Thursday, August 20, 2009

The archbishop vs. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Courtesy of Rod Dreher

"In our conversations with young people, we have to avoid the temptation to fudge--to adapt the Catholic faith so as to make it palatable to modern tastes and expectations. This so-called "accommodationist" approach generally fails, and it fails doubly with young people. There is a risk in this approach that the Christian message becomes indistinguishable from everything else on offer in the market stalls of secularised religious faith: "In the powerful yet soft secularising totalitarianism of distinctively modern culture, our greatest enemy is...the Church's 'own internal secularisation' which, when it occurs, does so through the '...largely unconscious' adoption of the 'ideas and practices' of seemingly 'benign adversaries'" (Nichols 2008, 141)."

My sentiments exactly--so much so that this reads exactly like a letter I wrote to a prince of the Church some three years ago.


  1. "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" seems to be a new rallying cry of that small but loud and socially tone deaf segment of the Christian right that desperately cries out for hatred of fellow Christians (or humans, generally) whose beliefs deviate from some dogmatic interpretation of The Bible. The phrase has been popping up in papers, blogs, and forums, but it was conjured up in an absurdly self-important "I'm right and everyone else is wrong" study by a guy named -- get this -- Christian Smith, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So Smith's claim is that he's just trying to describe the common religious beliefs among American youth, and the full title of his paper is "On "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" as U.S. Teenagers' Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith" (never mind that "Actual" and "De Facto" is redundant, and "Tacit" is bullshit since no one is hiding their adherence to this set of beliefs). Smith surveys a few thousand teenagers who are too young to have any practical life experience to draw from, to "discover" to his obvious shock and dismay that what Americans basically believe can be boiled down to 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.
    3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
    4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
    5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

    All of these seem to click with the message that religious congregations has been putting out like so much bait on a hook, to reel people into services -- "hey folks, take a pew, it's just this simple" -- but it is immediately obvious why the type of Christians who have bandied Christian Smith's invented phrase about see this is a false and contemptible set of values, since they don't require anyone to give any cash money to churches, and they even seem to go against hardcore (but non-Biblical) directives like fostering hate for gays and contempt for other cultures], and constantly beating oneself up with guilt for having been born a horrible sinner who will burn in Hell for not giving enough cash money to Churches (or for possibly once getting aroused by a member of the opposite sex -- let alone the same sex).

    So lets get to the component parts, not of the religious beliefs identified above, but of the name coined to describe it. First, "Moralistic." Originally some forum posts were calling it "Moral Therapeutic Deism," but someone in one of their focus groups must have pointed out that, hey, these people want to be moral, so they changed it to "Moralistic" -- here's a sly PR gambit engineered to foster the impression that morality is not "moral" unless it's their morality. This is 1984. War is peace, love is hate, greed and intolerance and willful ignorance are moral. So, this is "Moralistic" to drive home the point that apparently being good and nice and fair is immoral. Fair enough, let's go on.

  2. Christian Smith's made-up cobbled together religion is "Therapeutic" because it's "also about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents." Smith firmly intones that, as a contrast, it is not about "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." Naturally, some of this right away contradicts the part of Smith's made-up religion where he says people believe they should be good and fair to each other (which drives the desire for "social justice") and that God is watching over us, wants us to be happy, and is there for us when we have problems (which sounds a lot like folks are basking in God's love to me). But the odd thing is that most religions are positively sold on their therapeutic basis, since why would you adhere to a religion that made you feel like a worse person for doing it (except out of even stronger feelings of fear or guilt), or even one that made you feel indifferent? Why do churches and synagogues and mosques have singing and mantra-like prayer, and individual counseling from the cleric? Because modern organized religion incorporates therapy, as a selling point -- as much as they use the stick to get you in the door, there's the carrot of feeling better about yourself through theology. So, so far, "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" is pretty much applicable to all faiths.

    Finally, it's "Deism" -- except that it's not. At all. This is the one that really gets me, this is why I'm here writing about it. If they had called it "Moralistic Therapeutic Theism" it wouldn't even have clicked onto my radar. Now, Christian Smith says "In this sense, the Deism here is revised from its classical eighteenth century version by the Therapeutic qualifier, making the distant God selectively available for taking care of needs," which is kind of like saying that a living room is really a public swimming pool, revised just a teensy bit from its normal definition of being below ground level, outdoors, full of water, and able for people to swim in. A lay person may be excused for making such an error; for someone claiming to be a theologian of any stripe, it exposes them as a charlatan. The very definition of deism is in the non-interfering nature of God; a God need not interfere all the time (as, indeed, the God of Bible is supposed not to) to fall into being a theistic God. It just has to interfere at all, that is by definition the difference between deism and theism (and of all subsets of deism like pandeism, and subsets of theism like panentheism and polytheism). So why not call this theory what it is, "Moral Theism"? Well, duh, because that makes is sound like a good and defensible thing. Well it's not deism, and it's a lie, a contrived, propaganda-driven lie, to say that it is any such thing. But it's not like Christian Smith has any reason to swear off, I dunno, bearing false witness against his neighbors, so there he goes again.

  3. Having built up this contrived construct, Christian Smith proceeds to huff and puff and blow his straw man down, lamenting how this "is 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." An incubus!! Holy shit, it's motherfucking incubus!! And a parasitic, mutating one at that, like it's involved in some unholy process of evolution by natural selection. In the end, Christian Smith lets it all hang out, concluding "It is not so much that Christianity in the United States is being secularized. Rather more subtly, either Christianity is at least degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith." So, in the end, the problem here is that "Christians" are hanging up the political dogma and getting back to a great degree to what Jesus was actually talking about. And to anyone that's bought into the materialism and hate-mongering of the modern church, well that must just be a terror to behold.

    Oddly enough, Christian Smith doesn't identify or even hint at a single consequence of this supposed shift outside of the degradation of religious dogma. No antisocial conduct is tied to it, no occasions of intolerance or violence are tied to it. Just from the description of the belief set, it seems like it would be a wholly good thing for society to come together under the sort of non-dogmatic, non-schismatic ideology that this phrase describes. As one of the kids who Christian Smith and his ilk scoff at is quoted, "Just don't be an asshole, that's all." Christian Smith, take notice, for that is more sage religious advice than you have ever heard.