I was thrilled this morning to see the work of one of my favorite academics, Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, at the center of David Brooks’s column today. Smith’s latest book, “Lost in Transition,” sounds like an extension of his earlier academic work on the spiritual lives on young Americans, in which he and his co-author coined the brilliant term “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” to describe the religion most young Americans actually practice. Brooks summarizes the new book’s findings on the moral lives of young American adults:
In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.
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,” 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.
The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”
Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”
Interestingly, this is precisely what James Arthur and his research team found among urban underclass English youth they surveyed back in 2007. The Muslim peers of these teenagers were different. Here’s Prof. Arthur:
We live in a society — and both Labour and Conservative governments bear some responsibility for this — that provides an environment in which children are much more sensitive about their rights, but less about their duties. So they have a very weak base for the values of civil society. In fact, many of them lack a moral language to discuss moral questions, because they don’t have the kinds of traditions, such as religion, in order for them to discuss these matters. So religion becomes less important to them, because through the secularization process, they’re losing touch with the moral traditions of society. No government or other secular tradition, has been able so far to replace the Judeo-Christian moral tradition.Muslim children grow up with the language of morality and virtue provided to them by their religious tradition. They can at least discuss these concepts, because they have the language for it. Many of the white children in my studies throughout England identified themselves as Christian, but what they meant was: ‘I’m white and I’m English.’ They’re using Christianity as a label for something they see as superior. It has nothing to do with real Christianity.
Similarly, Smith’s earlier work into the spiritual lives of younger Americans (work I was first introduced to via the indispensable Mars Hill Audio Journal, which I can’t recommend highly enough) finds that “real Christianity” is an endangered species, though in a somewhat different way. Christianity doesn’t serve young Americans who profess it in the same way it does the English underclass (as a form of weak tribal identity), but rather as what Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” – a pseudo-religion in which God is conceived as a cross between a butler and a therapist, always on call to help and to comfort, but making no demands other than that one behave with niceness towards others and does what one needs to do to feel happy and well-adjusted. Smith and co-author Melinda Lundquist Denton write that MTD may look like it facilitates tolerance and smooth social relations, but in fact it leaves young people moral cripples, unable to think in moral terms about right and wrong, much less to act according to firm moral principles.
It’s interesting that Brooks offers no solution to this crisis. I’m not faulting him for this in the least. The problem is so huge that it defies a pundit’s easy prescription. I certainly don’t have a clear idea how to solve it. But I have an idea about what we need to be thinking about toward a solution.You may ask: why is it a crisis? After all, these young adults are well-behaved and nice to each other. What’s not to like? The main problem is that the social tranquility is only apparent, a facade masking profound internal weakness. What happens if the conditions that make life in our Yankee consumerist paradise go away? If, say, we have another Great Depression, which we all know is by no means a far-fetched thing? What resources will people have to fall back on to teach them how to think and to act? If all they have are their feelings, then we’re in very bad shape.
You begin to see, perhaps, why Robert Nisbet called the loss of community “the towering problem of the age.” People learn right and wrong not only from their parents, but from their communities. If they are detached from a strong community (religious or otherwise), they will likewise be detached from the primary source of moral values and reasoning. Notice that Arthur found so striking that Muslim youth, thanks to their strong families and membership in a community that takes its religion seriously, have a vocabulary and a framework for moral engagement. The crucial point here isn’t that the Muslim kids believe differently than their non-Muslim peers; it’s that they can think through moral questions at all.
This is the main takeaway from Brooks column today: not that young Americans aren’t decent people, but that they are incapable of serious moral engagement with big questions. This is the point of decay to which our pluralistic, secularistic culture has taken us.
Interestingly, Nisbet attributes moral decline via the decline of community in part to the final playing out of the logic of Protestantism. From “The Quest for Community”:
“When the relations between man and God is subjective, interior (as in Luther) or in timeless acts and logic (as in Calvin) man’s utter dependence upon God is not mediated through the concrete facts of historical life,” writes Canon Demant. And when it is not so mediated, the relation with God becomes tenuous, amorphous, and insupportable.
… Man’s alienation from man must lead in time to mans’ alienation from God. The loss of the sense of visible community in Christ will be followed by the loss of the sense of the invisible. The decline of community in the modern world has as its inevitable religious consequence the creation of masses of helpless, bewildered individuals who are unable to find solace in Christianity regarded merely as creed. The stress upon the individuals, at the expense of the churchly community, has led remorselessly to the isolation of the individuals, to the shattering of the man-God relationship, and to the atomization of personality.
In Nisbet’s account, people who start by believing man’s relationship to God doesn’t need to be mediated by the church (which is to say, the community of believers) end up believing in a religion that is merely propositional, and which, in time, evaporates to nothingness. If a religion is to endure, it has to be embodied in the concrete fact of a community. In a later post, or posts, I will be blogging about “Religion in Human Evolution,” a terrific and hugely important new book by another great American sociologist of community, Robert Bellah. (Note to David Brooks: Read Bellah’s book!). For now, let me mention that Bellah demonstrates how religion has to be embedded within a community to teach morals (and indeed we learn morality from the stories our communities tell and the practices they enact; “practice is prior to belief and … belief is best understood as an expression of practice,” he writes. A religion that becomes disembodied from a community and its ritual practices become a philosophy, at best. This is why I find the rise of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd among young Americans, as Bob Putnam and David Campbell’s work has documented, to be so dispiriting. Far from being encouraging (“Look, young Americans are still holding on to religion!”), it is highly discouraging, because this kind of religion is a ghost that will be dispelled by a gentle breeze.
