By NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY College professors have been complaining about their students since the beginning of time, and not without reason. But in the past several years more that 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.
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The Country Today/Associated Press Teens gather at a worship ceremony in Green Bay, Wis.
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."
By contrast, young religious people have been made to think seriously and speak publicly about Big Questions from a young age. They do believe in a reality "out there" that can be studied and apprehended. Their answers to the study's questions are crisper and surer than those of their nonreligious counterparts. Amanda, a young woman from a conservative Christian denomination, tells her interviewer: "First and foremost, I believe that there is a God who is all-powerful and all-knowing, who created the whole universe. I believe what the Bible says about him."
The core of reality for students like Amanda is of course religious, but their belief in the very possibility of a nonrelativistic truth may well give a boost to their classroom seriousness, not to mention their verbal clarity.
But Amanda is unlike most members of her generation. Emerging adults in America, Mr. Smith says, are "the least religious adults in the United States today." Only about 20% attend religious services at least once a week, a 22% decline from Mr. Smith's survey, five years ago, of the same group of young people.
In the absence of any firm religious belief or clear idea of morality, many of the study's subjects have decided that "karma" is the best way to make sense of the universe. By this term they mean that, as Mr. Smith puts it, "good attitudes and behavior will be rewarded in this life and bad will get what it deserves too." The gist seems to be: "What goes around comes around." As one student says: "Karma's a bitch."
It had better be, because there is apparently not much else motivating nonreligious young adults toward charitable behavior. As Mr. Smith summarizes: "Any notion of the responsibilities of a common humanity, a transcendent call to protect the life and dignity of one's neighbor or a moral responsibility to seek the common good, was almost entirely absent among the respondents."
Souls in Transition
By Christian Smith, with Patricia Snell
(Oxford, 355 pages, $24.95)
Read an excerpt
Mr. Smith concedes that the young people interviewed in his study don't appear to be "dramatically less religious than former generations of emerging adults." It is traditionally a stage in life when, without parental guidance or child-rearing responsibilities, religious ties are loosened. But the period of emerging adulthood—between young people leaving home and their marrying and setting up a home of their own—is growing longer these days, because people marry later and remain financially dependent on their parents well into their 20s. The time without steady religious observance is thus prolonged as never before.
And the costs could be high. Not only does religion concentrate the mind and help young people to think about moral questions, it also leads to positive social outcomes. Religious young people are more likely to give to charity, do volunteer work and become involved with social institutions (even nonreligious ones). They are less likely to smoke, drink and use drugs. They have a higher age of first sexual encounter and are less likely to feel depressed or to be overweight. They are less concerned with material possessions and more likely to go to college.
So why are most emerging adults so morally unmoored and religiously alienated? Mr. Smith suggests that religious institutions haven't done a very good job at educating kids in even the most basic tenets of their faiths. And religious parents often shirk their duties, too, perhaps believing the "cultural myth" that they have no influence over their children once they hit puberty. Mr. Smith has found, to the contrary, that, when it comes to religious faith and practice, "who and what parents were and are" is more likely to "stick" with emerging adults than the beliefs and habits of their teenage friends.
Oddly, most of the respondents in Mr. Smith's study, despite their own drifting away from religious belief, say that they expect to be more observant when they reach full adulthood and that they plan to rear their own children in their faith tradition. One young college student who spends a lot of time drinking and smoking pot tells her interviewer: "I think you should give them that, kind of rear them in some religious direction."
—Ms. Riley is the Journal's deputy Taste editor.