Morality of Emerging Adults

Morality of Emerging Adults December 6, 2012

If there is any one go-to thinker about the faith and morals of America’s young adults or emerging adults, it has to be Christian Smith. About a year ago his team (with Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog) produced Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging AdulthoodSmith’s books have been important contributions in sketch the faith and morals of young adults, and this one takes on five moral issues — morality, consumerism, intoxication, sexuality, and civic and political disengagement. Their study narrows the scope of “emerging” adulthood (the major identifier of this group is Jeffrey Arnett) to 18-23, and not up to 28 or 30. So their field is a bit narrower than “emerging” adults but their study is worthy of very serious engagement.

What do you think of the idea of being morally adrift or lost instead of morally corrupt? How has the current adult world failed emerging adults?

Big idea: emerging adults don’t reason well morally and their parents, teachers, and pastors have failed to model and teach them how to reason morally. There is a learned and indoctrinated blindness to morality in our culture. Tolerance of others is not moral reasoning; it is often the absence of moral reasoning. We will have to fight uphill to discover the obvious (Charles Taylor). Emerging adults are morally lost, not morally corrupt; they are morally adrift.

Emerging adults are, then, morally adrift. 60% of emerging adults are strongly individualistic in morality. That is, a moral decision is a personal choice and individual decision, and it is up to each person and one ought to respect the moral choices of others. The posture is “I’m not going to tell others what to do.” While they nod to influences — parents, teachers, etc — the predominant idea is that one makes one’s own moral choices. It is wrong to judge the moral decisions of others. Some are moral realists (there is something morally right but they choose) and others moral relativists (they choose and that makes it right).

Which leads to a second area: individualism is followed by some emerging adults being moral relativists. 30% of emerging adults are moral relativists.

On the sources of moral reasoning … they find weak thinking, unsustainable patterns of thought at work for too many emerging adults. A substantial minority violate their own moral beliefs if it works to their advantage. The majority do not refer to moral traditions or authorities, or to religious or philosophical ethics to make moral decisions. They more or less make decisions on the basis of what makes them happy or helps them get ahead in life. And most cannot engage intelligently in a moral dilemma.

Smith then stands for a big idea: “the adult world… has done an awful job when it comes to moral education and formation” (60). How so? “Moral individualism and relativism are simply intellectually impossible and socially unsustainable positions” (60).

Emerging adults are lost because the adult world forming them is also lost. One major area: there is a distinction between “objectively real moral truths or facts and people’s human perceptions or understandings of those moral truths or facts” (61). Slavery is either wrong or not wrong, it is not just perceived to be wrong or not wrong.

He points to the Marx observation that ruling ideas emerge from ruling institutions. So, we have to think of families and public education. Schools avoid serious moral dilemmas. Smith thinks they deal with problems by ignoring them or avoiding them. [Except for hot-button issues, which often devolves into the absence of moral judgment, pointed criticisms of those with moral judgment and political correctness.] Smith is not arguing that’s what schools should do but what he is arguing is that they should teach students how to reason morally.

Included in this problem is how information comes in — internet and TV, video, etc… where competing narratives abound without moral discernment accompanying them. And what others think of them shapes so much of moral decisions and morality.

Many emerging adults live in a world where very little counts as moral. It is a learned blindness to the moral dimensions of life (66).

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  • Dan

    Big question for me: Can we “get it back?” Can we step up now to instill a Kingdom morality back into a generation?

  • kent

    I was really sruck by this post. So much so I copied the Big Idea and emailed to my congregation for their reactions. (If I have violated some sort of edicate about this site, sorry – my bad.)

    The connection between individualism – which ramoant in our culture – and this moral lostness was spot on in my opinion. Thanks for the posting.

  • Jeff Y

    Good stuff from Smith. I like his writing. And, I agree. It is clear this is an effect of postmodernism. One question one has to ask is where does morality come from? Where do we find it? Who defines it? If our answers are all over the map as to the source, location, etc. then what do we expect young people to do with that? Morality has to have a ground (as C.S. Lewis so ably argued many times over). That ground ultimately has to be in the God of Scripture – if we believe in the resurrection.

