Among today’s young students, “The strategy for dealing with religious and moral disagreement is: ‘You don’t go there.’”
This was the conclusion reached by sociologist, Christian Smith in his extensive research on the thinking and beliefs of American teenagers (Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers).
Smith noted that young people have a one word response to strongly held religious or moral opinions: “Whatever.”
Is it surprising that when these teenagers became young adults, The Office became one of their favorite television programs? This show takes the ultimate “Whatever” approach to all things political and moral. (More about this in a moment).
How did we get here?
The problem we are up against can be traced to the societal structures that shape young minds. For the past several decades, in the cause of promoting and protecting pluralistic civility in a multi-cultural society, participants in public learning institutions have faced an imposed tolerance requiring them to accept the legitimacy of each person’s moral and religious beliefs and practices.
To help legitimize this strange form of tolerance, truth became something divided between private and public spheres. Moral and religious beliefs were gradually privatized into a sphere irrelevant to daily life in the real world.
Christian young people who spend large amounts of time in public institutions can become increasingly inarticulate with regard to their faith. The unspoken (and sometimes loudly spoken) assumption in these settings is clear: “you don’t go there.”
These young people are being taught to be guarded about beliefs that seem too particular, too exclusive or potentially offensive. After enough years in this learning environment, they begin to lack a capacity to talk about differences in an informed and logical way. The indirect message (and sometimes not so indirect) is that moral argument and constructive engagement over diverse beliefs is risky territory — You don’t go there.
If you offered to train them in the basics of moral argument and logic, they might even question your motives. This kind of training could only lead to exclusive thinking and some form of violation of pluralistic civility. Some might also suspect that you had a imperialistic agenda aimed at oppressing a minority or imposing your politics on others.
To avoid hurt feelings or conflict, young people learn how to avoid particulars and absolutes. They learn to talk about everything in strictly non-offensive ways. This means that if they actually held a moral or religious opinion, they’ll suspend their commitment to it for the “greater good” of avoiding division or hurt feelings.
And moral and religious opinions (they’ve been told) are merely like choosing between chocolate or vanilla—matters of personal taste. Directly and indirectly, our young people are schooled in this mind-set in public learning institutions.
By creating this kind of learning environment for our youth, we have encouraged them to suspend the depth of their commitment to their morals or beliefs (for at least six hours each school day). But at what point could this default position become harmful?
A monolithic culture:
Sadly, what this approach leads to is diversity that we can’t discuss and a monolithic culture—where everyone is forced to conceal the multi-cultural dimensions of society.
Historian Martin Marty suggested that:
“…we are living in the first time in history where Christianity has been boxed into the private sphere and has largely stopped speaking to the public sphere.”
Another noted that,
“This internalization or privatization of religion is one of the most momentous changes that has ever taken place in Christendom.” (Total truth: liberating Christianity from its cultural captivity, Nancy Pearcey, Phillip E. Johnson)
As a result, our lives are often compartmentalized, with our faith firmly locked into the private realm of church and family, where it rarely has a chance to inform life and work in the public realm. The aura of worship dissipates after Sunday, and we unconsciously absorb secular attitudes the rest of the week. We inhabit two separate ‘worlds,’ navigating a sharp divide between our religious life and ordinary life.
It all becomes humor:
I noted at the beginning that when these young people became young adults, The Office became one of their favorite television programs. The characters in this show approach all controversy as fair game for a “Whatever” style of light-hearted humor. Perhaps love for this show should be expected from those who were socially forced to show tolerance and respect no matter what they thought or felt. The only opinion they were permitted was acceptance and affirmation of everyone’s religious, moral or political viewpoints. I am not surprised that they would detox off such a dysfunctional system by using humor as a means of dissent.
An important question:
“How are we (the Church) to better prepare these young people for their college and life experience?”
“A key element is to teach a Christian worldview. As our secular culture becomes more hostile to Christian ideas, it is more difficult to live out our Christian worldview consistently.”
“When the culture was more hospitable to Christian values, a Sunday school understanding of Christianity could survive. Now we live in a culture hostile to those values. A rudimentary understanding of Christianity in such a hostile culture will soon wilt and die.”
“Ministry to young people must be more intentional. Teaching a Christian worldview and training young people in the basics of apologetics are absolutely crucial if their faith is to survive” (Kirby Anderson).
For hopeful perspective, see, A world without windows.
For deeper reflection on tolerance, see, Whatever happened to tolerance?