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religion and emerging adulthood

A terrific piece by my colleague Chrisian Smith on religon and "emerging adulthood". By this Smith means the decade or so that educated young people take, on average, between the time they leave home and the time they "settle down."

Here's Smith:

A matter related to religious and other beliefs worth pondering concerns emerging adults' social attachments to churches. We have long known that, for a variety of reasons, religious participation for many young people declines significantly when they leave home. Going away to college seems especially likely to kill regular church attendance for most. Historically, marriage and parenthood have then marked the return for many to church and more active faith. Regardless of what one thinks of these facts per se, the following general observation holds. When the space between high school graduation and full adulthood was fairly short, as it was 50 years ago, the length of time spent out of church tended to be rather short. But with the rise of emerging adulthood in recent decades, churches are now looking at 15-year or even 20-year absences by youth from churches between their leaving as teenagers and returning with toddlersif indeed they ever return.

And these are crucial years in the formation of personal identity, behavioral patterns, and social relationships. Returning to church as full-fledged young adults with children in towyet having spent a decade or two forming their assumptions, priorities, and perspectives largely outside of churchthey may very well bring to the churches of their choice motives, beliefs, and orientations difficult to make work from the perspective of faithful, orthodox Christianity. The phrase "consumer-oriented" comes to mind. The burden then placed on the tasks of serious Christian formation, education, and discipleship can be weighty. One has to wonder whether such church returnees may not be shaping the church more than the church shapes them.

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"Going away to college seems especially likely to kill regular church attendance for most."William Perry of Harvard has done studies specifically on the effects of Humanities courses which by design challenge the students' religious beliefs.. He found that students across the board, whether good, midling or poor and at all sorts of colleges, felt threatened by these courses. Many students simply turn off what they are hearing, and many abandon their religious and ethical beliefs and principles. When I taught philosohy in a Catholic college with many fundamentalist students, both Catholic and Protestant, I often found that philosophy was a very disturbing subject for some students, even though they were required to take theology courses which no doubt helped balance the skeptical arguments which of necessity were presented in the philosophy courses. It seemed to me that the non-fundamentalists fared better, though, of course, I don't know what all of them were thinking. If the effects of such challenges range from mildly disturbing to devastating even in a Catholic schools, perhaps more can be done to obviate the students' intellectual distress. Perhaps some philosophy could be offered in the Catholic high schools. I did have a bit in high school for which I was very grateful when I went to a secular college -- at least the challenges came as no surprise to me. Another problem I found (this was years ago) was that some teachers in other Humanities courses (especially English) presented themselves as competent critics of theological positions, when, in fact, they knew little of either philosophy or theology. It also happened with some science teachers, but they were less likely to get into philosophical/theological topics, at least not in class.I might add that when I did take a couple of philosophy courses at the adjacent Jesuit college (this was in the 40's) neither teacher presented any really challenging philosophical arguments of the sort now typically found in both Catholic and secular schools -- the teachers were both card-carrying neo-Thomists. No wonder relatively few of my generation left the Church.

John,Thank you for calling attention to the piece. The last paragraph also deserves noting:"Finally, in considering the challenge of emerging adulthood, another approach that will not do is to project sole blame onto emerging adults themselves or "the culture" as some amorphous Other. If anything, the challenge of emerging adulthood raises hard questions about the extent to which American Christians have bought into the values and commitments of the larger world. How different, really, are American Christians when it comes to assumptions and practices around personal autonomy, money, lifestyle consumerism, self-gratification, and relational commitments? I am not suggesting there are clear and easy answers here. But it is worth remembering that a church that is not much different from the larger culture is going to have little distinctive or helpful to offer that culture when it comes to issues such as those posed by emerging adulthood. By grappling with emerging adulthood, then, we face the opportunity not so much for criticizing and lamenting others as for some good, hard, self-critical reflection and discussion."

I'm not sure I get it. Why is "emerging adulthood" bad? The students I teach in law school, the students I know who go to medical school, are not unproductive members of society--they're getting intense, highly specialized training that they will use for the common good. Furthermore, there seems to to be a gender component to this. It seems like Professor Smith is talking about men, mainly. But over half the people in professional schools now are women--including medical school. Raising small children and the life of a first year intern are frequently incompatible. How many Mormon women doctors are there, anyway?

