A Generation of Moral Dolts?

Good ol’ David Brooks, telling it like it is again in the Times, drawing from the latest work of sociologist Christian Smith about “the state of America’s youth” (in a book which Brooks incorrectly, tellingly calls Lost in Transition):

It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.

The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, which Smith and company recount in a new book, “Lost in Transition,” [sic] you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.

While I think there’s a lot of truth in Smith’s work, I have been repeatedly troubled by the way in which it gets taken by older people in religious circles so as to basically write off the younger generation and imply that the problems are with the generation and not with the institutions. Catholic dioceses do this all the time. But it’s absurd. Go to a decent evangelical college or a thriving megachurch. Elders have fought to make the faith speak to the young, and it works; many young people are energized with it, for better or worse. It just saddens me, since I know (admittedly anecdotally) that my generation is so full of curious, thoughtful, creative souls, which is unfortunately exactly what so many in power in the church are not.

I also get the feeling that what Smith takes to be “relativism” and so forth is actually more likely a positive thing: the attempt to deal with the real situation of pluralism, which our parents’ generation had far less of. Brooks poses an opposition at the end of the article between closed religious groups (for which he’s frothing at the mouth with nostalgia) and rabid individualism that misses the entire thrust of Charles Taylor’s work (which he cites in the paragraph above it)—it misses what’s really going on. In this age, moral reasoning is a new kind of adventure, one in which old habits and assumptions can no longer be taken for granted. While I agree that this generation is pretty lousy at this kind of reasoning, and pretty lazy about prioritizing it (just observe our complacency and disaffection amidst a decade of useless war and economic travesties), the way that Smith and Brooks diagnose the problem is tailor-made for the bad solutions of nostalgia and resentment rather than any good solution that takes seriously the new challenges among which we now live.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.