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."
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?
Meanwhile, social media have made us more aware of tragedies at ever-greater speeds and among ever-widening circles. How does a teenager in Topeka, Kan., respond to the news that 68,000 people have just died in an earthquake in China? Our Facebook friends provide mini-morality plays 24 hours a day: If my classmate posts a status of "we are Troy Davis" – executed in Georgia in September despite a mass campaign about his innocence – does that mean I am Troy Davis, too? If #reasonstobeatmygirlfriend trends on Twitter, as it did just a couple of months ago, does that mean domestic violence has really been normalized? Should I care, or is this just a blip of mindless venting?
And yet, with ever more complicated ethical knots to untangle, it seems we've never had so few formal tools. For instance, fewer young Americans rely on Scripture as a way to understand what we are reading, watching, and experiencing on a daily basis. Instead, as columnist David Brooks posits, we are "social animals," constructing modern-day moral codes from a wide variety of source materials.
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.
Life-guiding beliefs and the behavior that grows out of them, contrary to some doomsday lamentation, are not dying. In fact, Millennials volunteer at higher rates than any generation in history.
In poll after poll, they express a deep desire to make the world a more just place. The notion of service – once defined by established charities, Sunday schools, and academic credit – is beginning to grow up and move outside institutional walls. It is being infused with a sort of rogue authenticity and independence.
J.K. Rowling superfans empower one another to apply themes from her books to real life – donating money, fighting bullying, and the like – through the Harry Potter Alliance. Young urbanites with small earnings pack rowdy source-funding dinners for artistic projects and call them FEAST. Business school graduates pioneer business models whereby one trendy pair of eyeglasses can buy someone both the cache of cool and a surge of altruistic serotonin: For every pair of glasses purchased from Warby Parker, the company invests in small vision businesses abroad.
Our moral imaginations, it seems, are being formed on new frontiers – in collaborative working spaces and online while watching TED talks and/or getting involved in microfinance projects at Kiva or Kickstarter.
But this increasingly online life is not without its perils. Dr. Katie Davis is collaborating with legendary educator Howard Gardner to study young people's ethics online. In a recently published article, she notes how difficult it is to monitor the many selves that individuals present online – and their many audiences.
Some scholars, she explains, contend that "multiplicity, when taken too far, can pose risks to self and others if one's identities are not bound by an organizing influence."
As my generation's connection to the "organizing influence" of religion grows frayed, where do we look for guidance? For grace? How do we leverage all the incredible new tools for ethical action that the Internet provides without having our compass thrown off course by corrosive and fragmenting forces?
Religion, after all, has served as much more than just a primer on ethical ideas and actions. It has also been a source of spiritual growth, a construct within which people nurture the inner self and its relationship with the divine. It can be strangely hard to locate a definitive inner self among all the avatars in our lives these days, much less distinguish between salespeople and wisdom figures, self-help and wisdom, the shiny and the sacred.
Even if many Millennials don't identify with an organized religion, we still, at base, hunger for a spiritual source.
Which is all to say, not that the youngest Americans are lost, but that we are searching for new ways of understanding who we are, why we are on this Earth at this horribly unjust, incredibly promising time, and what we are meant to do about it. We're not reaching for the old maps, and doubt that they would work even if we did. Instead we've got a solid sense of direction and the reassuring knowledge that every generation before us also inherited a swiftly changing world that demanded ethical ingenuity and spiritual reinvention.
Courtney E. Martin is the author of the new book "Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors" and of "Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists." Read more of her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.