Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism

In Sunday morning's message I mentioned "moralistic, therapeutic deism." This terminology comes from sociologist Christian Smith. A couple years ago he published a major study of the religious lives of American teenagers entitled Soul Searching which I found to be fairly accurate.

Here is what Smith has to say about teenage (and also adult) religion in the U.S.

Here we attempt to summarize our observations by venturing a general thesis about teenage religion and spirituality in the United States. We advance our thesis somewhat tentatively as less than a conclusive fact but more than mere conjecture: we suggest that the de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers is what we might call "Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism." The creed of this religion, as codified from what emerged from our interviews, sounds something like this:
1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die. (pp. 162-3)

Smith goes on to list key aspects of this de facto religion.
First, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. (163)
MTD [my abbreviation] is, second, about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents. This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one's prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God's love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etcetera. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people. (163-4)
Finally, MTD is about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one's affairs - especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved. (164)

What does Smith conclude from all this?

...It appears that only a minority of U.S. teenagers are naturally absorbing by osmosis the traditional substantive content and character of the religious tradition to which they claim to belong....[A] significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity's misbegotten stepcousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. It is not so much that U.S. Christianity is being secularized. Rather more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith. (171)

There is a great deal we can learn from here, but the major lesson I want to mention here is that we must be relentlessly biblical in building a culture of faithfulness. It is all too easy to maintain the trappings of Christianity while losing the substance. And this leads me to another application for Christian parents. Do not rear your children according to the world and pop Christianity. You may well produce nice, happy children who do not know God. Let's remember Deuteronomy 6:4-9!

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