifications. Because at some point, we all have to take a moral stand and embrace a moral cause. We have to believe in, and abide by, rules and precepts. We don’t have the luxury of living a life of perpetual moral confusion. C.S. Lewis put it as well as anyone when he wrote in The Abolition of Man, “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

One final thought: what is often lost in this debate is that human fulfillment and happiness isn’t found in a world stripped of moral beliefs. Despair, not joy, is found among those who believe in nothing, who find purpose in nothing, who fight for nothing. Because of human anthropology – because we are moral creatures, made in the image of God – we are meant to delight in His ways, to live lives of high moral purpose. All of us fail more often than we should. But we cannot give up on the aspiration; nor can we allow our hearts to grow cold and indifferent, unmoved by the beauty of moral excellence.

“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things,” St. Paul wrote. In our world, there is still excellence. There are still things worthy of praise. It’s time we once again dwell on them.
 Being a public school teacher for over 25 years and having been a youth leader for some six years, I have a deep concern for young people.  I know the ways of this world and the lies that are told to us -- especially at such a vulnerable age as an adolescent and young adult.  It is surely a poverty of our nation that kids are increasingly losing their Judeo-Christian heritage.  Let us pray for revivial.  We are still predominantly a nation of faith; but, let us not give another inch and start digging our roots deep into God.


  1. You are completely wrong on this, a huge reason for the increase in atheism is due to the internet. The internet is to atheism what the printing press was to scientific knowledge. The opening of minds to new cultures by experiencing them one-on-one is now here, as well as the growth of atheist/agnostic communities so Religion seems less and less important.

    Literal belief in Christianity will never win over Gen-Y because there are too many resources available to disprove it easily, and the folks who choose to defend it sound hateful and out of touch.

    Because most of these millennial (of which I am one at 27 years old) had religious parents, the childhood religious teaching somehow stays in their head even after poking all the holes in the logic. It is at this point that they become "moral individualists" who choose to only pay attention to the parts they find important.

    The point is, we don't religion anymore to tell us how to be good people. We grew up in a different generation, with different societal expectations and pressures, so expecting us to carry on some tradition that many of us know is a lie isn't going to happen.

  2. "You are completely wrong...?" Wow, pretty brassy statement. I guess you are omniscient?

    Following your "logic", one could say that the Internet is to faith what the printing press was to the Reformation: I believe it was the Bible that was first published en masse.

    How do you define "literal belief in Christianity?"

    It is typical ... and has been for generations ... for young people to move away from their parents' beliefs for a while, frequently returning to those beliefs once they've grown up a bit and have started having children of their own.

    I would not agree that the Internet has made religion less important ... look at the number of sites dedicated to faith. Just looking at the sheer numbers of "believers" in this nation doesn't exactly bolster your argument.


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