Defending the Therapeutic: Part 2, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

The phrase Moralistic Therapeutic Deism was coined the the sociologist Christian Smith to describe the faith of young Christians. 

Summarizing his exhaustive research into the spiritual lives of young people, Smith has leveled a damning critique of the church: We are not spiritually forming children and teens. As Smith has written:
[Our research] discovered that the vast majority of U.S. teenagers are incredibly inarticulate about their faith. They know very little of the substantive belief content of their religious traditions. They can only explain specifically how and why religion is important and influential in their lives with the greatest of difficulty, if at all. And relatively few engage regularly in elementary, personal religious practices, like reading the Bible. Furthermore, it is evident that, for most teens, school, friends, work, television, and other forms of fun play much more significant roles in their lives than do religious faith and practice. A definite minority of teen exceptions to this rule does exist, but this is the general rule nonetheless. In short, while plenty of U.S. teenagers embrace religious identities and affiliations, attend religious services, and have benignly positive things to say about religious faith, it is clear that most teens have actually not been well engaged, educated, and socialized into their religious faith traditions. Whatever U.S. religious communities are or are not doing to engage their teenagers, it does not appear to be working extremely well.
What, then, do teens believe about God and the life of faith? In summarizing his interviews with teens, Smith has identified three common themes/beliefs that characterize U.S. teenage Christianity, what he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:
As I put together what I heard hundreds of all different kinds of teenagers from around the United States tell us about their religious beliefs, it struck me that some very common themes were emerging among teens from various religious traditions. In working over these themes, I have come to this conclusion: it may not be far off to think that the true religious faith of the majority of U.S. teenagers is not in fact Christianity or Judaism or Islam. Rather, I have come to suspect that the actual, functional religious faith of most teenagers is something I call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The core beliefs of this de facto religious faith...consist of five basic ideas: 

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 he is needed to resolve a problem. 

5) Good people go to heaven when they die.
The part of this that concerns us in this series is the therapeutic aspect of this belief system. Smith elaborates on that point:
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about providing therapeutic benefits to its believers. It is finally about feeling happy, good, safe, at peace. It is about achieving subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along nicely with other people.
That churches are not forming their young people very well I agree with. But I do question if this is a recent, modern problem. My suspicion is that there never was an era when the church was doing an amazing job forming teenagers. Do we really think your typical teenager in year, say, 1021 AD was an exemplary Christian? Or in 1782? Or 1921? Hasn't this always been a problem?

Also, isn't this also an adult problem? 

My point is that I don't know if we can point to some long lost golden era of spiritual formation in church history. Even your typical monastery was a moral cesspool, to say nothing of the laity. 

However, the point of this series isn't really about spiritual formation, it's about how the word therapeutic is being used by Smith in naming "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." I don't think Smith picked the right word in "therapeutic," and I'll say why in the next and last post.

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