Perhaps the reason going away to college has such a negative impact on church attendance is that in college, you are taught to think for yourself. While admitting that I know next to nothing about the William Perry study that I presume Ann Olivier is referring to (Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years), it's my understanding that the challenges to students' earlier beliefs are not described as something unfortunate or regrettable, but as an inevitable part of development in going from naive to knowledgeable. If we want our young people to make it through higher education unchallenged and unchanged, perhaps we can find some way to extend high school for four years.Those of us in my Catholic high school who were graduating (1965) and going to "pagan" universities--in my case, Ohio State University--were warned that our faith would be challenged and that we should be prepared to be forced to stand up in college classrooms and be ridiculed in front of the other students for our Catholic beliefs. Nothing even remotely resembling that happened to me (and, I would venture to say, to anybody else).Now, I can relate something that did happen to me at Ohio State, at the Newman Center (I just found their website http://www.thenewmancenter.net/wcms/index.php ). Let me preface this by saying I was in general very impressed by the Paulist Fathers. In any case, one of them (as I recall, he was a visitor, not one of the priests assigned to the Newman Center) gave a sermon that was filled with reference after reference to the Mystical Body of Christ. It made absolutely no sense to me, and I caught him afterward, spoke with him briefly, and then made an appointment to see him. When we met, I said I was baffled by the idea of the Mystical Body of Christ and what he had said in general and asked him to explain what the sermon had meant. I don't remember any of his explanations, but I still didn't understand what he was getting at. I think he became a little frustrated and he said something to the effect that there were catchphrases you had to use (I think he actually used the word "catchphrases," although I won't swear to it), and then, to illustrate how limited our knowledge was, he said they had gone out on a call that afternoon to administer Extreme Unction, and the man was already dead when they arrived. He said, "We don't know whether we were administering a sacrament or putting oil on a slab of meat." That visit was more disconcerting than any course I ever took or any remark by any of my college teachers.

This is far from a new phenomenon. I graduated from a Midwestern Jesuit University in 1962. This past weekend 4 of us from that class got together after many years of not seeing each other. We shared our life stories and all 4 of us had stopped practicing Catholicism for many years. All 4 did return to the faith somewhere in our 30s or slightly later. We all grew up on those wonderful days of absolute 100% certainty on the part of the Church about everything! I guess the challenge to think with which the Jesuits imbued us in those days took hold.It is and has been a rite of passage to take a sabbatical from church, after college is you have been lucky to attend, or sometime in the early 20s from others. The challenge, of course, is for the church to present good, valid, believable reasons for the sojourners to come back. Lately she has been very remiss in that challenge. If the church I came back to looked like the church of today, I would still be on sabbatical.

Prof. Kaveny,Wouldn't the "gender component" here be that a society geared around a looooooong period of "emerging adulthood" is especially bad for women? At least for women who might want to have children at some point. If a man spends several years pursuing education and career -- or just dawdling around -- he easily can have children at age 35+. It's not as easy for women -- fertility goes down, risk of birth defects goes way up, etc.

Actually, I'm not sure there's as much of a problem as Prof. Smith. I think he's way, way too hard on emerging adults--many of whom I know, and teach, and think are very fine people. Tthe structure of his article is this:1. There's a long period of "emerging adulthood."2. Emerging adults don't go to church.3. The Church isn't meeting the needs of emerging adults.So far, so good. Then the article moves to the following claims.1. Emerging adults are morally suspect (selfish, materialistic, etc.) 2. Emerging adults are having SEX--lots of it. .. mmm.3. Tacit claim. . . Emerging adults are well. . . not so good... 4. So. . . .it's the emerging adults that are the problem, not the Church's efforts to minster them.4. Instead of having the church meet the needs of emerging adults, it seems to me that Professor Smith wants to make them full-blown adults FAST.Marry them off. Get them settled. I think the better approach is to recognize that some types of professional training are analogous to the types of training received by priests and nuns--Jesuits, for example. You need to learn to focus on building up your own skills, and yet not be selfish about it.So I think this is an article that simply encourages the Churches to ignore emerging adulthood, to disdain it, rather than to view it as an opportunity to instill patterns of prayer and service that will be important not only then, but also at the other end of active family life--the empty nest syndrome.I think it's very hard to coordinate launching two high pressure vocations. And a marriage and a baby or two or three. Clerkships, medical internships, etc. don' t have a lot of flexibility. So I think, in practice, this recipe for early marriage will be for men pushing the career with a more demanding preparatory track, and women who have more flexibility in their job options.As far as fertility. . . .sure. . . but most people get more stability in their career path by their late 20s or early 30s. Many women at that age can still have children without too much difficulty.Now, it's true they won't have as many children. But that's another article.

Reading this, I thought of Eugene Kennedy's op ed piece in the Chicago Trib after the Bishop's Conference. He felt, for example, that the new Faithful Citizenship, tended to treat Cathoics as children. I fear there is much of that.Getting young or middle aged adults back, after being taught to think for themselves, would seem to require folk being treated as adults and not just told to pray pay and obey.On the other hand, there was an interesting 60 minute piece on young folks in tthe work force being very self centered. While it didl not deal with folk in the helping professions, it indicated a real problem in understanding the community notion we share in the Church.

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About the Author

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.