Monday, April 27, 2009

American Religious Culture

A continuation of the series I began last week on the Church in America...

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Sadly, much of contemporary Christianity—and I would include here contemporary Orthodox Christians—have lost the sense that suffering is an essential part of the spiritual life. In its place, as I said above, we have substituted some form of moralistic therapeutic deism. Let me explain what moralistic therapeutic deism is and try and contrast it to suffering and the Christian ascetical tradition.

In a piece that appeared in the Christian Post on April 18 2005 (“ Moralistic Therapeutic Deism--the New American Religion ”), R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, reports on the work of “Christian Smith and his fellow researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.” Smith and his colleagues “took a close look at the religious beliefs held by American teenagers” and “ found that the faith held and described by most adolescents came down to something the researchers identified as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."

Following Smith, Mohler goes on to describe moralistic therapeutic deism as a belief system that centers on beliefs such as these:

  1. "A god exists who created and ordered 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."

While the study focused on adolescents, the findings are more generally applicable to American Christianity including American Orthodox Christianity (for confirmation of this second point, see my posts on the 2008 Pew Charitable Trust US Religious Landscape Survey). As Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton put the matter in their “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers,”

To the extent that the teens we interviewed did manage to articulate what they understood and believed religiously, it became clear that most religious teenagers either do not really comprehend what their own religious traditions say they are supposed to believe, or they do understand it and simply do not care to believe it . Either way, it is apparent that most religiously affiliated U.S. teens are not particularly interested in espousing and upholding the beliefs of their faith traditions , or that t heir communities of faith are failing in attempts to educate their youth, or both ."

In place of a firmly held and clearly articulated faith, many of us (and again, not just teenagers) hold to the informal moral relativism that Smith and Denton call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. MTD "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."

I will post tomorrow a brief comparison between Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and the Christian ascetical ideal, an ideal I would argue that was until recently common to all (or at least most) Christian communities in America.

As always, your comments, questions and criticisms are not only welcome, they are actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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