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A Second Round of Soul Searching

by Carole A. Buleza

This article is the second in a series based on Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, by Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton (Oxford University Press, 2005. The book received the 2006 Christianity and Culture Book Award.  The first article, “Christianity’s Mis-begotten Child” appeared in the March 2011 issue of The Word.

I knew that I would be writing more articles based on this book, which I consider exceptionally insightful and valuable. Soul Searching is the project report of professors at the University of North Carolina who received a grant to investigate how important faith is to American teenagers, why, and in what ways. The book received Christianity Today's 2006 Christianity and Culture book award.

The data for the report was gathered from 3,290 teenagers in the United States. The majority of the teenagers categorized themselves as Christian (82%); Protestants comprised the majority (52%) and Catholics were second (23%). The third largest category, those who considered themselves not religious, accounted for 16% of the respondents (31).

The book offers not only statistics but excerpts from the many interviews that were conducted, and the reflections of the authors. From my experience of working with teens and having two of my own, their analyses are correct, and their reflections are extremely valuable. Furthermore, they believe the beliefs held by the teenagers reflect those of the baby boomer generation, making the book valuable not only for youth ministers but also for pastors.

In short, our team interview transcripts reveal clearly that the language that dominates U.S. adolescent interests and thinking about life, including religious and spiritual life, is primarily about personally feeling good and being happy. That is what defines the dominant epistemological framework and evaluative standard for most contemporary U.S. teenagers — and probably for most of their baby boomer parents. This, we think, has major implications for religious faiths seriously attempting to pass on the established beliefs and practices of their historical traditions (168).

Although Orthodox teenagers represented only .3% of the respondents, our children live in the same culture and are undoubtedly influenced by the same forces that have shaped the thoughts of the teens (and by inference, their parents). It would be a mistake for the clergy to disregard this book.

Teenage Religion and Spirituality in the United States

In my first article I detailed the report’s major finding. The survey results indicated that religion is very important to, and valued by American teenagers. However, the (mostly-Christian) teens did not describe their religious beliefs in phrases from any doctrines or scriptures, begging the question, what is their religion?

Here we attempt to summarize our observations by venturing a general thesis about teenage religion and spirituality in the United States . . . we suggest that the de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. Teenager is what we might well call, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,”  (referered to as MTD). The creed of this religion, as codified from what emerged from our interviews, sounds something like this:

  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 (162-3).

In my first article, “Christianity’s Mis-begotten Child”--the author use the phrase, “Christianity’s Mis-begotten Step-cousin” (174), I explained each of the terms in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. In this article I follow the authors as they pose and respond to the question, “Why do the teens hold these beliefs?”

In the chapter, “American Adolescent Religion in Social Context,” Smith and Denton look to society for insight into the interview responses that led to the formulation of MTD. They propose six sociological forces as being of significance: therapeutic individualism, mass-consumer capitalism, the digital-communication revolution, residual positivism and empiricism, structural disconnect from the adult world, adults with problems (171).The first two, therapeutic individualism, and mass-consumer capitalism are the subject of this article.

Therapeutic Individualism

The authors begin by explaining that therapeutic individualism is not a philosophy one subscribes to, but a group of “taken-for-granted,” and “not-consciously held” assumptions. The phrase covers three distinct ideas that have traditionally been addressed by religion and philosophy: who we are, why we live, and how do we know what is real and true.

Therapeutic individualism defines the individual self as the source and standard of authentic moral knowledge and authority, and individual self-fulfillment as the preoccupying purpose of life. Subjective, personal experience is the touchstone of all that is authentic, right, and true. . . . In a society governed by therapeutic individualism, the traditional authority and functions of priests, pastors, parents, and lawmakers are largely displaced by a new authoritative class of professional and popular psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and other therapeutic counselors, authors, talk show hosts, and advice givers . . .  (173).

