“Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”

American religion is increasingly affected by “internal secularization.” That is, on the outside, religion is still present and we don’t notice a notable change, but on the inside it lacks substance, or more specifically – the substance has drastically changed.

Smith focuses in this chapter on the religious beliefs and practices of American teenagers and gives the generally accepted set of beliefs the name Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This “religion” is marked by the importance of being a good person, one’s well-being, getting along with other people, and the general belief in God who is the creator of the universe and provides a general moral order, but is largely not involved and does not ask much from us; this God is convenient – active when we need Him and quiet when we don’t want Him involved: “God is treated as something like a cosmic therapist or counselor, a ready and competent helper who responds in times of trouble but who does not particularly ask for devotion or obedience.”

Many parents think religion is good because it produces good results, but this misses the point, and shows a missing piece in the process of formation in the faith. Instead of instilling the importance of the specific beliefs that make up a particular faith tradition, parents focus on general teachings which are characteristic of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” and surface-level involvement that produces the good results they want for their children.

Many teenagers do have a generally positive view of religion, but on a fairly superficial level. When it comes time for teenagers to engage the faith as their own, they lack the commitment to the particular beliefs and practices.  One cause of this is the lack of discussion with adults. Parents and other adults may avoid deeper discussion about faith with teenagers due to a loss for how to begin, or because they think it might be beyond their understanding or because they believe the teenagers are not interested. However, I think there is great potential for adults to show teenagers the beauty and depth of their faith, through example and through conversation.

With the ever increasingly individualistic and pluralistic society that we live in, individual opinions and beliefs are valued over those of authority, so it’s difficult to use the perspective of authority and tradition to guide individuals and educate in a certain faith tradition. In the interest of getting along with others, it is easier to accept the type of “faith” Moralistic Therapeutic Deism offers – it’s enough belief and direction for most people, but without the challenges and inconveniences.  Also, with the emphasis that society puts on feelings and personal preferences it is more and more common for people to dabble in various faith traditions, trying to find one that ‘fits’ them and one that they personally feel good in, instead of seeking truth and committing to one faith tradition because of the deeper beliefs and teachings.

With respect to the socialization in religious faith traditions, Christian Smith says, “serious induction into a religious tradition requires the inductee to be formed and reformed in new and perhaps demanding ways according to the teaching of the faith.”  I am reminded of my experience preparing for the sacrament of Confirmation. My preparation for Confirmation lacked that substantial formation, the serious and challenging engagement of our minds and hearts; instead it was merely another step – a checklist of classes and activities to complete, something that was widely accepted and expected that you would complete – a continuation of our surface-level commitment to the faith.

While we were then considered adults in the Church, we had not delved into complex issues of the faith, or even fully understood the fundamental aspects of the faith that we were accepting as our own. This conflict of adolescence and adulthood coincides with Smith’s discussion of the separation of adults and adolescents. For multiple and varying reasons, we do not engage adolescents in these deeper questions, we do not ask them what they believe and why they believe it, but if we are to welcome and recognize them as adults in the Church, we must also educate and treat them as adults.

I found it particularly interesting and striking that Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism a “parasitic” religious faith, one that is feeding off of others and in turn, destroying them. This is an important image to keep in mind, because it demonstrates the urgency of changes that may need to be made in the way we approach and encourage the education and practice of individual religious faith traditions.

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