I keep telling you that you need to subscribe to Mars Hill Audio Journal, and sure enough, every time I listen to a new edition, I marvel at how terrific Ken Myers’ interviews are, and how nobody is doing anything quite like it. It’s an attempt to help Christians think intelligently about culture; it’s the kind of thing Christians who are interested in thinkers and artists like Christopher Lasch, Philip Rieff, C.S. Lewis, Neil Postman, J.R.R. Tolkien, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Wendell Berry would love. You can sample the Journal for free on its site. I’ve just finished listening to Vol. 100 of the Journal, and the interviews with Christian Smith, which I’ve listened to twice already this weekend, is worth the price of the entire volume.

Smith (who, I discovered this morning, is also studying the science of generosity on a Templeton grant) is the Notre Dame professor best known for his groundbreaking 2005 sociological study of the religious beliefs and attitudes of American teenagers. It produced the phrase and concept “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” much discussed on this blog over the years. Smith is back with a new study of what’s called “emerging adults” — Americans between the ages of 18 to 29, who are living out the extended transition from youth to adulthood, an artifact of an affluent culture that permits middle-class people to defer the transition.
(I blogged a bit on this the other day; this blog entry is a more detailed exploration of the Smith interview). Myers has before quoted sociologist Daniel Bell’s observation that the condition of modernity is most elementally defined as a state in which people no longer believe that there is a teleology in life — that, is that there is an objective point to any of this, outside of the meaning an individual wants to impose on his own experience. Smith finds that the essential nihilism of modernist academics has at long last reached the masses. This is not to say that EAs are moral anarchists; in fact, Smith’s researchers found that lots of these kids expect that they will “grow up” and “settle down.” But it’s not a matter of them coming to accept that they have a responsibility toward a particular way of life; it’s more a matter of conceiving maturity in terms of advanced consumerism (e.g., adulthood is when I start making enough money to buy the grown-up toys I’ve always wanted).
Myers observes that there is in this a “lack of cultural custodianship” among EAs, meaning that they have no sense that there is something important about our culture that they need to preserve and to pass on to future generations. Smith agrees, saying that there may be EAs who feel this way, but they couldn’t find them to interview (“Maybe they were Mormons out on the mission field, or serving in Iraq or Afghanistan,’ he said).
Smith tells host Ken Myers that perhaps the most shocking thing he and his research team discovered was that so many of these emerging adults (EAs) have so little in the way of internal resources to help them figure out how to negotiate the moral questions and challenges they face. He seemed really touched by how difficult it is to be a young adult today, because there are so few markers to tell you how to live a meaningful life, or what a meaningful life involves. Myers quotes Smith’s new book saying that so many EAs lack the conceptual idea that there might be an objective reality outside of their subjective experiences, a reality that could and should impact their own lives. Smith says his data indicate that young adults today feel imprisoned by their own subjectivity, and doubt the possibility of knowing anything solid and reliable outside their own impressions and emotions.
Depressingly, many of them didn’t even understand what the interviewers were getting at when they queried them about objective moral truth. Again, Smith tells Myers that these young adults have finally absorbed the academic teachings that so much of the world is socially constructed, and now distrust the idea that there is any such thing as absolute value, and that absolute value can be reliably known. All they know is what they feel — and the idea of making normative value judgments strikes them as a useless, and even bigoted, exercise. There’s a lot of “whatever people think is true is true because people make it true by believing it” in their moral reasoning, Smith says — and a lot of what Alasdair MacIntyre calls “emotivism” — basically, the idea that truth claims are merely statements of subjective opinion, and should be treated as only that.
Interestingly, Smith observes that these young adults haven’t looked at the “dark side” of this emotivism; they only see it as making them free to do and to believe whatever they want. He theorizes that that’s because they’re dazzled by the consumerist bazaar — that is, the endless choices they can make to buy happiness through acquiring things and experiences. That, and the fact that those who are going to fail in life haven’t failed significantly yet, so they don’t yet grasp the inadequacy of their emotivism to the problems of pain and suffering.
The lack of commitment, and belief in the idea of commitment, is itself conditioned by a society in which making a commitment could cost you a great deal economically. Kids today are thrown into an economy that’s enormously dynamic, in which to stay above water, you have to be ready to move where the jobs are (or, from an employer’s point of view, ready to be disloyal to your employees, or watch your business collapse from the competition). Smith says this economic arrangement produces adults who view commitment and rootedness with suspicion — this, in part as a matter of economic survival. It also works powerfully against religious commitment. Smith says his team found a small but significant proportion of EAs who were knowledgeable about their faith and committed to it; these were almost all either Evangelicals, black Protestants, or Mormons.
Interestingly, almost all of the EAs interviewed by the academic researchers were not hostile towards religion, even if they had little or no religious commitment themselves. This might sound like good news to religious folks, in that at least now young people are more open to a religious message. But this actually might be worse for serious religious believers seeking converts, because this amorphous MTD approach to faith is capable of absorbing everything. Smith talks about “Brad,” one of the subjects he studied, a young adult who attends an Evangelical megachurch with the woman with whom he lives (they are not married), and their families. “Basically it comes across that this is an optional part of a nice way of life, being a good bourgeois citizen,” Smith tells Myers. In other words, a pleasant addition to life, but nothing that should define one’s way of life.
Brad is what Smith’s team called a “selective adherent,” a person who proclaims religious belief, but picks and chooses what he wants to believe. Some feel guilty about that, some don’t (Brad doesn’t). That’s about 30 percent of EAs, the largest group. Smith admits to Myers that all this research has made him deeply skeptical about the idea that one can judge the character and depth of a church or religion based on the number of people attending that church or professing that religion. They may be there in the flesh, but their minds and their hearts are nowhere near adhering to the beliefs and practices of that faith. In the end, says Smith, his research shows that for a huge proportion of Americans, church is somewhere you go to be with nice people who can help you cope with difficulties in your life. The therapeutic thing.
In this Christianity Today interview, Smith says his research shows that the religious attitudes of emerging adults was by far and away most conditioned by what their parents believed, and how their parents practiced the faith. That’s why I’m sharing the full Mars Hill interview with friends who have kids — and why I strongly encourage my readers to get this edition of the Journal, and to subscribe to MHAJ. It’s high-minded stuff, but there’s almost always something in each bimonthly issue that compels me to think practically about everyday life.
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