Where is Religious Belief Headed? - Young People Evaluate Morals: OK vs 'Dumb'
A couple of recent books provide interesting insights into the current state of religion in the United States and what we can expect from those coming into adulthood.
The first, "FutureCast: What Today's Trends Mean for Tomorrow's World," (Barna Books) is by George Barna, a prolific author who founded the Barna Research Group. Based on numerous surveys of public opinion, the book looks at where society is today on a range of social issues.
Three of the book's chapters look at religious beliefs and practices. Religious self-identification has remained very stable, with 84% calling themselves Christians in 1991, compared to 85% in 2010. Nevertheless, Barna observed that many embrace the title without backing it up in practice.
For example, only 45% strongly believe the the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches. This declines to only 30% for those born from 1984 onwards. Only 34% of the adult public believe that there is any absolute moral truth, with barely 3% holding this among those born in 1984 and later.
Barna also noted that among adults associated with a Christian church only half affirm that they are absolutely committed to the Christian faith.
One of the recent changes in religious identity is the growth in those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. About a quarter of adults profess this and for those under 30, it is the norm. The phrase can mean many things, but Barna commented that it usually reflects a general indifference towards church programs, events and traditions.
This is reflected in the fact that only 17% believe that their faith in God is meant to be primarily developed through involvement in a local church. In spite of this the level of weekly church attendance has remained in the 40%-45% range during the last 20 years.
The seeming constancy conceals major changes in church membership. The older Protestant churches, referred to as mainline churches, are now more like sideline churches as they continue to decline. The Protestant churches that are doing well are those that are evangelical or Pentecostal.
There is also a growth in alternative church forms. House churches, where small groups of people gather in a home, are starting to catch on in the United States. Other forms include what Barna termed cyberchurches, gatherings via the Internet.
It has also become common for Americans to switch churches. The Catholic Church is the biggest loser here, having lost a number equivalent to 10% of all adults in the country, a loss, however, made up for by the influx of Latin American Catholics to the United States.
Barna also found that it is not so much doctrinal factors that motivate people to change churches. These days the reasons are much more subjective, focused on personalities, convenience, and the potential for relationships and experiences.
The second book focuses on a narrower group of persons. Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, along with a number of colleagues, conducted in-depth interviews with a broad range of people in the age range of 18-23.
They termed these people "emerging adults" and in their book "Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood," (Oxford University Press) the sociologists recounted their findings.
First, though, they listed a series of factors that have played a crucial role in shaping these young people.
-- The dramatic growth in higher education which means that for many education extends well into the 20s.
-- The pushing back of the age of marriage, leading to unprecedented freedom for around a decade after finishing high school.
-- Economic changes that make it more difficult for young people to find stable, well-paying jobs.
-- The willingness of parents to financially support their children well into their 20s.
-- The availability of birth control that has disconnected sexual intercourse from procreation.
-- The widespread diffusion of theories of poststructuralism and postmodernism that promotes individualistic subjectivism and moral relativism.
The book starts off with a lengthy chapter titled "Morality Adrift." Emerging adult thought about morality, they found, was not consistent, coherent, or articulate. One contributing factor to this is that not many of this group had previously given much thought to the type of questions they were asked on moral issues.
Many of the deficiencies in their answers were due to two main factors, the book noted. First, while they do try to achieve some good in moral judgments they are predisposed against accepting what the book described as "coercive moral absolutism." Second, most emerging adults have been poorly educated in how to think about moral issues.
Young people have highly individualistic approaches to morality. This led them to say that you should not judge anyone else on moral matters, since they are entitled to their personal opinions. So, one university student explained that she did not cheat in her studies, but also refrained from judging her peers who do cheat.
Another respondent was asked if it is okay for a person to break moral rules if they can get away with it and it is to their advantage. She answered by saying that if the person did not think it was wrong, then by definition is would not be wrong. She did admit that stealing was dumb, but went on to say that doing it does not make you a bad person.
They concluded that according to this position: "Some things are okay, other things are dumb, Whether anything is objectively morally right or wrong is unclear."
Moral relativism also characterized many of those interviewed. Moreover, many of them expressed ideas that were not rationally consistent.
The idea that morality is a construct of society and culture even went so far in one discussion that the young person would not express a negative judgment about slavery. Another defended the possible moral rightness of terrorists who cause the death of many people.
"They're just like, they're doing the thing that they think is the best thing they could possibly do and so they're doing good," was part of the explanation given by this young adult.
This strong version of relativism was professed by a third of the people interviewed, with the remaining two-thirds not going so far. Many in this latter group, however, did not take clear moral stands. Neither were many of them able to explain or defend the moral claims they made.
All the emerging adults did believe in something called morality, in some form. When questioned about the sources of morality much of what they said simply did not hold up to basic critical scrutiny, the sociologists found.
No less than 34% declared they did not know what makes anything morally right or wrong and some of them simply could not understand the questions on this matter.
For the others their responses were varied. Some thought morality was defined by what other people would think about someone. In varying degrees this criteria was cited by 40% of the overall group.
Others described the basis of morality as depending on whether something functionally improved people's situations. Another determining factor for some was whether something will hurt other people.
In their conclusion to the chapter on morality the authors noted that emerging adults are poorly equipped to address the challenges of the present and the future and form a generation that has been failed when it comes to moral formation.
While caution needs to be taken in generalizing from opinion polls and surveys of small groups, the evidence in both books is nevertheless a stark reminder of the challenges facing churches and all those concerned about morality.