In their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton revealed the results of extensive interviews with young Americans. They learned that the teenagers, regardless of their faith traditions, had more or less synthesized their beliefs into their own “religion”, what the authors called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. They described the “creed” as follows:
- A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
Although evidence of this belief system was found in adolescents of many backgrounds, it was most pronounced among those raised in Catholic and mainline Protestant homes. It is Christianity stripped of Christ.
Christian Smith writes,
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It believes that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, and responsible; working on self improvement; taking care of one’s health; and doing one’s best to be successful…
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is also about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents. 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 high 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, etc. 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 attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people…
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 our affairs — especially affairs in which we would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance.
Parents, priests and catechists have failed in their mission to pass the faith on to our children. Even though Jesus may make an appearance in some versions of MTD, it is a false image of Jesus. These teens have listened to other voices from the media and their peers. The schools have also played a role in promoting this “religion.” In Quebec, the Ethics and Religious Culture mandatory curriculum presents religion as a cultural experience and emphasizes the similarities among religions without consideration of theological beliefs. Similar courses in comparative religion are offered elsewhere. These studies can be worthwhile, but they are an injustice when presented in a manner that does not take into account Christian dogma – and dogma is an unwelcome concept in our modern Church.
The Christian faith is not about nice. It is not about feeling good. It is not about a God in the clouds. Christianity is about sacrifice. It is about putting God first, others second, ourselves third. It is about God who became man, to share in our suffering, to offer His Passion, Death and Resurrection so that we might follow Him to heaven. He is not distant, but is fully Present to us in the Eucharist every day and seeking a personal relationship with each of us. Our happiness comes from being in communion with Him throughout our everyday lives, in what we do and how we do it.
We have an obligation to present our Catholic faith in its fullness to our children. We do them no favor by sheltering them from the “hard sayings” that led people to walk away from Jesus. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” He said. “No one get to the Father except through Me.”