    But, fundamental to this problem is that the conservative, fundamentalist-type, moral absolutist-older-adult reaction to this general condition of emerging adults is also flawed. Their response is often, “Let’s go back to the 1950’s and revisit those halcyon days.” That doesn’t work either; that certainty about every issue is what postmodernism helped to debunk (racism is a great illustration – if you were so “good” and “certain” and “right” how is it you were so caught up in oppression?). It is like seeing Athenian relativism and responding with a call to return to Pharisaical traditionalism.

    It will be interesting to see if Smith deals with this latter side of the equation. For me, I think it is a return to the God of Scripture within communities of faith, but in a healthier, more humble, more nuanced perspective (e.g., let’s not just jump to Lev. 18 & 20 for the answers!). But, nevertheless, Jesus – in his own words and through his apostles – had a lot to say about moral (even sexual morality).

  • Jeff Y

    One question I have, Scot, relates to this paragraph:

    “Emerging adults are lost because the adult world forming them is also lost. One major area: there is a distinction between “objectively real moral truths or facts and people’s human perceptions or understandings of those moral truths or facts” (61). Slavery is either wrong or not wrong, it is not just perceived to be wrong or not wrong.”

    Could you expand on this? Maybe I’m slow, but I am not sure how you (or the authors) are using that quote on objectivity and human perceptions – are they/you saying that the quote is “true” or that this is a symptom of the adult world being lost? And, how does the quote about objectivity/perception relate to the last sentence? Sorry for my slowness here, I am just not quite getting the connection in those three sentences.

  • EricW

    Since you brought up Christian Smith again:

    John W. Loftus, author of Why I Became An Atheist and several other books, took on Scot McKnight’s recommendation of Christian Smith and others – John Walton, Peter Enns, etc. – in his blog post of yesterday, saying that Evangelicals are simply rehashing the old Neo-Orthodoxy, but with amnesia:

    It would be interesting to read a response here to Loftus’ blog post.

  • Craig

    This reads as a highly skewed and uncharitable investigation of the moral sentiments, beliefs, and practices of others carried out by folks with an inadequate understanding of the relevant issues.

  • Tracy

    I think I’m as lost as young adults. Do I violate my own moral beliefs? All the time, and I believe that is not some new 21st century development. And if this is the list of concerns Smith addresses: “consumerism, intoxication, sexuality, and civic and political disengagement,” I do not think young adults are employing some “new way of doing morality.” I’ve read Chaucer. The early life of St. Francis. People have always behaved badly, so does this come down to a question of whether they simply “knew better” back then, and now they don’t even accept the moral codes?

    I suspect what really upsets us is that young adults are openly questioning the moral absolutes which people may have mouthed, while they blithely violated them. (See out-of-wedlock birthrates for, really, any period of time.) Another way to say this, perhaps, is that they are less prone to hypocrisy.

    For my part, I look at Jesus and see that he sometimes violated time-worn codes when it appeared that compassion would lead one to behave differently than the codes dictated. I think you can get young adults to think about the grounding of their “situational ethics.” I just don’t think you can as easily get them to say, “x is right because that’s the way I’ve been taught.”

    I think I’d sooner have a conversation with a group of young adults about what it means to “love their enemies” than a group of older church members who are happy with a morality that confirms their middle-class life choices.

  • Adam

    This statement is absolutely true. “Emerging adults are lost because the adult world forming them is also lost.”

    Because “A substantial minority violate their own moral beliefs if it works to their advantage.”

    I’m 29 and I would say I have a more consistent moral reasoning than either my parents or grandparents. The article yesterday about Ted Haggard and grace is excellent proof that most of the adult world violates it’s own moral beliefs if it works to their advantage.

  • Luke Allison

    Tracy # 7

    That’s an excellent engagement of the book. I’m not at all comfortable referring to younger people as morally “lost”.

  • Adam

    @EricW #5

    The article you linked seems to have a definite bias. I don’t have time to really analyse it but here’s a sentence from somewhere in the middle.

    “As I said, theology evolves. It’s what we would expect to find if there is no truth to it.”

