[This post has been cross posted from Forn Spǫll Fira with the permission of the author.]
This is the second in a series of blog posts covering the sociological data scattered through the publications of the National Survey of Youth and Religion (NSYR) about why youth leave their religion for secularism. (For the first post, see here. For Latter-day Saint retention rates, see here. For where those LDS who leave go, see here.) We should remember that the NSYR initially came into being to test ideas circulating in Evangelical scare literature that U.S. teenagers were leaving in droves to become pagans and Wiccans. So as a study it was actually designed to detect if youth are leaving and what might be the reasons for doing so. What they found was that “U.S. youth are not flocking in droves to ‘alternative’ religions and spiritualities such as paganism and Wicca” (Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 32, 311-312 n. 1).
The last post focused on a list of factors for why youth become secular. I suspect that the list was not exhaustive, but all the factors were prominent. In this post I want to look at a specific set of intellectual ideas that were common among youth of all denominations. In the first wave, of the 3290 youth surveyed (Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 292), 267 had in-depth interviews lasting from 1.5 to 3 hours (Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 302); this included 21 Latter-day Saint youth (Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 303). One general observation the NSYR made was that “the majority of U.S. teens would badly fail a hypothetical short-answer or essay test of the basic beliefs of their religion” but Mormon teens “seem somewhat better able to explain the basic outlook and beliefs of their traditions” (Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 137). These in-depth interviews provided a window into the thinking of the youth studied and thus enable one to see some of the intellectual issues involved.
The NSYR found a common view of religion that cut across denominational lines (and I have heard it expressed by many Latter-day Saints).
We suggest that the de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers is what we might call “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” The creed of this religion, as codified from what emerged from our interviews, sounds something like this:
- A God exists who created and orders 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 my 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 God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
Such a de facto creed is particularly evident among mainline Protestant and Catholic youth, but is also visible among black and conservative Protestants, Jewish teens, other religious types of teenagers, and even many non-religious teenagers in the United States.
(Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 162-63.)
One of the interviews that the NSYR cited as an example of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism was a “17-year old white Mormon boy from Utah” (Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 163). So we know that this is a problem affecting Latter-day Saint youth.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about a few things.
- First it “is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one’s health, and doing one’s best to be successful” (Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 163).
- Second it is “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, . . . etcetera. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about felling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people” (Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 163-64).
- Finally, it “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 one’s affairs–especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance” (Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 164). “God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process” (Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 165).
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism often hides among religious people:
We are not suggesting the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a religion that teenagers (and adults) either adopt and practice wholesale or not at all. Instead, the elements of its creed are normally assimilated by degrees, in parts, admixed with elements of more traditional religious faiths. Indeed, this religious creed appears to operate as a parasitic faith. It cannot sustain its own integral, independent life; rather it must attach itself like an incubus to established historical religious traditions, feeding on their doctrines and sensibilities, and expanding by mutating their theological substance to resemble its own distinctive image” (Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 166).
Various measures of Moralistic Therepeutic Deism appeared in 42%, 37%, and 34% of the teenage population (Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 168). By comparison, repentance was mentioned as a theme in only 4% of the teenage population, and obeying God in only 5% (Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 167).
The NSYR found that teenagers learn Moralistic Therapeutic Deism not only from their peers but also their parents.
So what happens to teenagers who subscribe to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Later waves of the NSYR study looked into the issue:
What has become of the MTD five years later, now that those teens have become emerging adults?
The latest wave of research reveals that MTD is still alive and well among 18- to 23-year-old American youth. . . . The concentration of MTD talk among emerging adults has been somewhat diluted, but that is not to say that MTD has disintegrated as a de facto believed and practiced faith. It has not. . . .
Emerging adults have a lot more personal, real-life experience than teenagers do. And as the teenage faith of MTD has had to confront and address life’s realities during the transition to emerging adulthood–the five years studied here–MTD itself has been put to the test. For some, MTD seems to have sufficed for managing life. For others, it seems MTD has simply proved too thin or weak to deal with life’s challenges. Confronted with real existential or material difficulties, some emerging adults appear to have backed away from the simple verities of MTD or perhaps have moved forward into somewhat more complex, grounded, or traditional versions of religious faith. In short, there seem to be certain tests in life through which some youth find that MTD proves an unrealistic account or an unhelpful way to respond.
(Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 154-155.)
One of the first points to notice is the time lag between what is taught (and practiced) and the challenge to the faith. What the youth learned as children and teenagers was put to the test when they were emerging adults. What was reaped as a young adult was sown much earlier. I will illustrate this with an unscientific anecdote. A number of years ago I lived in a ward with a huge primary but not a single active teenager. The bishop studied the problem and found that all of the teenagers had gone inactive between the ages of 8 and 12. While there were a number of different causes for the inactivity, there was also a gap of a number of years between the cause and the effect. Longitudinal studies like the NSYR can help us see that relationship.
Youth who as children and teenagers learn Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as the content of their religious faith will not find it sufficient to sustain them through the challenges of life. Some of them, as noted by the NSYR leave their faith. So when it comes to the intellectual content of what we are teaching youth, we should be teaching the gospel rather than Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Of the five points of the de facto creed, the first two points and the last point would have to be nuanced and the other two rejected. The restored gospel of Jesus Christ is simply not compatible with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
If we want to help the youth keep their faith, equipping them with the tools to combat Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is one place to start.