[This entry originally appeared at Forn Spǫll Fira and is reposted here with the author’s permission.]
Thus far, in my examination of the data from the NSYR I have looked at some of the scattered clues in the NSYR analysis. (The first post is here, the second post ishere.) The NSYR actually devoted an entire book to the subject of youth losing their religion and their way, called Lost in Transition. I have already noted that intellectual reasons play a smaller role in youth losing their faith than behaviors or events. I am here interested in only those intellectual reasons that the NSYR found for people losing their faith. This post will look at reasons assembled in the first chapter of Lost in Transition for why youth of all religions become secular.
The first thing to notice is that
most of the problems in the lives of youth have their origins in the larger adult world into which the youth are being socialized. . . . One way or another, adults and the adult world are almost always complicit in the troubles, suffering, and misguided living of youth, if not the direct source of them. The more adults can recognize and admit that fact, we think, the sooner we will be able to address some of young people’s problems more constructively. . . . The undeniable reality–indeed a key point of this entire book–is that emerging adult problems are ultimately problems of our entire culture and society.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 11.)
If adults see problems among the youth it is our responsibility to do something about them.
“You Took No Thought”
The first chapter of Lost in Transition deals with the moral drift among young adults. (Moral here has to do with the larger issue of discerning right and wrong and not just the lesser issue of sexual morality.) This presents something of a challenge to researchers. “Emerging adult thinking about morality (as with most of the rest of adult Americans) is not particularly consistent, coherent, or articulate” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 20). It is not that young adults have been thinking about how to be degenerate or anything of the sort. “Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 20). So an important part of the problem is that young adults have not given many of the issues much thought at all. One manifestation of this situation is that people who have doubts complain that they have never heard about a particular issue before. This often does not mean that those issues have not been discussed in public or even in Church. Often it means that the individual has never paid much attention, or sometimes any attention. I remember things like the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society, polygamy, and the Mountains Meadows Massacre all being taught in seminary. So when I hear accounts of those being surprised by something like that I wonder if their seminary teacher skipped those lessons or whether those individuals were absent that day or if they did not pay attention. I have taught enough to know that not all students pay attention and that not all that pay attention understand what is being taught even if it is taught plainly. The fact that most young adults (or adults for that matter) have not given much if any thought to moral issues is a disappointment but not a surprise. Nevertheless, the lack of giving thought beforehand to these issues can and does have disastrous consequences. Not only can it be a problem when young adults have given no thought to these issues, but it can also be a problem if parents or local church leaders have given no thought to such moral issues.
Problems with moral reasoning are prevalent among young adults and these problems were summarized under the following headings:
The NSYR noted that:
Six out of ten (60 percent) of the emerging adults we interviewed . . . said that morality is a personal choice, entirely a matter of individual decision. Moral rights and wrongs are essentially matters of individual opinion, in their view. Furthermore, the general approach associated with this outlook is not to judge anyone else on moral matters, since they are entitled to their own personal opinions.”
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 21.)
Such young adults see “not ‘immoral’ people but people who make moral judgments of others as society’s real problem” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 23). From this point of view, “to express one’s own moral view is thus synonymous with dominating and controlling others, a kind of pathology that violates other people’s dignity and rights” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 24). Such young adults
have not been taught well how to differentiate between strong moral and religious claims that should be tolerated, if not respected, and those that deserve to be refuted, rejected, and opposed. Very few have been given the reasoning tools and skills to discern such important differences. As a result, many emerging adults [I would include adults as well] simply end up trying to completely avoid making strong moral claims themselves, as well as avoiding criticizing the moral views of others. . . . But what few of them seem to realize is that such a position makes it impossible to rationally evaluate or criticize any moral wrong, including the horrific destruction and violence that helped drive them to this tolerant position in the first place. That is a problem.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 26-27.)
The NSYR did not publish what percentage of Latter-day Saints reflect these positions but I have heard a number of Latter-day Saints advocating these viewpoints including some local leaders (though not my own).
