Souls in Transition – Moral Therapeutic Deism

Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD) was found to be the best description of the religion of American teenagers in Christian Smith’s previous study, Soul Searching. MTD consists of five key beliefs: (1) a God exists who created the world and watches over human life; (2) God wants people to be nice, good and fair to each other as taught in the Bible and most world religions; (3) the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself; (4) God does not need to be involved in one’s life except when needed to fix a problem; (5) good people go to heaven when they die. Now with Souls in Transition, studying those teenagers as they are now emerging into adulthood (ages 18-23), Smith and Snell find that MTD is still alive and well (155). While there is more variety and diversity, due to life experience that confirms or nullifies their belief in MTD, MTD is still a strong descriptor of American young adult religion.

The researchers purpose in chapter five of Souls in Transition is to show the major themes that describe emerging adult religion (with all the necessary caveats that there are always exceptions). This chapter is fascinating, and a must read for anyone working with young people, for it provides a true window into what people under the age of 25 believe:

  • Religion is not a very threatening topic – though it does not come up much in their conversation, for their friends rarely talk about religion, when it does come up emerging adults do not mind talking about it. Emerging adults enjoy hearing other people’s opinions on this topic. The researchers note there is a less typical theme of those who have no idea or opinion about religion.
  • Emerging adults are indifferent to religion – religion is fine, they say, but most emerging adults do not worry about it much. Smith and Snell use a great illustration, saying that to emerging adults religion is similar to the oil refining industry: they know it is there, they are glad someone is taking care of it, but they rarely have to worry about it themselves.
  • The shared principles of religions are good; religious particularities (differences) are peripheral – there is a focus on what religions have in common and that these commonalities are true while differences are irrelevant. Within this they found a less typical theme, emerging adults who hold strongly to their religion as uniquely true. This is a minority view, for most emerging adults there is no way to finally know what is true. Where religions disagree, who knows what is right? At any rate, life is too short to worry about such things.
  • The purpose of religion is making people good – it gives them a basic training in morals, helps them know right and wrong. A corollary of this is that religious congregations are elementary schools for morals. Once a person becomes a teenager or young adult he effectively “graduates” from church and stops attending. After all, why stay if you have learned all you need to know about how to be good? Of course, they may return when they have kids so their kids can learn to be good.
  • Their family’s faith is associated with dependence – emerging adults what to assert their independence and a part of this is getting distance from their parent’s congregation.
  • A less typical theme is those who say “my faith is really important to me”. The “my faith” here turns out to be quite a self-centered entity, a “neatly constructed package tied up with a bow that settles religious matters” (151). In other words, it truly is “my” faith, the individual seems to be the authority and not any outside (God, Bible). That ties in well with the next one…
  • “What seems right to me” is the authority – the authority for morals is their subjective personal sense, what makes sense based on their experience and viewpoint
  • Religious communities are not a place for real belonging – such belonging is found elsewhere.
  • Religious beliefs are cognitive assents, not life drivers – they believe things but such beliefs are mere mental agreements, emerging adults do not organize their life around them.
  • Take or leave what you want – when it comes to religion, people should take what the like, what makes sense, and leave the rest. Again, emerging adults see themselves as the authority to determine what is useful and relevant and what is out-dated and no big deal.
  • Evidence and proof trump “blind faith” – when there is an apparent conflict seen between science and religion, emerging adults see science as valid and religion as blind faith. They still see a place for religion, in places where science cannot provide answers such blind faith is okay.
  • A less typical theme – close to God, personal relationship with God. “Having a personal relationship with God in this case does not mean faithfully adhering to the belief and practical requirements of a religious tradition. Rather, it means being present to God, mindful of God, praying a lot, listening for God’s voice, attending to God’s leading, being open and receptive to the life lessons God would teach” (162).

Notice the emphasis on the abstract “God” in that last quote. Maybe this “God” is more involved than the classical deistic God who created the universe and basically left, but this “God” is a far cry from the biblical Christian God. Reading through the chapter, the list above, there is a huge emphasis on what all religions have in common. To hold only to such is to focus on “God” because “God” can mean everything and anything to anyone. The fundamentalist preacher, the conservative political talk show host, the progressive environmentalist, the liberal preacher, the victorious athlete or any candidate in the next election all claim to have God on their side.

When you make religion into just about being a good person (moralism) and when you want all religions to be basically the same, you are left with a more or less deistic God. This God also makes you feel good, because “God” kind of likes what you like, does not like what you do not like, and would never be mad at you. Such a God is unnecessary and practically meaningless.

I could go on a tangent about how such a God is worthless and has little to say to the horrors of the world such as the Holocaust, human trafficking, genocide and more, but I’ll save that for next time. Another temptation is to go on a tangent about how the differences in world religion are what matters, but this post is already too long. I will say that God becoming human in the person of Jesus Christ so that we no longer have an abstract God but God with a face, the face of Jesus, and who self-sacrificially gave his life to heal us of all guilt and who calls us to also self-sacrificially give ourselves for others is in a whole other universe than the God most emerging adults (and probably Americans in general) believe in.

The challenge is communicating this to people in a way they understand.

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