    Replace the word theology with science. Would the author still make this statement? Because science absolutely evolves. Ideas that Newton came up with have been modified, improved, or even discarded. Reality and the actual laws of nature haven’t changed since Newton’s time but our understanding of it has. So, if our understanding has evolved can we really say there’s no truth to it?

    And then he makes a comment like this:

    “What they fail to understand, because they are young, is that their views would have caused them to be booted from the pulpits of churches and the lecture halls of seminaries across the land in the previous generation.”

    And fails to understand that the pulpits and lecture halls that he refers to are just as fallible. He fails to understand that much of “his christianity” started to come into existence in the 1500s. That leaves a lot of years of christianity that just gets written off. To me, the author is falling into his own trap. He set his own “golden era”, decided he found “the answer” and quit trying.

  • John Mark

    I never heard of John Loftus until today. I am intrigued by him and by this post and the comments because I have a son who believes in agnostic theism, and has been influenced by the new popular atheism, and especially the late Christopher Hitchens. I explored Loftus’ site: he is obviously bright and educated. I found it interesting that his background is Church of Christ–I consider them pretty much fundamentalist, almost a sect (in my admittedly limited knowledge of their theology), with their rejection of the Old Testament.
    I would be interested in any other responses to Loftus’ argument here. It seems to me that what we are seeing is what one theologian called a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ by conservative evangelicals/fundamentalists, a falling away from the faith as we near the end of the age–this in connection with Dispensational theology, of course…..
    I’m sorry for seeming to hijack this thread, but this is a very personal and somewhat painful issue to me, because of where my son is intellectually and morally.

  • EricW

    @Adam 10:

    Of course the article has a definite bias; the author is a former Christian now atheist.

    However, he makes some interesting comments re: how Evangelical theology has “evolved” and how Evangelicals appear to be embracing what in the last century would have been regarded as dangerous doctrines and a betrayal of Evangelicalism. I don’t think your arguments and objections are engaging with what Loftus is saying.

  • John Mark

    One more comment, with apologies… you Scot, or the readers of this thread believe apologetics-as it seems to be formulated and practiced today-has any real value? Certainly the church has defended the faith throughout history. I wonder, though, if what we need more than ever is a real move of the Spirit?

  • Luke Allison

    Dr McKnight,

    Since you teach at a seminary and have taught at colleges, have you found this information to be true? Have you noticed a difference in today’s young people vs the young people of twenty years ago? I’m 31, and things are “same as it ever was” for me, to quote a great songwriter.

    One thing that can’t be denied is that crime has decreased in America overall. Sure, young people may not be able to articulate why they believe what they believe in every case, but can the previous generations really claim any kind of moral high ground? I mean….really, we’ve only been officially treating black people as equals in America for about 40 years…and that’s just “officially.” Some people from “the greatest generation” I know, who constantly decry the constant lack of manners and morality amongst young people are officially on record as stating that people with mental disabilities should be rounded up and put into a camp somewhere. Also that they hate black people, and Mexican people, and pretty much anybody who isn’t their family.

    So….I guess morality is kind of hard to pin down…

  • Adam

    @EricW 12:

    I’ll try to be more clear.

    Many of the “new ideas” that are being believed today can be found in ancient church history. Up to the 4th century, Universalism was still a common belief. After the 4th century, that belief got the ax. If the “evolution” of belief is a terrible thing, then the beliefs of last century are more wrong and the change Loftus sees is actually a return to an older belief system. So, the “new evangelicalsim” is actually a de-evolution not an evolution. The Evangelicalsim of last century could be called the real evolution and by Loftus’ standards is the one with no truth in it.

    Loftus is implying that only a STATIC religion could be a true religion. Why is this a valid implication? If only the STATIC could be true how could we ever believe in science which is constantly changing and revising? And why is his reference for the static religion based in Reformation ideas? Orthodox can also refer to the Eastern Orthodox church, he certainly doesn’t include that in his reasoning. I know a lot of evangelicals that are modifying their beliefs to be more in line with the Orthodox church.