The NSYR noted that “not all morally individualistic emerging adults subscribe to strong moral relativism. But many do. Moral individualism does seem to have strong intellectual affinities with moral relativism. And those who avoid moral individualism seem to have more to work with intellectually in order to resist relativism, if they in fact want to resist it” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 27). How does one spot a moral relativist? One manifestation is the repeated expression, “Who am I do judge?” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 27.) The NSYR provides a helpful quantification of how prevalent strong moral relativism is: “about three out of ten (30 percent) of the emerging adults we interviewed professed a belief in strong moral relativism. (In our nationally representative survey, 47 percent of American emerging adults agreed that ‘morals are relative, there are not definite rights and wrongs for everybody.’)” (Smith, et al,, Lost in Transition, 27.) What of the remaining 70%?
Two-thirds of emerging adults, however, were not strong moral relativists; they stopped short of that radical position. This remaining two-thirds of emerging adults wished to resist the radical implications of strong moral relativism. We might think of many of them as reluctant moral agnostics or skeptics. They were not, to be sure, firm moral realists or absolutists. Few of them, in fact, took clear moral stands that they could defend. The majority of emerging adults could not accept total moral relativism, but many of them also could not clearly explain or defend the moral claims that they wished to make or say why moral relativism is actually wrong. Some–more than one-quarter (27 percent) of the emerging adults we interviewed simply waffled on these questions.
(Smith, et al,, Lost in Transition, 29.)
This still leaves a large group unaccounted for:
those who took a “situationalist” approach to morality. All of the same things could be right or wrong, these emerging adults said, depending on the particular context or circumstances. About four in ten emerging adults we interviewed (41 percent) mentioned situations as complicating moral evaluations.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 30.)
Another sizable group took a different approach:
Yet another way that some emerging adults–about one in three (27 percent) of those we interviewed–resolve their reservations about strong moral relativism is to say that, while most moral beliefs are relative, a small number of moral truths are not relative. . . . [So some of them] distinguished between universal moral truths and more relative beliefs that require more interpretation.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 31-32.)
Because youth are not necessarily able to articulate their positions many fall into more than one category, which is why the percentages are well over one hundred percent.
The NSYR cautions that “it would be wrong to interpret these more or less morally relativistic voices as mere self-indulgent rationalizations for emerging adults to live as (im)morally as they please.” That can be a consequence but apparently is not the dominating cause.
In fact, there are powerful institutional reasons why emerging adults think like this. And the moral reasoning of emerging adults has deep roots in American history and society. . . . These messages are well intentioned and, at least in certain ways, we think, important, valuable, and effective. . . . Unfortunately, at least some of this tolerance-promoting, multiculturalist educational project also seems to have been based upon some shoddy moral reasoning, which it reinforces in turn. Thus emerging adults in our interviews are simply parroting to us what they have been taught by the adults who have educated them. That does not make sloppy and indefensible moral reasoning acceptable, but it does help make it understandable.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Translation, 34-35.)
One does not expect the percentages in the general population necessarily to line up with Latter-day Saint percentages, but given the results I would be pleased but very surprised if moral relativism in some form was not alive and well among Latter-day Saint youth. I have heard some moral relativism from younger adults but simply do not know how many LDS youth subscribe to either strong or weak forms of moral relativism.
Where do young adults think that morality comes from? The NSYR examined “how emerging adults think about morals sources–that is, the grounds or basis for moral truths” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 35). The NSYR made two important observations about those sources:
First, most of the accounts of morality’s sources offered by emerging adults below are not reasonably defensible. They might make some sense to some at first glance. But when analyzed, much of what follows simply does not work; it cannot hold up to basic critical scrutiny. Second, despite claiming to be strong moral individualists, as noted above, most emerging adults’ accounts of the sources of morality turn out to be not all that individualistic. Almost all of the accounts examined below, in fact, turn out to be highly oriented to the interests, needs, or desires of social relations. We are not simply representing different voices here. Rather, this is another instance of emerging adult thinking being not particularly internally consistent.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 35.)