On the term, “therapeutic,” they explain further, 

Members of therapeutic individualist cultures are encouraged in various ways to “get in touch with their honest feelings” and to “find” their “true selves”—presuming that they have essential, self-originating emotions and selves that are distinct from any social formation and lost or hidden from everyday awareness. Moreover, moral duties, pain, and suffering are not seen, as they traditionally often were, as an inevitable part of life to be endured or perhaps through which one should grow in personal character and spiritual depth. Rather, these are largely avoidable displeasures to be escaped in order to realize a pleasurable life of happiness and positive self-esteem (173).

The attractiveness of this ethos is largely in its self-centered orientation, which is in marked contrast with traditional religious beliefs and practices.

Faith and spirituality become centered less around a God believed in and God’s claims on lives, and more around the believing (or perhaps even unbelieving) self and its personal realization and happiness. The very idea and language of “spirituality,” originally grounded in the self-disciplining faith practices of religious believers, including ascetics and monks, then becomes detached from its moorings in historical religious traditions and is redefined in terms of subjective self-fulfillment . . . Spirituality is thus renarrated for all comers as personal integration, subjective feeling, and self-improvement toward individual health and personal well-being—and no longer has anything to do with, for example, religious faith and self-discipline toward holiness or obedience (175).

The Authority for Ultimate Truth.  The rejection of an external authority for religious beliefs allows that there are no grounds for judging, or even comparing, one person’s belief with another’s. The god that I invent is just as valid as the one anyone else invents, because the only issue of importance is whether I feel my idea to be true and useful to me.

In general, therapeutic individualism significantly displaces substantive reason and rational analysis with personal sentiments and emotions as the grounds of knowledge and morality . . . (173-4).

Moreover, people shaped by this ethos are loath to claim that their own beliefs and morals necessarily apply to anyone else, for other people may have different feelings about matters, and no one person has the right to violate any other person’s subjective sentiments, which are, after all, what determines what is truly authentic and real for each individual (175).

Smith and Denton see the assumptions of therapeutic individualism as pervasive in American culture and society, from our educational systems, to the health care sector, to family life, and believe that our youth will be heavily socialized into its assumptions and ethos so that it will be rendered natural, intuitive, and invisible in the culture. It will simply be the way things are. Their work with the survey reveals the extent to which it is already forming the spirituality of the next generation.

The fact that teens as well as adult faithful in the pews may not recognize this phenomenon within themselves makes it a subversive presence for the whole congregation. Teens, less likely to feel allegiance to their congregations, and more likely to wonder why they have to go to church, may be the ones most affected by this cultural development. A current cliché expresses the situation fairly well, “I don’t go to church, or practice a religion, but I’m a very spiritual person.”

Religion, as a whole, is being affected by the phenomenon. Many congregations and Christian denominations have rewritten their services and theology to cater to the attitudes of the new generation, without necessarily naming these as therapeutic individualism.

It is a mistake to assume that Orthodox Christians are immune from absorbing, unwittingly, the attitudes of therapeutic individualism—even if they attend church regularly.  Our pluralistic society, relativism, and the media have contributed to its “taken-for-granted” assumptions. Of particular importance in its spread is the second of the sociological forces cited in the chapter.

Mass-Consumer Capitalism

The second phenomena underlying Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, mass-consumer capitalism, goes hand-in-hand with the first. Smith and Denton begin with a brief history of the capitalism. Defined as the efficient production and distribution of goods, capitalism is to be credited for the high standard of living that we enjoy in the western world, and in particular, for making possible the “American Dream.” Historically, during the industrial revolution, production lagged behind demand or consumption. At the outset of the 20th century the gap closed, and as the authors explain, capitalism had to recalculate its direction.

But eventually, increased production required increased mass consumption to move the new masses of more efficiently produced goods. The inherent, internal logic of mass consumer capitalism is the drive of an impersonal profit motive and perpetual capital accumulation. Capitalism is a system that must ever grow or it will die. The intrinsic problem in capitalism's logic, however, is that actual human needs are somewhat limited and modest: it takes only so many goods and services to sustain a healthy, potentially satisfying human life. For mass-consumer capitalism to forever grow, therefore, it must constitute masses of people as consumer selves who misrecognize new wants as essential needs, whose basic sense of necessity always expands (178).