But I digress. As usual.
Anyway, today’s Brooks column, and, in turn, Smith’s work, gets at why I have so much anxiety about community and morals, such that I’m overseeing the partial withdrawal of my own children into a community — Christian homeschoolers — where moral language is thick (as the sociologist Michael Walzer would put it — this, as opposed to the “thin” level of moral discourse general in our society), and the children get a strong moral grounding in the Christian tradition through instruction in and commitment to a religious and moral narrative shared by this particular community. The moral egalitarians call this elitism, and I guess it is, of a sort — but I don’t apologize for that. My No. 1 mission in this world is to protect and nurture my children, and that means helping them to become the kind of adults who are faithful to God within our tradition, and who have a strong moral formation with which to make their way through the world. I do not want my children to grow up to be moral cripples of the sort Christian Smith identifies — men and women who don’t have any idea how to think about right and wrong beyond their own feelings, and a compulsion to be nice. I want my kids to know in their bones the stories of our tradition, and they cannot get that simply from listening to their mother and me. They — we — need a community to achieve this, and not just any community. I’m with Caitlin Flanagan, who wrote:
The “it takes a village” philosophy is a joke, because the village is now so polluted and so desolate of commonly held, child-appropriate moral values that my job as a mother is not to rely on the village but to protect my children from it.
This — and you knew I was going to get to this — is the testimony of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, whose book “After Virtue” argued that we are now living in a time of moral incoherence. The old stories and symbols no longer work, but we have replaced them with nothing. Every man is his own pope, which means anarchy. We are coasting on the accumulated moral habits of countless generations past, but this cannot hold indefinitely. If right and wrong are seen by society as being simply a matter of personal opinion — a stance MacIntyre calls “emotivist” — then society has arrived at a state of barbarism. The condition of barbarism, at least seen philosophically, is one of anarchy and rootlessness, in which one has no direction because one does not know where one comes from, and one does not perceive that there is any particular place to go.
MacIntyre argues that traditions live or die by “the exercise or lack of exercise of the relevant virtues,” in part by sustaining the relationships necessary for those virtues to be lived out. The loss of this community, he argues, is catastrophic for our civilization. In fact, he likens the present day to the last days of the Roman Empire, and says “our lack of consciousness” of this “constitutes part of our predicament.” MacIntyre looks forward to “a new — and very different — St. Benedict” to appear among us to help establish communities where the virtues can be embodied and embedded amid the darkness.
Nisbet, writing in 1953, also likens the atomization of the current age to the fall of Rome, and says: “Where there is widespread conviction that community has been lost, there will be a conscious quest for community in the form of association that seems to promise the greatest moral refuge.”
MacIntyre is correct that a big part of our problem is that people are misled by the niceness (as pleasant as that is) of people into misreading the lack of defenses our society has against anarchy. A smaller but still significant part of the problem is that people imagine that the only alternative is to head for the hills and stockpile tuna and ammo. There is a middle ground. The task of traditionalist conservatives is to think hard about how to form these neo-Benedictine communities (“Benedictine” not in the literal Roman Catholic monastic sense, but in the MacIntyrean sense), not as utopian communities, but as a practical and sane response to the soft barbarism of contemporary society, to which the Brooks column attests.
Is this a solution? I don’t know. I’ve been mulling this over for years now, and I can’t see how to get from where we are now to where we need to be. If you have any ideas, let’s hear them. Or if you have a better idea for forming associations that “promise the greatest moral refuge” than what I call the Benedict Option, I’m all ears.
UPDATE: A reader points to this thoughtful comment from James K.A. Smith, who is critical of Smith’s position. Excerpt:
More importantly, appreciating this point–that behavior and action (which are surely the most relevant measures if one is talking about “morality”) are often driven by unconscious habits and desires–generates a very different response to the problem. Smith, ever-the-evangelical (despite his recent conversion to Roman Catholicism), still tends to think that what these young people need is more teaching–more religious “instruction” in doctrines, beliefs, and moral standards. But Brooks’ own argument in The Social Animal should lead us to suspect that this would be an insufficient response. What is really needed is the education of their loves, and that, as Brooks himself knows, takes practice: it takes the ethos of a community with embodied rituals and practices that inscribe virtue–not just the intellectual capacity to parse some moral dilemma, but the wants that pull us toward ends that are good (see The Social Animal, pp. 111-112).
I take James Smith’s point, but isn’t it also true that if young people aren’t raised to know what virtue is, they can’t be taught to love it? I mean, if these kids believe that the habits and beliefs they endorse are mere preferences, and that there’s no way to say why loving A is more or less reasonable than loving not-A, then aren’t they on just as shaky ground as they would be if their commitment to virtue was only in their heads, not in their habits? I don’t think it’s necessary for a person to have to give an exhaustive account of why lying is wrong in order for that belief to be ingrained in their hearts, and directive of their conduct. But if a person has no sense that the moral law “lying is wrong” is connected to something beyond personal preference, then his allegiance to that law is tenuous.