We begin with one of the more sobering statistics:
Fully one in three (34 percent) of the emerging adults we interviewed saith that they simply did not know what makes anything morally right or wrong. They had no idea about the basis of morality. Tellingly, some of these stumped interviewees could not even understand our questions on this point. No matter how many different ways we posed them or tried to explain or clarify them, our very questions about morality’s sources did not or could not make sense to them.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 36.)
On the other hand, “about four out of ten (40 percent) of the emerging adults we interviewed referred to how other people would think of them as (at least partly) defining what for them would be morally right and wrong” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 37-38). These young adults “professed to believe in moral right and wrong. Yet their morality does not itself have an objective reference or basis but was defined instead primarily by what other people would think about someone. If others would think the worse of a person for doing something, then that would be morally wrong for them to do. Positive and negative social perceptions, in other words, are morality’s ultimate ground” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 37). In Book of Mormon terms, these are those for whom morality is whatever the great and spacious building approves of.
There are other perceived sources of morality. Six out of ten emerging adults interviewed (60 percent) “described the basis or grounds of morality as whether or not anything functionally improved people’s situations. If a thought, attitude, or action created a better functional situation, then it was moral, they essentially said. If it made a situation worse, then it was morally bad” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 38). This type of thinking creates problems for these adults:
Because situational consequences can often turn out differently than expected, at least some of these emerging adults are not able to govern their lives with moral systems, maps, philosophies, or worldviews that can reliably tell them in advance what is right and wrong. Instead, right and wrong are only figured out after the fact, when one sees the actual consequences of living.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 39.)
As a result the moral systems of over half of young adults are failing them:
The crucial distinction that these emerging adults are missing is the difference between the basis or reason for some moral truth and theeffects of living according to that moral truth. Right moral living should normally have certain positive, patterened effects, at least over the long run. But that does not make those effects per se the reason why those things are morally right in the first place. If they are indeed morally right, they should remain so even if they sometimes fail to have those effects. Furthermore, sometimes right moral action does not improve people’s situations. At times, in fact, it creates major problems. Sometimes right moral action involves real costs and sacrifices–which is exactly why it can be so hard to live morally. . . . So defining morality as that which functionally improves people’s situations really does not work.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 39.)
Just over half (53 percent) of those interviewed define morality as “whether it hurts other people.” For them, “a moral violation per se is essentially defined as anything that hurts other people physically, emotionally, financially, or otherwise” (Smith, et al. Lost in Transition, 39). Those who understood morality this way “did not agree, however, on whether hurting oneself would also be morally bad or whether that was one’s prerogative that had no moral implications” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 40).
For some emerging adults, not only is each individual entitled to define their own personal moral code, but it is also only the hurting ofindividual persons that could make anything morally wrong. For them it was only wrong to hurt individuals, and not particularly wrong to cheat or steal from an organization, such as a business.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 41.)
The NSYR saw this approach as problematic:
Again, without going into much depth, we must observe that whether or not something harms people simply cannot serve as a defensible explanation for morality’s source. One reasons is that acting morally sometimes involves hurting other people in some ways–think of certain situations that require telling a hard truth, for instance, or of enforcing certain kinds of justice concerning the fair distribution of goods in situations when some people will get less sot that others can have more. Another, more basic reason is that even being able to know or define in the first place what hurts or helps other people often itself requires reference to certain moral standards and understandings of what is good and bad. . . . In many such cases, it is only knowledge of the moral good that determines what is truly hurtful and helpful to other people. So morality itself cannot be dependent on perceptions of help and hurt as the basis of its very definition.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 42.)
About 12 percent of those interviewed held a view
that can best be described as a “social-contract theory” of morality. In essence, according to this view, moral truth does not really enjoy any objective existence–nothing that critique a belief or practice, such as slavery, that is embraced by the majority in a society. Rather, morality is simply the name of a collective social invention agreed to by people in a group or society to advance the hedonic and functional goods of those submitting to the social compact. Their mutually policing moral norms may come to be seen erroneously as objective, natural or universal. But in reality they are merely agreements by contact–pure social constructions.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 42.)
