Religion, of course, does not make people smart—as Richard Dawkins and other atheists will tell you. But it does seem to save young adults from a vacuous and dispiriting moral relativism. The study's interviews with nonreligious or semi-religious "emerging adults" tend to show vague powers of moral reasoning and a vague inarticulateness. Take this all too typical explanation from one respondent of how one might tell right from wrong: "Morality is how I feel too, because in my heart, I could feel it. You could feel what's right or wrong in your heart as well as your mind. Most of the time, I always felt, I feel it in my heart and it makes it easier for me to morally decide what's right and wrong. Because if I feel about doing something, I'm going to feel it in my heart, and if it feels good, I'm going to do it."
Mr. Smith notes that the persistent use of "feel" instead of "think" or "argue" is "a shift in language use that expresses an essentially subjectivistic and emotivistic approach to moral reasoning and rational argument." He concludes that such young adults "are de facto doubtful that an indentifiable, objective, shared reality might exist across and around all people."
By contrast, young religious people have been made to think seriously and speak publicly about Big Questions from a young age. They do believe in a reality "out there" that can be studied and apprehended. Their answers to the study's questions are crisper and surer than those of their nonreligious counterparts. Amanda, a young woman from a conservative Christian denomination, tells her interviewer: "First and foremost, I believe that there is a God who is all-powerful and all-knowing, who created the whole universe. I believe what the Bible says about him."
The core of reality for students like Amanda is of course religious, but their belief in the very possibility of a nonrelativistic truth may well give a boost to their classroom seriousness, not to mention their verbal clarity.
But Amanda is unlike most members of her generation. Emerging adults in America, Mr. Smith says, are "the least religious adults in the United States today." Only about 20% attend religious services at least once a week, a 22% decline from Mr. Smith's survey, five years ago, of the same group of young people.
In the absence of any firm religious belief or clear idea of morality, many of the study's subjects have decided that "karma" is the best way to make sense of the universe. By this term they mean that, as Mr. Smith puts it, "good attitudes and behavior will be rewarded in this life and bad will get what it deserves too." The gist seems to be: "What goes around comes around." As one student says: "Karma's a bitch."
It had better be, because there is apparently not much else motivating nonreligious young adults toward charitable behavior. As Mr. Smith summarizes: "Any notion of the responsibilities of a common humanity, a transcendent call to protect the life and dignity of one's neighbor or a moral responsibility to seek the common good, was almost entirely absent among the respondents."The thesis - religion helps. It makes better citizens, better students, better workers, etc. Yet, on college campuses it is denigrated.
We need to do a better job of engaging our young adults and teenagers with the faith. The survival of Western culture depends on it and I don't think that is an exaggeration. Thanks to Carl for the tip.