I've been reading the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith (with Melinda Denton). The book, published in 2005, summarizes data collected by the National Study of Youth and Religion. During 2002 and 2003 the NSYR conducted a random and national phone survey of American households containing at least one teenager between the ages 13-17. In the spring of 2003 in-depth follow-up interviews were conducted with 267 of the teenagers previously interviewed on the phone. According to Smith, the 2002-2003 research was the "largest, most comprehensive and detailed study of American teenage religion and spirituality" ever conducted. The survey asked questions about the religious and spiritual identities, affiliations, beliefs, experiences, and practices of U.S. teenagers.
So what does the religious faith of American teenagers look like?
In Chapter 4 of Soul Searching Smith offers a summary of the NSYR data and its findings. Specifically, Smith suggests that American teenagers subscribe, implicitly or explicitly, to a religious creed that Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. According to Smith, the "creed" of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is captured by these five beliefs (pp. 162-163):
1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.Smith observes about this creed:
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the 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.
[V]ery few teenagers would lay out the five points of [this] creed as clearly and concisely as we have just done. But when one sifts through and digests hundreds of discussions with U.S. teenagers about religion, God, faith, prayer, and other spiritual practices, what seems to emerge as the dominant, de facto religious viewpoint turns out to be some version of this faith.As can be deduced from Smith's label, the de facto faith of U.S. teenagers (and, one suspects, many adults) has three distinct aspects. First, the faith is moralistic. Smith again:
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. This 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...Being moral in this faith means being the kind of person that other people will like, fulfilling one's personal potential, and not being socially disruptive or interpersonally obnoxious.Second, the faith is therapeutic. Smith:
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 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 obtaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people...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 goal: to feel good and happy about oneself and one's life.Finally, the faith is deistic:
...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 personally 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, and professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.As I hinted at above, I don't believe Moralistic Therapeutic Deism exclusively characterizes U.S. adolescents. Many people I know subscribe to this creed. And to be clear, the creed isn't all bad. I don't mind a lot of the moralistic part. But I see God as "Divine Butler" and "Cosmic Therapist" on my campus and in my church all the time. I also see the therapeutic part a great deal (the goal of the religious life is a subjective state of happiness and self-esteem).
In fact, when you hear Americans say "I'm not religious, but I am a very spiritual person" the general gist of what they are saying is that they subscribe to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
That's what most Americans mean when they say "I'm spiritual."
Or worse...what they mean when they say "I'm a Christian."