Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A Pocket Deity for Ethical Living and Self-Esteem

"Moralistic-therapeutic deism" is a mouthful. It is a habit of thought which exploits the typically American impulse towards self-improvement and revises traditional religious thought and practice to that end. Its god is distant, invoked only to solve some personal problem. Its heaven is well-populated and its hell, if it exists at all, is vague and only for Hitlerian levels of evildoers. This mindset reduces religious ethics to being nice and happy while living a safe and productive life spent thinking warm and fuzzy thoughts about self and universe.

It's also apparently a major religious influence among youth today, no matter what their denomination.

Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton spent time with American teenagers, collecting their reflections and opinions about religion and God. It is hardly surprising that the teens were unsophisticated. However, the language they used was that of therapy and self-help. Truth, sanctity, and sacrifice were of little importance. Rather, religion was for most of these youths an instrument of personal self-realization.

Christian Smith sums up his work in the twelve-page essay On "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith(PDF).

The Revealer also provides an overview:

Smith and Denton’s most significant contribution to our understanding of American teenagers’ religious and spiritual lives begins when the authors attempt to explain why teens believe what they believe -- in a sense, why they are so conventional. The authors first identify the social contexts in which adolescents live and believe, starting with a discussion of therapeutic individualism, a set of assumptions and commitments that "powerfully defines everyday moral and relational codes and boundaries in the United States." Personal experience is what shapes our notions of truth, and truth is found nowhere else but in happiness and positive self-esteem. In religious terms, according to teenagers, God cares that each teenager is happy and that each teenager has high self-esteem. Morality has nothing to do with authority, mutual obligations, or sacrifice. In a sense, God wants little more for us than to be good, happy capitalists. Smith and Denton elaborate: "Therapeutic individualism’s ethos perfectly serves the needs and interests of U.S. mass-consumer capitalist economy by constituting people as self-fulfillment-oriented consumers subject to advertising’s influence on their subjective feelings." And to be good, happy capitalists, we should be good, unless if being good prevents us from being happy.

It is to be hoped against experience that this attitude is a passing phase of unstudied youths. The loss of religious vocabularies must result in an impoverishment of religious thought itself.

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