Stepping in to meet the challenge of making “wants” into “created needs” was, and ever-more increasingly is, the American advertising industry. The phrase, “created needs,” was coined some decades ago, along with, “materialism.” The abundance of goods, we are told—typically in the Sermon for the Gospel of the Rich Man who went away sad after Jesus who challenged him to give everything he owned to the poor (Matthew 19:16-26)--is not in itself bad. The challenge is to ask ourselves how important our “things” are, compared to our dedication to God. Phrased in other words, “Do we own our possessions, or are we owned by them?” As Jesus put it, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24).

While the danger of materialism is not new in Christian thought, it is also not the main threat of this development. Of greater consequence to traditional Christianity is how mass-consumer capitalism has redefined and recreated the human person to serve the need of the investors, and the system itself, for perpetual accumulation of capital.

Consider, for example, how mass-consumer capitalism fundamentally constitutes the human self. There are many ways to conceive of what the human person is and should be: a fundamentally morally responsible agent, an illusion of individuality destined to dissolve into cosmic unity, a sinner being divinely redeemed and sanctified, and more. As an institution with a specific historical and social location, mass consumer capitalism constitutes the human self in a very particular way: as an individual, autonomous, rational, self-seeking, cost-benefit-calculating consumer. This, of course is not what human selves have always been, nor what they inevitably must be. This is also not the definition of the human self that most Americans religious historical traditions have sought to constitute in their adherence. But it is the human self that the moral order of mass consumer capitalism constitutes, that its institutions and practices very powerfully bring into being, promote, and reinforce (176).

The Consumer. Beyond materialism, the threat  to traditional religion springing from the well of mass-consumer capitalism is the recreating of the human person as an autonomous, self-seeking, consumer. Instead of believing in traditional Christianity, “even if I don’t yet understand all its tenets,” those of the new generation of Christians, because they are autonomous, gather, choose, and invent beliefs according to what feels right to them.

The more American people and institutions are be defined by mass consumer capitalism's moral order, the more American religion is also remade in its image. Religion becomes one product among many others existing to satisfy peoples subjectively defined needs, tastes, and wants. Religious adherents thus become spiritual consumers uniquely authorized as autonomous individuals to pick and choose in the religious market whatever products they may find satisfying or fulfilling at the moment. And the larger purpose of life comes to be defined as optimally satiating one's self-defined felt needs and desires, as opposed to, say, attaining salvation, learning obedience to God, following the 10 Commandments, achieving enlightenment, dying to oneself to serve others, or any other traditional religious purpose (176).

Therapeutic individualism and mass-consumer capitalism have worked hand-in-hand affecting a change of attitude toward not only one’s church, but toward religion in general. Religion has become one choice for a consumer seeking to meet their personally felt need; more accurately, the consumer is choosing specific beliefs or practices from the buffet available in our pluralistic society. If that does not suffice, one’s imagination can provide an infinite number of self-constructed practices and beliefs.

There are many philosophical threads evident in the discussion of the first two of the six sociological forces contributing to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The authors mention post-modernist philosophy as contributing to these attitudes, in particular, the autonomy that gives one the authority to define truth for oneself. On the positive side, while some writers see post-modernism as a continuation of modernism, others disagree and see it as a reactionary movement. They describe it as the need for community and certainty and the revalidation of the meta-narrative, the idea that our foundational stories can reveal ultimate truth. The scope of the media is immense, however, and working to keep the consumer in hand by playing on the qualities of therapeutic individualism.

Lest we think that all is lost, the authors say in several places that religion is important to this generation, and they are for the most part content to go to the same church as their parents. While they are with us, we can explore their attitudes and help them examine the beliefs of our faith, noting that Orthodoxy does offer both community and certainty. As the authors continue to look at the social context of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the digital communication revolution, and residual empiricism and positivism come to the fore. As an Orthodox educator and mother of two teenagers, I have wondered how God can break through the constant chatter that inhabits their “digital communication” world. I welcome the insights of Christian Smith and Melissa Denton.

Carole A. Buleza is the Director of the Department of Christian Education