Book describing US teen religious beliefs
April 5, 2005 11:12 AM   Subscribe

"Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers" documents the findings and authors' conclusions from interviews conducted across 45 states.
A major theory in this study is called Moral Therapeutic Deism, a rather simplified belief system in which:
"God wants little more for us than to be good, happy capitalists...and to be good, happy capitalists, we should be good, unless if being good prevents us being happy." via via
posted by peacay (13 comments total)

 
I've often noticed that many people seem to think that God's will is really nothing more than what makes them happy.

They profess a distaste for organized religion but can't really say why. Worse, as their needs change God's will changes too, so that what might have been bad at one point becomes perfectly in accord with the good when they need it to be.

In other words religion is just a way for them to do what they want without having to admit that they are selfish and undisciplined.
posted by oddman at 11:40 AM on April 5, 2005


The cynic in me expects people will be showing up soon to say, "See? I told you Christianity was morally bankrupt!"

My take is just the opposite. I think the article on MTD gives a handy label for a lot of the moral bankruptcy that passes for Christianity.

Unfortunately, it's also a huge oversimplification. If I'd read this when I was a teenager, I wouldn't have recognized anyone I knew in its descriptions. Even now, I think there's a good point in there, but I also think they're missing a lot.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:04 PM on April 5, 2005


I think I would be much less frightened of Christians in politics if they did, indeed, agonize over their religion and its implications a bit more.

"Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" is a new term to me, but seems to capture perfectly the simple Baby Jesus Loves Me religion se see so much of today.
posted by kanewai at 12:10 PM on April 5, 2005


I think I would be much less frightened of Christians in politics if they did, indeed, agonize over their religion and its implications a bit more.

I think you're mixing up two different issues. There is the "90% of america is christian" thing, and then there's the "fundies are crazy" thing. But as this article makes utterly clear, the "90% of america" that is christian is christian only in a vague sense. Which really, I don't think is such a bad thing. It gives them some sense of belonging, but they are in fact generally living by rational principles. The writers of this article are lamenting that they're superficial in their christianity, that they don't "suffer" enough for their beliefs, etc, but I don't see how that's particularly lamentable.

Sure, I would like it if people would read more poetry, or seek meaning outside of bloomingdales more consistently, but it's not as if this is a surprise. Most people's beliefs are unexamined. The best thing a person can do, whatever conclusions they reach, is to seriously try to figure out what they think is true, being open to the possibility that all their assumptions/accepted truths are wrong.
posted by mdn at 12:39 PM on April 5, 2005


Yes, simplifications all round but let's give 'em a break here, if you interview teens on just about any subject you get similar simplified concepts on average.

On one point, the notion that God's will is for them to be happy so whatever makes them happy is the right thing to do... yeah a little scary there, serious simplification and obviously self-serving which of course is the opposite of what's supposed to be happening.
posted by scheptech at 1:56 PM on April 5, 2005


I think you're mixing up two different issues. There is the "90% of america is christian" thing, and then there's the "fundies are crazy" thing. But as this article makes utterly clear, the "90% of america" that is christian is christian only in a vague sense.

Good point. I think only a small minority of Americans are of the 'crazy fundie' type. Unfortunately, I worry that a large majority will follow a "Christian Agenda" set by the fundies, without actually examining whether that agenda truly reflects their faith.

Most people's beliefs are unexamined.

True. The question for me, though, is whether this is an American truism or a world-wide phenomenon. I suspect it's America. Non-American religious leaders of most faiths offer intellectual, well-reasoned analyses of their faith [shoots, even Pope JPII argued that faith without reason is superstition]. I can't think of a major US religious figure who writes and speaks on a higher level.

if you interview teens on just about any subject you get similar simplified concepts on average

I disagree. When I worked with teens they were very articulate on certain topics [AIDS, gay rights, violence in the cities, domestic violence, depression and suicide]. The difference, I think, is that they have been provided a language for discussing these things.
posted by kanewai at 3:42 PM on April 5, 2005


Scheptech, this is from the Revealer article:

In interviews (with those same stuffy sociologists in those same study rooms), teens were able to speak with real fluency on other matters of ethical, cultural and social significance -- from the impact of HIV/AIDS, drug use, and drunk driving, to "television characters and pop stars."

Y'know, the "God is there to make people happy" reasoning isn't limited to the religious. I've heard it used by non-believers as a reason for their disbelief--since God isn't making everybody happy, then obviously there is no God.

People don't spend half as much time thinking about their faith as they should.
posted by schroedinger at 4:59 PM on April 5, 2005


The question for me, though, is whether this is an American truism or a world-wide phenomenon. I suspect it's America.