    Why doesn’t Loftus include the neo-Reformed in his depiction of current evangelicals? The evangelicals he portrays are very different from the neo-Reformed crowd.

    In short, he’s cutting christianity up into pieces that fit his preconceived beliefs. He’s not actually engaging with what’s really out there. His own comment in the comments section “…I largely stopped reading crap about twenty years ago.” I can’t say for sure but it seems like he’s been out of the game for 20 years and is getting all his ideas from reading book titles and not the books themselves.

    This comment is a little disorganized, I don’t have the time to make it more coherent.

  • EricW

    @Adam 15:

    While I agree that the biblicist and less “inerrantist” views aren’t unique to the new wave of Evangelicals, I think Loftus is more pointing out the amnesia and contradictoriness of Evangelicalism re: this, not that what some or many are embracing or promoting is a new thing in church history.

  • Adam


    But who has the amnesia? As I said, much of the “newer evangelicalism” is returning to ideas and beliefs from the pre-reformation days. The evangelicals of last century seem to have forgotten that those beliefs existed, including Loftus himself.

    If Loftus had actually read all the books he cited he would quickly see that all those authors refer to Barth, or refer to Aquinas, or the Desert Fathers. This “new orthodoxy” is clearly aware of where it’s coming from.

    Another interpretation that could be given is, Evangelicalism of the last century had it wrong and did a lot of damage (e.g. Loftus’ bitterness). The “new orthodoxy” is attempting to make repairs for those mistakes.

    That’s just a possible interpretation but the point is to show that last century, in no way, defines all of christian history. We who exist now are free to explore the 2000 years of that history and come to our own conclusions and not be latched to this minor subset called Evangelicalism circa 1850-1950.

  • scotmcknight

    Loftus advising evangelicals is like my advising the new atheists. It’s of little value. BB Warfield was a theistic evolutionist; so this view is not contrary to an evangelical perception of Scripture. This post, though, is not about that topic… let’s return to Chris Smith’s book.

    Luke Allison… Yes, Smith’s sketch — remember he’s not talking about all but a number of them — mirrored my experience with students. Let’s remember this: Smith’s work is some of the finest statistically speaking work we’ve got. I trust his numbers.

  • EricW

    @Adam 17:

    If you disagree with Loftus and/or his arguments, you should probably be posting such comments on his blog post, not here.

    I only posted the link here because the post mentions Scot McKnight and Christian Smith re: the things they write or promote or discuss re: Evangelicalism, and I thought other commenters, as well as Dr. McKnight, might want to read it, and maybe even write a response to it at Jesus Creed.

    I wasn’t intending to discuss or debate or defend or refute the Loftus blog post here, so I really don’t have any more to say about it. It at least piqued John Mark’s interest.

  • Tom F.

    I really enjoy reading Smith, and I think a lot of the stuff he’s done with youth religion on the sociological level is pretty great.

    That said, a big problem with Smith’s analysis here is that moral reasoning is extremely poorly linked with moral action. In psychology, the whole field of moral development, starting with Kohlberg, has continually found that the ability to reason in complex ways about moral issues does not predictably lead to moral actions.

    You can read an excellent review of the empirical literature here by Jonathan Haight.

    As odd as it sounds, it seems as though moral reasoning is a very weak way of encouraging moral action. Which I think explains something that Christian have been unable to explain: why a thorough-going relativism (which I would disagree with) does not actually produce inevitable moral failure in those who hold it. It turns out that moral action is much more about our affections than it is our thinking.

    Smith’s analysis predicts bad things for these emerging relativists. But I wonder if there isn’t a bigger problem on the horizion; most of these relativists will turn out to be fine, because moral action isn’t really about moral reasoning. What will happen to Christians when their biggest argument against relativism, that it will produce a morally bankrupt society, fails to materialize? Consider that possibility: that’s what I’d be worrying about. And it will likely have bigger consequences for Christianity in general than simply having a generation go south morally.

  • Scot, I found this post to be particularly interesting. I like and respect Christian Smith and his work. What he says about moral reasoning and being morally adrift makes sense. I need to get this book.


  • Val

    Tracy #7 great comment!

    Tom F #20 – that is interesting!