My dear friend Brian Martin recently made me aware of Christian Smith's fascinating book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, published by Oxford University Press in 2005. Smith is a sociologist who taught at UNC Chapel Hill for a number of years before moving in 2006 to Notre Dame.
His thesis, the fruit of several hundred personal interviews with American teens of all races and religious backgrounds, is that the general ethos of our young people is best described as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." This consists of five things:
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." ("Moralistic")
3) "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself." ("Therapeutic")
4) "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem." ("Deism")
5) "Good people go to heaven when they die." (pp. 162-63)
Along the way, Smith makes several other repeated points, such as: contrary to common teaching, today's youth are not seeking to be spiritual rather than religious, but rather are found most commonly to adhere to conventional forms of religiosity; teens are rarely able to clearly articulate their beliefs; most feel strongly they ought not to push their view onto someone else; Catholic teens are especially prone to moralistic therapeutic deism; and youth have learned this not on their own, but from adults, so this is not a problem isolated to young people.
So much to say in response to all this, but I mainly just want to point out how this so strikingly nails both my own heart and our culture and how we will all think apart from our great and glorious and counterintuitive gospel. The gospel itself--that "Christ died for our sins," 1 Cor 15--that the one thing that qualifies us is knowing we don't, because of Christ--that the way up is down--that instead of us needing to work our way up to God, God came down to us--deconstructs all five pillars of what Smith outlines.
As one example among dozens, one teen said: "I think religion is important for people to have. All religions are meant for people to better themselves. That's one way that someone can try to be a better person, through organized religion." (p. 126) This is not a shallow form of the gospel; it is the antithesis of the gospel. It is not Christianity Lite; it is un-Christianity. Christianity begins with the premise that we are helpless rebels in need of 100% help from an outside source--and that all it takes is admitting this helplessness, and we're in. It tells us to reject religion.
Sin, I am learning, is not my biggest problem. There's a perfect answer for that: Christ. Obedience is my biggest problem. Because obedience--in form, not substance, that is--obedience that is not "from the heart" (Rom 6:17)--has a subtle way of blinding me to my need for that answer.
So thanks for pointing this out to me Brian, and I hope anyone who reads this, especially those in Christian leadership of some form, will consider Smith's reflections, which ought to be no surprise if we know our Bibles, as a way of better understanding those to whom we speak and write and how to intersect this way of thinking with the gospel.
See also here and here.