Not able to comment on developing world teenage beliefs, but far fewer teens in the developed world would profess a faith than in the USA, far more would claim atheism, so it's perhaps a moot point. Christianity is NOT cool in most developed countries (Judaism and Islam are slightly stickier in their indoctrination I suspect)

Non-American religious leaders of most faiths offer intellectual, well-reasoned analyses of their faith [shoots, even Pope JPII argued that faith without reason is superstition]. I can't think of a major US religious figure who writes and speaks on a higher level.

Surely this isn't true, about US religious figures?

Church leaders in my part of the world (Austalia) ar regularly engaged at a scholarly level (as opposed to proselytising) on the issues that matter to the public, in the mass media.
posted by wilful at 7:51 PM on April 5, 2005


Teens often find that the larger, more simplistic, less "thinking oriented" churches (like the one I grew up in, which is down the road from the one that that Korn guy just joined) have large, well-developed teen programs that are designed from the ground up to be welcoming and happy... but most of these programs will chew up a simple faith and spit it out again, leaving a bitter, disillusioned late-teen athiest.

The fundy problem is fairly straightforward: More and more Americans will identify themselves as Christians at the same time less and less Americans actually go to church or study the faith. Which means that anybody who does actually go to church automatically gets +10 on their Moral High Ground rolls and less and less people are willing to call them on having hijacked a religion that often says exactly the oposite of what they say it says.

Liberals of America, if you want to change the moral direction the country is going... go to church on Sunday.

And for American religious figures speaking at a higher level... check out Spong and Borg.
posted by hob at 8:25 PM on April 5, 2005


Good call on Spong and Borg there hob.
There are others.
Try Walter Wink.
Look at Sojourners.
Not all American Christian leaders are brain dead power mongers like Falwell and Dobson and Robertson, etc.
posted by nofundy at 6:08 AM on April 6, 2005


You sold me. I'm getting the book. And another thing, people not examining things is a historically world wide phenomena.

It also explains nearly everything.
posted by ewkpates at 7:22 AM on April 6, 2005


Yes, simplifications all round but let's give 'em a break here, if you interview teens on just about any subject you get similar simplified concepts on average.

As others pointed out, that concern was directly addressed in the article.

As a student of philosophy, I can point out that a certain strain of philosophy is commonly associated with seminary studies. What is known as "continental" philosophy in the UK & the US is thrown in with theology often (for instance, at oxford, you would study heidegger & levinas in the theo/phil major, not the polisci/phil major). The pope was apparently quite well schooled in continental philosophy... And a lot of continental public figures are pretty familiar with this stuff, too. German public officials know their Hegel & Kant - we're impressed with american officials if they know who john dewey was (and john dewey was a very straightforward thinker).

The other 'half' of philosophy is known as "anglo-american" or "analytic" philosophy. This is the half that's all worried about general propositional forms and epistemological assumptions, etc. (Then there are folks like me who try to straddle the line and say that it's worth reading both merleau-ponty and aj ayer...) Point is, the english speaking world in general is much less willing to be bothered with the fuzzy areas of 'meaning' and the 'source of the self' and stuff like that. They're trying to understand philosophy as a kind of science (problem, thesis, proof, etc).

People don't spend half as much time thinking about their faith as they should.

People just don't spend half as much time thinking as they... well, as I wish they would. For one thing, we've gotten quite stuck in a "win the argument" mode of discourse, where we simplify and knock down opposing arguments without really trying to understand whatever truth they may hold. The majority of people fighting over religion are making huge assumptions about what "the other side" thinks. Hegel argued that a lot of religious people were quietly affected by the enlightenment (he described it as spreading without notice like a perfume through the air, or a virus) so that they lost sight of the truth of their belief system and began just defending the superstitions they were being accused of believing. This certainly seems true when you hear fundie preachers claiming that their life is meaningless if creationism is wrong.
posted by mdn at 8:37 AM on April 6, 2005


Faith is something very different from belief. Belief is the systematic taking of unanalyzed words much too seriously. Paul's words, Mohammed's words, Marx's words, Hitler's words---people take them too seriously, and what happens? What happens is the senseless ambivalence of history---sadism versus duty, or (incomparably worse) sadism as duty; devotion counterbalanced by organized paranoia; sisters of charity selflessly tending the victims of their own church's inquisitors and crusaders. Faith, on the contrary, can never be taken too seriously. For Faith is the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are, to forget the belief-intoxicated Manichee in Good Being. Give us this day our daily Faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Belief.

--Aldous Huxley, Island
posted by idontlikewords at 12:33 PM on April 6, 2005


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