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This morning on the way in I was listening to an old episode of the unfailingly excellent and indispensable Mars Hill Audio Journal, in which sociologist Christian Smith discussed his findings about American youth and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I was struck by the part of his discussion with host Ken Myers about how American teenagers lack the basic vocabulary to discuss religious particularities. They are so theologically ignorant they can’t even articulate what their own traditions teach. And in this, Smith suggests, they are like their parents.
Myers asked if there are any data to indicate that teenagers today are any more ignorant than past generations of Americans. Not really, Smith said, but anecdotally, when he interviews older professors, they tell him that young people today are markedly less able to discuss religion to any informed degree. Atheist humanities professor Camille Paglia is also bothered by this, but for different reasons:
Can you have a vibrant culture without cult? Traditionalist conservatives say no. Dr. Paglia is inclined to agree – and says that our lazy secularism and superficial religiosity puts America at risk of succumbing to acedia, the Greek term for spiritual slothfulness. She is shocked to discover how few of her college students grasp basic biblical concepts, characters and motifs that were commonly understood one or two generations ago. This stunning loss of cultural memory renders most Western art, poetry and literature opaque.
“The only people I’m getting at my school who recognize the Bible are African-Americans,” she said. “And the lower the social class of the white person, the more likely they recognize the Bible. Most of these white kids, if they go to church at all, they get feel-good social activism.”
What are they left with? “Video games, the Web, cellphones, iPods – that’s what’s left,” Dr. Paglia laments. “And that’s what’s going to make us vulnerable to people coming from any side, including the Muslim side, where there’s fervor. Fervor will conquer apathy. I don’t see how the generation trained by the Ivy League is going to have the knowledge or the resolution to defend the West.”
We seem to love cultural and religious particularity, so long as it’s not our own.
Back to the Myers-Smith interview, I found depressingly accurate Smith’s observation that our culture has become so acutely aware of difference that we deal with diversity by refusing to talk about it. This matters greatly, says Smith, because the disinclination of teenagers to discuss differences (as if noting differences and asserting that one thing is better or more true than another were offensive) makes it impossible for them to reason morally, because they won’t allow themselves to think in terms of comparing and contrasting moral positions.
In his remarks subsequent to the interview, Ken Myers quoted a contemporary Christian thinker whose name I can’t recall, saying that unlike ages past, when it was most important for the church to preach the Good News to the world, our situation today in the West makes it more important for the church to focus on articulating its teachings, and its distinct way of seeing the world, to itself. This is a powerful reason for some form of the Benedict Option as a way of responding to our cultural situation. It’s not so much a rejection of the world as it is a recognition that religious particularity is in serious danger of being lost — and that maintaining it across the generations requires communal withdrawal in some meaningful sense.