Mutant Christianity

A Princeton Theological Seminary researcher claims that more and more American teens are adopting a mutant form of Christianity, in which God is a divine therapist whose mission is to make them feel better about themselves and their world.

Kenda Creasy Dean "says more American teenagers are embracing what she calls 'moralistic therapeutic deism.' Translation: It's a watered-down faith that portrays God as a 'divine therapist' whose chief goal is to boost people's self-esteem."

Teens, Dean says, have much to talk about in terms of their own lives, including money, sex, family and more. But even the most religious, who value their faith as integral to their identity, are amazingly inarticulate when it comes to their religious beliefs. When asked, they are unable to express basic tenets and teachings, though Mormons and Evangelicals tend to be a bit better at this task than their peers.

Dean says parents neglect to pass on the faith to their children in radical ways, resulting in the current confusion.

Though in our church, I wonder, do parents even possess the ideas and tools themselves to pass on the faith to the next generation? Or has there been such a breakdown in faith formation that we now have the blind leading the blind? I remember that a few years ago in my home parish there was a shift from catechizing only young people toward education programming for entire families. I'm unsure what the results of this type of formation program will be, but it's a step in the right direction, acknowledging that the need for increased education is a multi-generational phenomenon, not restricted exclusively to the young.

Michael O'Loughlin

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PJ Johnston
8 years 3 months ago

This kind of study (esp. coming from an ertswhile “serious scholar,” who ought to know better) makes the rest of the field’s efforts to adopt a more descriptive approach wherein self-identification trumps all and a religion is defined as what its adherents actually do/believe seem completely and utterly wasted.  In Catholic terms, "lex orandi, lex credendi" - we know what the normative self-construction of a religion is by what its followers actually practice and pray.  This kind of thing (claiming that large numbers of self-identified members of a religion are really "fake" or "inauthentic" because they fail to meet certain normative characteristics) totally inverts the proper order of classification.
Not to mention the cultural politics of this – it’s hard enough to open up a space in public discourse where non-fundamentalist Christianity seems like “real”/”authentic” Christianity, but now that Christianity has to be "passionate" and "articulate" to boot.  Very Protestant defining characteristics. Whatever happened to baptism and liturgical participation as a sufficient marker of Christian identity (the sacramental approach)? If religious enthusiasm and internalized rational understanding of doctrine are required, you are talking about Protestant Christianity pure and simple.
Shame on Dean.  Shame on Princeton.
Brian Volck
8 years 3 months ago
For the record, it should be noted that the term "moralistic therapeutic deism" ("MTD") was coined by Christian Smith and Mellinda Denton in their 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious And Spiritual Lives Of American Teenagers, which was written based on extensive interview data.  They contrasted this position to the much rarer (at least among those under 18) stance of "spiritual but not religious." 

According to Smith and Denton, the key components of MTD are:


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.
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 God is needed to resolve a problem.
Good people go to heaven when they die.

Smith's follow-up study, co-authored by Patricia Snell, is Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, which appeared in 2009. Smith has since moved from UNC, Chapel Hill to Notre Dame, where he directs the Center for the Study of Religion and Society. 

Damon Linker suggested, last year I believe, that MTD, while "theologically insipid," is perfectly suited for the contemporary form of American civic religion. It certainly sounds like the religious banalities so often uttered by American Presidents.  
Bill Collier
8 years 3 months ago
I don't know how prevalent and quantifiable "mutant" forms of Christianity are, but it doesn't require mathematical probabilities to recognize that the Church's transmission of the deposit of faith is suffering. This is purely anecdotal, but I've been surprised by how many young Catholics I know, who if not converts to the so-called New Atheism, are nevertheless dabbling in the arguments of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc., especially their reduction of God to finite dimensions and subsequent dismissal of the divine as scientifically implausible. I don't know how many impressionable young Catholics will read it, but there's a new addition to atheistic literature to be released next week-"The Grand Design" by Stephen Hawking and a co-author whose name presently escapes me. The British theoretical physicist and his colleague will argue that the laws of physics are enough to demonstrate that universes can come into existence by "spontaneous creation" that does not require a divine first cause. (I haven't read the book, of course, but I wonder how the authors will handle the origin of the laws of physics.) Frankly, I don't see these kinds of challenges to the existence of God ending anytime soon. It's  not that the arguments are being made that worries me (arguments are arguments); it's that our younger generations, especially, seem ill-prepared to challenge such arguments armed with both faith and reason.  
Jim McCrea
8 years 3 months ago
" - it's that our younger generations, especially, seem ill-prepared to challenge such arguments armed with both faith and reason. "

And the older generation, i.e., your and my ages:  how well can WE do with this kind of challenge?  How about our priest and catechists?  Our high school religion teachers?  Our college/university religion professors?

Methinks that the answer will be a very tepid "I dunno."

I do, and it ain't purty. 
PJ Johnston
8 years 3 months ago
I personally think that the diversity of approaches within contemporary Catholicism is one of its greatest strengths, what makes it "catholic" (universal) as opposed to a mere sect.  The Christian faith is not a zero-sum game where you have a choice between core, unchanging, universally-applicable beliefs/practices which everyone has to understand in the same way or else intellectually-vapid relativistic nihilism.  Catholicism inculturates differently in diverse cultural contexts (including the "therapeutic deism" of the contemporary US along with more exotic strains such as Afro-Caribbean Catholicism) for tangible cultural reasons.  If it did not do so, its cultural reach would have been limited to its original Jewish, Graeco-Roman, or Northern European context, and it could not have become rooted in other cultures.

However you may feel about the other issue, it cannot be a particularly good idea to endorse a notion of "authentic" Christianity by which nobody except the most educated members of the clergy for the last 2000 years (or else within the last few centuries, the more elite members of the clergy plus a small number of highly-educated lay people) could possibly hope to qualify.  Read Eamon Duffy's "Stripping of the Altars" or similar historical studies of pre-modern Catholicism - even at the time of the Reformation in England (a rather more literate period/place), the vast majority of ordained parish priests could barely say the mass in Latin, much less understand it or articulate its theology.  The religion of everyday, lesser-educated priests and lay people was essentially magic.  The number of people who could rationally understand,  passionately internalize, and coherently articulate the Christian faith in any period of Christian history has been next to nill.

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