Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Heartbreak of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD)

Over at the Revealer, they reviewed the National Survey of Youth and Religion, and frankly folks, it doesn't look good. I get the impression that the quest of advanced capitalism for a useful religion has been making significant headway with young people. Here are some quotes from the review:

Personal experience is what shapes our notions of truth, and truth is found nowhere else but in happiness and positive self-esteem. In religious terms, according to teenagers, God cares that each teenager is happy and that each teenager has high self-esteem. Morality has nothing to do with authority, mutual obligations, or sacrifice. In a sense, God wants little more for us than to be good, happy capitalists. Smith and Denton elaborate: "Therapeutic individualism’s ethos perfectly serves the needs and interests of U.S. mass-consumer capitalist economy by constituting people as self-fulfillment-oriented consumers subject to advertising’s influence on their subjective feelings." And to be good, happy capitalists, we should be good, unless if being good prevents us from being happy.

These beliefs are killing American religion. The authors call it Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The creed is simple and, yes, conventional -- but, where the authors find that it matters, MTD is not traditional. Basically, God exists and watches over human life, which was created by God. God wants people to be nice, as it says in the bible and in most world religions. God does not have to be involved in our lives except to solve our problems and make us happy. Good people will be even happier in heaven after they die. The religious beliefs of American teens tend to be -- as a whole, across all traditions -- that simple. It’s something Jews and Catholics and Protestants of all stripes seem to have in common. It is instrumentalist. "This God is not demanding," say the authors. "He actually can’t be, because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good."

The authors conclude that American Christianity is "either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or...is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith." When asked to articulate their faith, not one of their interviewees mentioned self-discipline, working for social justice, justification or sanctification, and 112 of them described the purpose of religion in terms of "personally feeling, being, getting, or being made happy" (using the "specific phrase to 'feel happy' well more that 2,000 times").

Thankfully, the authors of the book (and the review) do not simply blame teenagers for this situation; further, they give some indication that all is not lost, and that this might be a "teachable moment" in some ways.

Yet, for all the trouble they see, the authors do not turn their backs on American Christianity. Whether or not teens recognize it, the data suggest that in a wide range of life outcomes -- from the formation of community and leadership skills to the accumulation of social and cultural capital -- the more religious a teen, the more successful she will tend to be. By interspersing within their book of empirical findings a series of discursive passages that draw the distinction between a morally significant and morally insignificant universe, or that speculate on the deleterious effects of U.S. mass-consumer capitalism on American religion, Smith and Denton make plain that their interest in American spirituality is not a dispassionate one. The authors really seem to care about these kids, who, in being treated by most adults like rebellious aliens, have been entirely misserved. The instrumentalist parasite of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is killing off the "historically key ideas in
America’s main religious tradition, Christianity": "repentance, love of neighbor, social justice, unmerited grace, self-discipline, humility, the cost of discipleship, dying to self, the sovereignty of God, personal holiness, the struggles of sanctification, glorifying God in suffering, hunger for righteousness." And this is lamentable. But rather than simply lamenting, the authors mean their book to stimulate conversations about teens and religion, how better to take them seriously by rejecting the generalizations that tend to misunderstand the role teenagers play in American religious life.

Along with these authors, I certainly lament trading in "the real thing" for an idol of our own making. And I'm also glad that they end with a note of hope: this isn't just breast-beating and finger-pointing, but a sober survey of the territory ahead of us. Clearly, we need seriously to resist the capitalist idol-making machinery, but we don't do that by making our own idol out of our challenges (or ourselves), deploring (or lauding) what a truly exceptional age we live in. I think we do that by undertaking with humility and love those very practices mentioned in the last paragraph as the "historically key ideas in ...Christianity", the same ones our mothers and fathers in the faith have done through the ages.

Read the whole review here. (And a tip o' the hat to Feminary, well worth a read, for the reference.)


Blogger Thunder Jones said...

I heard this on Talk of the Nation a few weeks ago. You might check their archive for Thursday the 17th if you're interested in hearing more.

Interestingly enough, the guy that led the study is an Episcopalian and attends Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill, NC. That church is very popular with a lot of the div students at Duke and is where Hauerwas attends.

The study really just confirms the things that post-liberals have been saying about the inability of many modern forms of the church to articulate what disciple ought to look like. Instead we get St. Feel-Good-About-Yourself of the Lake or Full Life and Happiness Christian Fellowship.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005 3:02:00 PM  

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