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Nihilism, emotivism, and our Millennial future

Naomi Schaefer Riley reviews the new book by sociologist Christian Smith and his team, “Lost In Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood,” in which Smith and his colleagues analyze findings from the National Survey of Youth and Religion to assess the moral and spiritual views of today’s young adults (N.B., the next life phase of the teenagers Smith et al. once identified as Moralistic Therapeutic Deists). According to Riley, it’s a pretty grim picture of what happens when you raise a generation to think that their own feelings are the only guide to truth and the good life. Excerpt from Riley’s review:

This sort of conversation—typical of what the interviewers call the “apathetic” segment of the population—happened in more than a quarter of the interviews. Another 13 percent are dubbed “uninformed.” Their answers were very similar to those of the apathetic, except they barely understood the questions. What’s worse, few young adults expressed the slightest embarrassment that they were so ill informed and unconcerned. In other words, they had no sense that these are things that they should know or care about.

Despite their lack of understanding and interest in the world around them, these emerging adults, Smith and his collaborators insist, are not unintelligent. Rather, the authors argue, no one has taught them to ask questions about morality or to think about what is important in life. Smith and his coauthors blame, at least in part, “the tolerance-promoting, multiculturalist educational project” for some of these problems. In the effort to make the next generation more accepting of other people and other views, they have made the generation accepting of everyone and every view.

This lazybones nihilism is bad on a bipartisan basis, says Riley:

This individualistic relativism is not bad news just for conservatives fighting to preserve traditional moral values, by the way. Liberals will find little support for their causes from this generation. The authors, for instance, expected at least some emerging adults to express concern about environmental issues or dependence on foreign oil—many of them were college students, after all—but almost nothing in the responses suggests that the green messages had made an impression.

More broadly, “few emerging adults,” they report, “expressed concerns about the potential limits or dilemmas involved in a lifestyle devoted to boundless material consumption. Most are either positive or neutral about mass consumer materialism.” Indeed, when they were asked separately about the most important things in life, material goods typically topped the list.

See, this is why I said in an earlier post (“The hope depression“) that I am pessimistic about whether or not we Americans, broadly speaking, have the internal wherewithal to withstand a new Great Depression. Can you imagine most Americans, whether on the left, right, or in the middle, in the 1930s having such an attitude? What happens to a generation that believes in nothing more than consumerism and sexual autonomy?


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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