College professors have been complaining about their students since the beginning of time, and not without reason. But in the past several years more that a few professors—to judge by my conversations with a wide range of them—have noticed an occasional bright light shining out from the dull, party-going, anti-intellectual masses who stare back at them from class to class. Young men and women from strong religious backgrounds, these professors say, often do better than their peers, if only because they are more engaged with liberal-arts subject matter and more inclined to study with diligence. ...Relativism has a sure and certain way of making even the most clever and gifted people tumble into the abyss of illogical self-justification. Some of them, upon finally noticing how miserable they really are, begin to acknowledge their mistakes and reconsider their chosen status as Captain You Planet. Others, sadly, find ways to blame everybody else for their problems, refusing to make the connection between their choices and their particular predicament. Anyhow, not to get all soap-boxy and such, but the piece, a Wall Street Journal review of Christian Smith's Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, makes a case that surely won't be agreeable to the Harris/Hitchens/Dawkins "Religion Is For Mean and Irrational Morons" campaign:
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."I have occasion, from time to time, to be around teenagers who have been raised with little to no religious experience or education. They aren't bad kids, but it's really disheartening to see how apparently flat and small are their interests and perspectives. I rarely see any sort of intellectual curiosity—and I'm not talking about heady flights of philosophical reflection, but simply some interest in life outside of their cell phones and video games. A couple of these kids are nearing the end of their high school years, and I've never seen them reading a book or magazine. I've never overheard a conversation about anything more meaningful than basketball (or football, take your pick). Depressing.
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.
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."
That is a very flat and small world. But, as I say, not surprising at all.