The spiritual, moral and social needs of our youth today

The spiritual, moral and social needs of our youth today

Talk given on World Religion Day 17 February 2019

1       Introduction

Without proper research available to me, it is difficult to know what are the needs of the youth of today. Therefore my presentation today focuses largely on what I see as spiritual, moral and social challenges faced by the youth of today. This topic is relevant because the “youth is the most socially active part of the population”[1]; and they also have significant economic power. In South Africa we have 29 million consumers between the ages of 15 and 34 and they spend over R100 billion per annum (55% of the spending power).

Who are the youth? A very popular way to discuss different age groupings is to refer to the different generations: Generation X (30-50 years); Generation Y (also known as Millennials – 20-30) and Generation Z (17 and younger).

Generations Y and Z are the children of Generation X, which is the generation with the highest divorce rate in history. Generation X members are the children of the Baby Boomers (50-70 years old). In South Africa, approximately 20% of households are headed by people that are between 25 and 34 years old.

Without doubt one of the main features of Generations Y and Z, and also a large portion of Generation X, is the need to be connected via social media. Independence means the ability to connect. Three-quarters (75%) of Generation Y and Z will check their social media within an hour of waking up.

Another interesting thing about Generation Y and Z is that they are more materialistic and more philanthropic than previous generations. In one study, 60% of Generation Zs want a job that makes a social impact. How they juggle materialism and philanthropy, we will have to wait and see. I think that the philanthropic side has to do with a spirituality that reflects the spirit of all religions, namely to love and care, but that it is less connected to traditional religious streams.

1.1      The spiritual challenge

We live in a secular world order, especially as far as the richer Western society is concerned. South Africa itself is a secular state.

“We have opted for a secular state which is enjoined to observe strict neutrality among religious tendencies. This duty indeed extends to the right not to believe or hold or observe any religion.” (Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke 21 October 2010)

Worldwide, the number of people who would call themselves fully secularist are in the minority. Billions of humans still profess to have some form of faith and many who are not actively involved in traditional religious structures still have a high regard for the holy books of their religions. According to a 2010 study, 74% of South Africa’s population indicated that religion was important to them.[2]

There seems to be a move away from the expectation that the holy books or religions would provide answers to many of the problems of our time; instead, there is a move towards a more spiritualised experience of faith. What satisfies people’s needs is a belief system that is more emotional rather than being rational. In the Christian community in South Africa, as well as other parts of the world, we see people moving away from mainline churches that teaches dogma, towards churches where the emotional satisfaction is higher.

This is understandable. In premodern times religions were used to solve many problems, often unsuccessfully. Religions were used when there were plagues, droughts or floods; almost every priest, preacher, prophet, shaman and guru doubled as a healer. That has changed. Modern and postmodern societies use chemists, entomologists, geneticists, to help in developing stronger pesticides and drought-resistant wheat strains. The hospital has replaced the temple; neurology replaced demonology and antidepressants exorcism (Harari).

The position of science in society today has become so central that the idea of religion has changed, especially the view of religious authority. Many parents will pray and bring an offering for their sick child, but they will also take their child to a doctor or hospital. Only a small minority will turn to only the one or the other.

Religious leaders’ authority is often enmeshed with those who have political power. This means the ability of religious leaders to interpret and understand their traditions in a way that fits in with the political and social theories held by political leaders feeds into what is a mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship. None of the Holy Scriptures, written ages ago, really gives us a clear model on how to deal with the economic, social and political problems of our day.

Unfortunately traditional religions are deeply divided. Religious dogmas, prayers, mantras, rites, rituals, taboos, clothes and ceremonies that keep the Shiites, Sunnis and Orthodox Jews at war with each other. But it is the same beauty of these religiously inspired traditions, which unite people within a specific group and helps to give them both their identity and to distinguish them from others, that also leads to division. Because, more often than not, it leads to a culture of intolerance towards others and a willingness to go to war to protect their own religion and culture.

Although many traditional religions espouse universal values, more often they are part of humanity’s problems rather than offering a remedy since they play a role in cementing national identities that are used to benefit modern forms of nationalism. Not only in the Middle East; but also in the Far East; in the Americas, Africa, and to a lesser extent, in parts of Europe. There certainly are those within traditional religions who reject nationalist tendencies and believe in universal humankind but unfortunately these visionaries do not hold much power.

Where does it leave our young people? In a secular society, and with an understanding that our holy books often don’t have the answers for our time. The challenge for a younger generation is for themselves to try and find a way forward.

Just like the generations before them, some of them will integrate the spiritual into their daily existence. Others will spiritualise everything and create a deep divide between the spiritual and their daily existence. Fortunately, some will reinterpret their traditions and holy books, especially where these create divisions and hatred, and will connect their own spiritual needs with those of others as part of seeking for a deeper spiritual fulfilment. It is our task as an older generation to set the example.

1.2      Morality

Traditionally, there is a close connection between morality and religion. In our time, however, some of us are very aware that this connection can be problematic because of the tendency of religious institutions and their leaders to protect those who are in power or struggling to get power. Religious leaders often support the claims of morality of a specific ideology.

From a critical stance, some of us is of the view that morality does not mean to follow divine commands. Morality means “reducing suffering” (Harari 2018:201). From ancient China to modern Europe the golden rule of “don’t do to others what you would not like them to do to you”, is acknowledged as a basic principle for society to function well. Secular societies can have well-defined values. For instance, secular states like Denmark, France and the Czech Republic are no more violent than devoutly religious countries. Through all the ages, the wish for value systems seems to come naturally.

