30 August 2010

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Detractors see "moralistic therapeutic deism" as a derogative description of one more way that American teens are slouching their way to Gomorrah. I'm inclined to be more positive and see it as an emerging ecumenical consensus that can unite a culturally divided society.

I also strongly dispute the claim of the author of the book that the linked story is based upon that "religious teenagers do better in school, have better relationships with their parents and engage in less high-risk behavior."

The author of "Almost Christian," says she "talks to the teens who are articulate about their faith. Most come from Mormon and evangelical churches, which tend to do a better job of instilling religious passion in teens[.]"

Yet, Evangelical Christians are disproportionately the kids who are dropping out of high school, not going to college or not earning college degrees. They are disproportionately the people who are getting pregnant young, not getting married when they have kids, and getting divorced. Strongly religious kids do worse in school by every measures from selective college admissions to SAT scores to law school GPAs. The incidence of domestic violence is higher among conservative Protestants than mainline Protestants, and higher among Protestants of all kinds than it is among the religiously non-affiliated. William Bradford Wilcox, "Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands" (2004) at 181-82. Violent crime rates are much higher, for blacks and whites alike, in places where the predominant religious faith is Evangelical Christianity.

Are kids really inarticulate, or are the adults simply asking the wrong questions?

Though three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christian, fewer than half practice their faith, only half deem it important, and most can't talk coherently about their beliefs, the study found.

Many teenagers thought that God simply wanted them to feel good and do good -- what the study's researchers called "moralistic therapeutic deism."

Some critics told Dean that most teenagers can't talk coherently about any deep subject, but Dean says abundant research shows that's not true.

"They have a lot to say," Dean says. "They can talk about money, sex and their family relationships with nuance. Most people who work with teenagers know that they are not naturally inarticulate."

Seeing an inability to be articulate about religious faith as a problem is a category error. It doesn't matter if kids don't have a well constructed metaphysical or theological conception of the world. It does matter that kids have a nuanced understanding of the morality of sex and family relationships and what it means to feel good and do good.

My kids have asked me all sorts of questions about the world around them that make assume a world that doesn't make sense, at least if taken literally:

"Is iron stronger than water?"

"How heavy is four inches?"

"When will I be older than you?"

"How long does it take the Sun to go around the world?"

I suspect that some of the questions that the adults are asking the kids in "Almost Christian" are just as nonsensical to someone without a strong theological upbringing, so it is hardly surprising that their answers to those questions may often be inarticulate. But, unless your child is a future member of the clergy, an inability to be articulate about those concepts isn't any more important than your ability to be articulate about the distinctions between string theory and loop quantum gravity. One might long for the day when everyone was immersed in these domains of knowledge, but the cost of this short fall isn't that serious.

Are we helping the human condition by encouraging kids to obsess about the afterlife, and the relationship of sin to salvation that provoked centuries of European wars?

If your child isn't autistic or have Asperger's syndrome your child ought to have a lot of empathy and a very sophisticated understanding the social relationships of people in a group by the time that your child is in elementary school. But, some kinds of knowledge come only with training, and a society that is focusing on a sophisticated understanding of what it means to do good is better than one that is focusing on a sophisticated understanding of the hierarchy of angels or the classification of the covenants that God has mad with man in the Bible.

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