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My 'Millennials' generation is busy reimagining a life of ethics

The Millennial Generation is less religious than either the boomers or even Gen-Xers were at our age. But don't be misled: Though we may go to church only on Christmas or celebrate Ramadan but skip the fasting, we are busily and earnestly engaged in reimagining the ethical life.

By Courtney E. Martin / December 27, 2011

Young people excel at volunteering. Here, Aqueesha Hill volunteers to take donations for a hurricane Katrina relief fund drive at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville in September 2005.

AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Odell Mitchell Jr./File


New York

I was 6 years old, trudging through the Louvre. Hands in my pockets, I felt the satisfying ridges of the tiny plastic containers of coffee cream that I had smuggled out of our hostel and was using to feed stray cats. I stood before yet another painting of the Crucifixion, hung so that the bottom of the gilded frame was just at my eye level, and loudly informed my mom who was trailing a few paintings behind, "There's that guy with his foot problem again."

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Needless to say, I didn't exactly grow up "in the church," as my mom and her mom before her did. I may have been short on theology but had plenty of moral instincts.

As it turns out, I'm not an anomaly. According to multiple recent studies, a quarter of Millennials (born in 1982 through 2003) are completely unaffiliated with any religion.

We are less religious than either the boomers or even Gen-Xers were at our age. Whereas generations past might have formulated their ethical values from the lessons of formal religious figures – priests, rabbis, imams – we are far less connected to them and, at the same time, have come of age during the great disintegration of institutions. Everything once anointed – from the nuclear family to Wall Street, from Penn State football to the Roman Catholic Church – has fallen, not on our watch, but as we were watching.

What looms largest now are not the seven deadly sins passed down from on high but our social networks and shifting ideas about "the ethical life" – bubbling up from pop culture, rancorous media and political debates, and 140-character fables, more commonly known as tweets.

As the world has gotten smaller, competing moral narratives have gotten louder and, it seems to me, more confusing. Is it abominable to buy an iPhone that may have been built by the hands of an underpaid 14-year-old in Shenzhen, China, or is the economic opportunity actually helping her family work toward a better life? Are microlenders savvy altruists, teaching people "how to fish," or are they greedy loan sharks preying on the poor? Are face-covering veils a source of relief and respect for Muslim women or a source of separation and subjugation?


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