You refer to this "moralistic therapeutic deism" quite a bit in your book. Can you unpack this term for us?So what is happening with the youth we are not losing to atheism is they are arriving at a very truncated version of the Christian faith. In fact it is a stretch to call it Christian. It includes Jesus and the cross but you could remove Him completely and not really have to change a thing. Jesus is not central or essential. But this is what most kids who are going every week to church believe. It is not what most of those churches preach. But most teens are watering down what they hear on Sundays with the feel-good morality of the culture.
That's the name the NSYR came up with to describe the "belief system" of the majority of teens surveyed. The shorthand of moralistic therapeutic deism is that religion helps you feel good and do good, but God pretty much stays out of the way. Now, you can call on God if you need God to solve a problem, but God's track record on solving problems is pretty bad. So the primary God-images that the kids had were either as the "cosmic therapist" or the "divine butler." The therapist serves as the one who helps you feel good about yourself; the guidance counselor image comes to mind here when working with teenagers. The divine butler is somebody who comes when called upon but otherwise stays away. Those images were identified in the study as being dominant among teenagers. And that was very true with the teens I talked to as well. They believe that:
- 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 most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to Heaven when they die.
Now when you get a wake-up call what do people do? They say the problem is the ideas I disagree with. They must somehow be causing this. The liberals blame the conservatives and vice-versa. It is difficult to do much with the Catholic numbers. I think the Catholic church is in flux so a single point in time piece of data would not tell us how the shift towards more orthodoxy is moving the numbers.
I am not even convinced that more people leaving the church is bad. People might be honestly seeing that they believe in moralistic therapeutic deism and that is different from Catholicism so they should leave. Some leave to become nothing and some leave to become protestants. But how many remain moralistic therapeutic deism followers?
But we do need to get better at proposing the Catholic faith and making clear exactly how it is better than moralistic therapeutic deism. Making the difference clear is step one. Making the difference appealing is harder. How do we do that?
The one thought I had was to tell people to do what they would do if the Catholic faith was really true. That sounds so simple it is insulting. But I don't think Catholic do this very well. Everyone who joins the church points this out. Catholics say they believe Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. But do they celebrate the mass like that is true? Most don't even show up on any given Sunday. Kids have really good BS detectors. You say the Catholic church has the fullness of God's truth. Do we live that truth? Do we learn that truth? Do we even respect it?
The people who teach moralistic therapeutic deism really believe it. They live like it is true. They speak passionately about it. It is a pathetic theology. Just a small step from atheism. But a pathetic theology authentically believed is a lot more attractive than the gospel taught by hypocrites. If the Catholic faith is true it is worth dying for. Our youth can see that. But they can also see most Catholics are a long way from being willing to die for their faith. Most priests are a long way from challenging anyone to get ready. So what are they going to believe? It is easier to believe their parents were smart enough not to go all in on false faith. Nobody wants to believe their parents betrayed the true faith.