“Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”

I’m finally getting around to reading the book from which that characterization comes, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton.  It is about the single most helpful description of both religious youth and adults in this country (though, as the title indicates, the book is about the religion of youth in the United States).  If you haven’t read it (yet!), here’s the salient section, so far:

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 well call “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”  The creed of this religion, as codified from what emerged from our interviews, sounds 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.

First, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life.  It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person.  That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one’s health, and doing one’s best to be successful. … Such a moral vision is inclusive of most religions, which are presumed to stand for equivalent moral views. …  Feeling good about oneself is thus an essential aspect of living a moral life, according to this dominant de fact teenage religious faith.  Which leads to our next point.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism 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 divine sovereign, 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 thus no wonder that so many religious and nonreligious teenagers are so positive about religion, for the faith many of them have in mind effectively helps to achieve a primary life goal: to feel good and happy about oneself and one’s life.  It is also no wonder that most teens are so religiously inarticulate.  As long as one is happy, why bother with being able to talk about the belief content of one’s faith?

Finally, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism 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 involved in one’s affairs–especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved.  Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance. … This God is not demanding.  He actually can’t be, because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good.  In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process. [pp. 162-165]

If you don’t recognize the members of our congregations in this picture, you aren’t looking hard enough.  And if you don’t see a problem in this description, well, that’s a problem.  I don’t claim to have the answer, but it clearly involves being specific, not general, in preaching; teaching parents, who are the primary educators of their children; and destroying the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  We should all probably take a long, hard look at our teaching and listen more closely to both the adults and the teenagers in our congregations for symptoms of this disease.  Something has to be done to inoculate people against this as much as possible.  The culture certainly is not helping, and often is actively inculcating this very religion in our people.

[Still to read: Souls in Transition and Lost in Transition]