The study’s authors point to major problems with social contract theory, including its failure to explain human rights and that “if everyone in a society must agree to establish a social contract, then no morality will ever be defined, since never in human history has everyone in a society agreed to anything” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 44).
Almost one in four “of the contemporary emerging adults we interviewed (23 percent) referenced obedience to the laws of the land as one, if not the, key way to define morality. The essential idea expressed was that if something is in the law or regulations, then it is moral, and if it is not law, then it is outside the realm of morality” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 44). The authors also note the problems with such a view: “What such a view lacks, of course, is the capacity to successfully advance a moral critique of any existing laws, rules, or regulations” (Smith, et al.,Lost in Transition, 45).
The concept of karma was also put forward:
A surprising (to us) number of emerging adults we interviewed–nearly on in six (17 percent)–spontaneously referred to “karma” as a way to explain how morality works, why it’s best to act morally, and why the universe is ultimately a morally just place. In invoking karma, they meant that good attitudes and behavior will be rewarded in this life and bad people will get what they deserve too.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 45-46.)
Lastly, about 40 percent of those interviewed “claimed that their own moral views were somehow based in God’s commands, the Bible, or other religious knowledge or sensibilities” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 46-47).
For those keeping track, these opinions account for 279 percent of emerging adults so they reflect an overlapping of approaches to morality not mutually exclusive categories. We can rank them in terms of popularity:
- 60 percent define their morals depending on the situational.
- 53 percent base morals on whether actions hurt other people.
- 40 percent base morals on what other people would think.
- 40 percent base morals on religious knowledge.
- 34 percent could not say whether anything was right or wrong.
- 23 percent base morals on laws or rules.
- 17 percent base morals on karma.
- 12 percent base morals on social contracts.
The wide spread of overlapping opinions seems indicative of a lack of thought on these matters.
While most young adults believe that people ought to obey the law and do what they think is morally right, a number did not. One in three of those interviewed “said that they might do certain things they considered morally wrong if they knew they could get away with it” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 47). One wonders how this one in three overlaps or not with the one in three who cannot tell what is right or wrong. If it does not at all, then it means that one in three do not know what is right or wrong and one in three will do the wrong thing if they think no one will notice.
Happiness and Instinct
When the NSYR asked what young adults would do in a situation where they were unsure of what was right, they got the following answers:
- 9 percent said they would do what would help them get ahead.
- 18 percent said they would do what God or the scriptures said was right.
- 34 percent said they would follow the advice of a parent or teacher.
- 39 percent said they would do what they thought would make them happy.
This makes it sound as though it were some deliberative process, but 72 percent of young adults say they would act on instinct (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 51-52). They “speak about moral knowledge as being instinctive, automatic, prerational, embodied, common sense, and perhaps genetically rooted” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 55.)
The NSYR asked young adults to come up with some moral dilemmas that they had faced. “One-third of the emerging adults who we interviewed (33 percent) simply could not think of any moral dilemmas or difficult situations that they had personally confronted in recent years” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 56). “Nearly one in three (29 percent) of the emerging adults we interviewed offered what they thought were examples of moral dilemmas that they had faced. But these in fact turned out to be not moral dilemmas having to do with right and wrong, but rather some other kind of practical decision they had had to make. These situations or problems they described to us actually had little or nothing to do with moral conflicts” (Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 57). Only about a third could accurately bring up specific examples of moral dilemmas.
The NSYR’s Conclusions
I will not go through all the conclusions of the NSYR on the moral reasoning of young adults. (I recommend reading the book.) I will highlight only a couple:
“It is not that merging adults are a morally corrupt lot (although some of them are). The problem is more that many of them are simply lost. They do not adequately know the moral landscape of the real world that they inhabit. And they do not adequately understand where they themselves stand in that real moral world. They need some better moral maps and better-equipped guides to show them the way around.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 69.)
The families, schools, religious communities, sports teams, and other voluntary organizations of civil society are failing to provide many young people with the kind of moral education and training needed for them even to realize, for example, that moral individualism and relativism make no sense, that they cannot be reasonably defended or sustained, that some alternative views must be necessary if we are to be at all reasonable when it comes to moral concerns. Colleges and universities appear to be playing a part in this as well.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 61.)
