Jane (not her real name) agreed to meet with Christian Smith for an interview because she needed the incentive money offered for the interview to finance a trip she had planned that weekend. Smith was working on his newest book, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, follow-up research on his earlier work, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Soul Searching targeted young people 13-17 years old, while the recent study tracked 18-23 year-olds.
Not yet 20, Jane is already divorced, a mother and a recovering drug addict. Her parents divorced when she was young, and her mother suffered a debilitating aneurism when Jane was only 12. She has had to serve as a part-time caregiver, not only to her mother, but also to her grandmother, who lives with them.
Jane’s first encounter with marijuana came at age 11 and she drank alcohol for the first time at age 12. By age 14, she was smoking marijuana regularly along with cigarettes. By age 17, she had advanced into a heavy drinker. She adds to the list of drugs she has consumed, “I’ve tried coke, morphine, heroin, Lortem, Xanax, Klonopin, crack, meth. When I was 15 I did it for the first time. When I was 16, I did meth for a couple of months, and then I never have done it again.”
While she was on a three-month alcohol binge at 17, she met her ex-husband, Nick, and got pregnant while she was drunk. When she realized that she was pregnant, she gave up alcohol and hard drugs for her baby. (She still smoked pot because she did not consider it harmful.)
Jane dropped out of high school in tenth grade. “That happens a lot around here, we have a very high rate of dropouts.” She worked at the Dairy Queen for a brief time. Now she earns money by providing a taxi service to her friends, who pay her for rides. Regretting her decision, she took the GED and scored so high that she won a $3,000 scholarship to the school of her choice.
Sexually active at the age of 13, Jane has lived with six different men. After dating Nick for a short while, he gradually moved in with Jane at her mother’s house, with reluctant approval. They got married after Jane became pregnant, moving back and forth between their parents’ houses.
Nick became abusive. It began with a slap, pulling her hair or twisting her ear. It progressed to choking her until she passed out, which became a recurrent practice. She would leave him, but always came back. A counselor she talked with reported Nick and the state took their infant son away. Jane filed a restraining order against Nick.
Jane’s life revolves around regaining custody of her son, Ben. She entered a drug rehab program, after failing a drug test. She divorced Nick because the state required it, in order to regain custody of her son. She has not pursued college or the scholarship because she has devoted herself to navigating the legal maze of the child welfare system.
Jane still has difficulty sorting through her life. Since losing Ben, she lived with another man for a couple of months, with whom she still hangs out occasionally. And she continues to meet with Nick, although they must be covert about it, since it violates the state’s terms for recovering Ben. She admits that they had been drinking margaritas at the restaurant the night before the interview. The tragic irony is not lost on Smith.
Smith probes to understand Jane’s moral base. Her grandmother took her to church twice when she was young, but she has no real knowledge of religion. She does pray, but she does not know to whom she makes her petitions, asking to get Ben back. All of her friends are like her. When Smith asks what she thinks about religion, she replies, “Who cares, really? Not relevant. I never pay attention to churches really at all.” She admits a willingness to give her life to God, if it would mean getting custody of Ben, but she would not know where to start.
When Smith asks about morality, Jane responds, “I think I have a pretty good sense of what’s right or wrong. I think I just picked it up along the way more than anything.” So Smith asked if she considered it easy or hard to do the right thing. “It’s easy. I don’t like to do wrong because I believe in karma…. I’ve always believed in karma, because I can remember times when I’ve done the wrong thing and lots of bad things have happened.”
How does Jane determine what is right or wrong? “I guess it’s all in my head, whatever I happen to justify….” And how does she decide about what to do when she is uncertain or confused? “Whatever situation I’d be in, whatever decision that would make me happy, that’s what I would go for.”
“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” Judges 21:25. Jane illustrates the moral climate when there is no moral lawgiver or judge. You comply with human legal systems when it is convenient or inescapable. If the law gets in the way of your moral code (your happiness), you use stealth to avoid the law.
Although Jane does not represent all emerging adults, Smith found that the percent of those who identify themselves as nonreligious went from 14 percent among 13-17 year-olds to 27 percent among 18-23 year-olds. In only five years, the number of irreligious people nearly doubled in this age group. The trend should concern all of us.
“And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” Romans 10:14