A younger generation is challenged by the idea to live a moral life based on universally accepted value systems. Surely any religious adherence would only strengthen these values. But the challenge is when your religious community adheres only partially to values of care and compassion. It is at this point that we, from an older generation, can play an important role. We must bring the best from our religious communities to the fore; we must help to interpret the values of our religions for the benefit of all people and the benefit of all species and the earth.

To support a younger generation in their quest for a life of morality we, as an older generation, must be brave in acknowledging the injustices, false truths and violence supported by our religious traditions or parts of our traditions. We must learn from this. We must help to re-interpret our holy scripts where they were used to divide and to support injustices and violence, and must distance ourselves from those parts that do not support value systems that would benefit all people. In my Christian tradition, the Inquisition; the Crusades and the support for the oppression of others stand out. To this day, parts of the Christian tradition support the oppression of women and people who are not heterosexual. It is well known how a part of the Christian tradition in South Africa instigated, supported and justified Apartheid.

1.3      Social needs

1.3.1    The world of work

We have no idea what the job market will look like in 2030 or 2050. Machine learning and robotics will change almost every line of work – everything! This Fourth Industrial revolution will also create jobs, but these will be different types of jobs and those with the ability to retrain and are fast adapters will benefit from that.

The Industrial Revolution created new jobs and the general standard of living improved. We just do not know to what extent this will happen again. Machines used to compete with the raw physical ability and strength of humankind, while humans retained the cognitive edge. In the phase we are in now, machines with the ability to learn, analyse and communicate compete with our cognitive skills, and above all, with an understanding of human emotions.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now beginning to outperform humans in more and more of these skills. It is not a case of machines getting faster, but that machines are now getting smarter. More and more, machines are being used in the life and social sciences. We now understand that what we used to call “human intuition” is actually “pattern recognition”. Machines are getting better and better at pattern recognition. Machines are better adapted to the challenges of the urban jungle while human brain circuits often struggle in the adaptation from the African savannah to the urban jungle. In terms of connectivity and updateability, AI has the ability to outperform humans by far.

“What brain scientists are learning today about the amygdala and the cerebellum might make it possible for computers to outperform human psychiatrists and bodyguards in 2050.” (Harari 2018:21).

The more we allow our younger generation to connect with their own creativity, the more they will be able to face the future of work. As long as we are able to adapt, the future should not be feared. Machines and artificial intelligence are not necessarily enemies, but we need to understand how we can think and do things differently in a different society, one in which we need to create cooperation between humans and machines.

1.3.2    a world of information and data

The growing world order is one of unlimited data and information. The authority of the future has to do with the flow of unlimited information and unprecedented data-processing power. We may be unaware of the fact that the idea of a “free will” is slowly eroding. With the development of wearable biometric sensors, machines will monitor and watch everything we do. These sensors will also monitor all our basic biological processes – blood pressure; sugar level; heart rate; pupil size, and even dominant brain waves. Machines will thus know our desires; what excites us; what makes us anxious; when we are happy or sad. The process is under way to develop software that can detect human emotions based on the movements of our eyes and facial muscles. Along with algorithms, all this information will be used to give us feedback on how to make the best decisions.

Our response may be that we will never allow all of this to happen, but that is easier said than done. Already many of us trust the information Google’s search algorithm gives us. We seldom double check that information with another trustworthy source in the library. For many of us, our decisions are already based on information we sourced from the internet. Once we have experienced artificial intelligence helping us to make career choices and perhaps even relationship choices, our concept of humanity and life will already have started to change. Netflix recommends our movies, Kindle books; Amazon gifts and Google Maps decides whether I should turn right or left. Every day I already absorb countless data bits through emails, tweets, SMSes and WhatsApps. All of this influences my thinking, prejudices and responses.

Our sense-making “meter” of the world is highly influenced by all these pockets of information, many of which just arrives at our door uninvited.

Although many of us will try to argue that algorithms won’t be able to outperform the average human in ethics, even that is not certain, partly also because of the track record we humans have. Already, self-driving cars are being programmed with the ability to take split-second decisions in situations such as where a child is in danger of being hit by the car while there is also a truck in the oncoming lane. The only way to avoid hitting the kid is to swerve into the opposite lane, creating the risk of colliding with the truck. Statistically, in this situation, we know that there is a 70% chance that one of the passengers in the car will die.

We know that in times of crisis, people often forget their philosophical views and merely react instead of thinking about all the pro’s and con’s. We use our emotions and not our philosophical ideals to make decisions. Computer algorithms follow ethical guidelines much better than humans. How successful are we going to be in coding ethics into precise numbers and statistics? Well, in the future, that is the context in which the younger generation will have to make decisions.  

2       Summary

The challenges of our time and of the future will require a younger generation to live with much greater awareness of what is going on around them. We should allow them to be critical thinkers and to be creative. They should be aware that even religion is not always practiced for the benefit of all humans, all species and the earth. That not all information will stand the test of time.

In my experience, our younger generation has the ability and the quest for life to take on the future with all its challenges, even if we neglect to prepare them for it.

3       Sources

Harari, Yuval Noah 2018. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Kahneman, Daniel 2011. Thinking Fast and Slow

Schwab, Klaus 2016. The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Frederik B O Nel (February 2019)

Word Count: 2482


[1] Tatyana Strunkina, Elena Shmeleva, Viacheslav Okeansky, Zhanna Okeansky and Anzhela Romanova. 2016. Sociocultural Needs of Young People as a Resource for the Formation of National Identity. SHS 28 shsconf/201628010 RPTSS 2015. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0

[2] Schoeman W J 2017. South African religious demography: The 2013 General Household Survey. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies ISSN: (Online) 2072-8050, (Print) 0259-9422

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