Souls in Transition
By Christian Smith, with Patricia Snell
Oxford University Press
355 pages, $24.95)
The Fate of the Spirit
The wobbly religious lives of young people emerging into adulthood.
College professors have been complaining about their students since the beginning of time, and not without reason. But in the past several years more than 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.
If you want to get a sense of why this might be so, look no further than "Souls in Transition," by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith. Examining the data from his vast longitudinal National Study of Youth and Religion, "Souls" uses statistics and face-to-face interviews to paint a picture—not necessarily a pretty one—of the moral and spiritual lives of 18- to 24-year-olds in America.
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."
Read entire article on the Wall Street Journal website.