Christian Smith discusses what religion is to adolescents in his works Soul Searching and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. He presents a somewhat dark picture of the state of religion in adolescent life and why this is happening in today’s world. All of a sudden, we are no longer obligated to fall under a specific religion. Rather, religion seems to fit around us in whatever way is convenient to us. In this way, an adolescent’s religion is left entirely to his or her imagination… yet little imagination is actually employed. A very bland, all-encompassing religion Smith refers to as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the the result.
In Soul Searching, Smith talks about therapeutic individualism, amongst other themes. It “defines the individual self as the source and standard of authentic moral knowledge and authority, and the individual self-fulfillment as the preoccupying purpose of life.” Anything experienced by the subject is considered the base of anything morally right or good. This is very different from various faiths where self-sacrifice and unselfishness are key aspects. The moral decision making process is no longer based on what is externally acceptable, but on what “feels right.” Therapeutic individualism can even be considered a reaction to the institutions of modern public life that are impersonal and strictly structured. We no longer seek out religious institutions with set rules, restrictions, and beliefs. Now we seemingly select a set of beliefs and and feelings that are convenient and work best for us. Smith also ties this into mass-consumer capitalism. Capitalism promotes a certain moral order, which fosters “particular assumptions, narratives, commitments, beliefs, values, and goals.” As Americans are redefined by capitalism, religions is also slowly molded. This is because religion becomes just another consumer product that satisfies people’s desires, relating back to the selfish characteristics of therapeutic individualism.
Having been raised in a strong Catholic setting, I have been “institutionalized,” so to speak, most of my life. However, often times I find myself trying to base my faith around what I feel is right based on socially acceptable ideas. Often times it takes a hard hitting homily at Mass or particularly powerful talk for me to realize these thoughts and feelings I may have are not necessarily in line with Catholic teaching. They are just things society has found acceptable and seem convenient to me. So even as a practicing Catholic I find myself lured by therapeutic individualist ideas.
Smith also adresses the disconnect between adults and adolescents in today’s world. Throughout most of human history, children were integrated into adult living. They took on important responsibilities as soon as they were able to contribute. In ancient times that meant doing things from simple chores to helping with hunting and gathering. This translated to medieval times where boys were apprenticed at a young age. In today’s society, the adolescent goes through further disconnect due to child labor laws from the industrial era. These laws were created to separate children from the harsh adult world. Along with the rise of suburban culture, emphasis on education, and development of cars, adolescence became a whole different phase of life. Whereas children in ancient times were integrated into the adult world as soon as they could be of any use, adolescents are now not a part of the adult world often times until they are in their mid 20s. This has a strenuous effect on adolescent religion since religion is often considered an adult affair. This extra developmental time causes adolescents to simply write off religion as something they will address later in life.
In Smith’s work, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, he finds that the typical American adolescent has succumbed to a generalized religion. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism can be summed up in five ideas: 1) A God exists who created the world and watches over us. 2)God wants people to be good as is taught in the Bible and most religions. 3) The central goal in life is to be happy and feel good. 4) God is not involved in personal life unless He is needed. 5) Good people go to heaven after death. This is a hybrid religion that is based off of numerous other religions and is attractive to young people because of its convenient nature. Smith finds this religion to be a highly socially functional religion, yet lacking from a sociological and theological perspective.
Smith finds that most adolescents are distant from the “adult affair” of religion and hold very generalized beliefs. While I would not characterize my thoughts on religion as even remotely close to these, I do recognize that many teenagers fall under these findings. I acutely remember one of my religion teachers in high school asking all the students in class where they were in their faith lives. One of my friends simply said, “I honestly do whatever. I just don’t care about it right now, maybe in a few years.” This roughy summarizes Smith’s discussion on adolescent religion.