The NSYR has some particularly interesting conclusions about what can and should be done about the problems that they note in this book. They note the following basic causes”
Poor moral reasoning comes significantly from poor teaching of thinking skills in schools, families, religious communities, sports teams, and other youth-socializing settings. Damaging sexual experiences have connections to things like the way colleges and universities are run and the lifestyle scripts disseminated by advertising and the mass media. Mass consumer materialism is of course deeply rooted in the structure of the American capitalist economy and the advertising industry. Intoxicating habits have much to do with the financial motives of the alcohol industry (“Drink Responsibly” ads notwithstanding) and the structures of college life, among other things. And disconnection from civic, communal, and political life surely has something to do with the many real dysfunctions of American politics and the lure of private, mass consumerist, media-stimulated lifestyles.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 233.)
College life, particularly, can create certain problems:
Structurally, most emerging adults live this crucial decade of life surrounded mostly by their peers–people of the same age and in the same boat–who have no more experience, insight, wisdom, perspective, or balance than they do. It is sociologicially a very odd way to help young people come of age, to learn how to be responsible, capable, mature adults.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 234.)
After discussing (mostly infeasible) nationwide initiatives to address these problems, they come down to practices on the smaller scale that can help–indeed, one of the themes running through the books is that these things matter most:
Families, for example, can be intentional about their values, commitments, and lifestyles in ways that can have significant effects on their members. Not every American household, for instance, mustwatch television a great deal of the time. It is actually possible to find recreational activities besides going to the shopping mall. Often families can choose, for example, to eat more meals together than they typically do. Heads of families can in fact decide to practice and model for children generosity in the form of greater charitable and religious financial giving, volunteering, giving blood, and so on. Such choices are within the hands of families.
(Smith, et al., Lost in Transition, 241.)
The NSYR has consistently noted that the family has the biggest impact of any institution on shaping the lives and especially the religious lives of teenagers and emerging adults: Greater than teachers, greater than schools, greater than churches, greater than peers, greater than either the parents or the youth even realize. This effect still remains a significant pull even years after young adults have left home.
I have looked in the first chapter of Lost in Transition for intellectual reasons why youth might be sliding into secularism. It provides a map of the terrain and points to some problems that the NSYR thought were serious enough that they ought to be addressed. It is important to put these intellectual concerns in larger context. One chapter of Lost in Transition covers the sex lives of emerging adults and another chapter looks at the role of alcohol and drugs. These play a larger role than intellectual issues. Another chapter looks at materialism, which also plays a role. We can see all of these issues (to a greater or lesser degree) among Latter-day Saints.
It is also important to realize that they NSYR gave percentages for categories of the young adults at large, not LDS young adults. LDS numbers sometimes mirror the national trends and sometimes are very skewed. Since LDS young adults were among those interviewed, they fit somewhere in the statistics. Probably the biggest problem is that many of the young adults (as is true for many adults in general) have given such matters little if any thought. They have not worked through the issues themselves and cannot necessarily deal with them in an intelligent or coherent fashion. With mortality having only a limited amount of time available, not everyone is going to have the time to think all matters through; some matters though are of sufficient importance that they deserve to be given some thought.
Some forms of moral individualism and relativism that I have seen among the Saints are (1) notions that agency allows us (not God) to determine what is right and wrong rather than allowing us to choose whether to do right or wrong, and (2) that we are not allowed to determine that the actions of others are good or evil, which directly contradicts Moroni 7:14-19. We need to be able to take moral stands on issues, both individually and as a Church. It is useful to be able to articulate why those stands are moral even if the line of reasoning is different when presented to those in the Church and those outside the Church.
The fact that these issues are a problem with emerging adults at large and that anecdotally they seem to show up among Latter-day Saints may make it worth paying attention to them. Since they are a larger problem for American young adults in general, if they are a problem for Latter-day Saint youth, they may be a bigger problem than any particular set of historical factoids.