This article, reprinted with permission, first appeared in the January 2006 issue of AgapePress. All rights reserved.
o Christian parent wants to hear the words "apostasy" and "my child" uttered in the same sentence, for the very thought that our children may be falling away from Christianity is -- or should be -- terrifying.
But with the stakes so high, Christian parents and church leaders must be willing to ask difficult questions. What is it that young people, who have been raised in church and self-identify as Christians, actually believe? Is it connected at all with the historic Christian faith?
Some individuals who work in the social sciences have begun asking such questions. For example, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, sociologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, began with data gleaned from the largest and most detailed study of teenagers and religion ever undertaken, the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). Smith and Denton added the results of follow-up, face-to-face interviews with more than 250 of the youth who participated in the NSYR study. The authors then distilled the results in their riveting book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.
What Soul Searching reveals is a generation of kids who claim to be Christian, but many of whose beliefs are not even remotely orthodox. Smith and Denton said, "Rather more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith."
In Real Teens: A Contemporary Snapshot of Youth Culture, pollster and researcher George Barna, whose Barna Research Group follows religious and spiritual trends in America, summed up that "different religious faith" in a single word: "Whatever." That word, which is nothing more than a verbal shrug of the shoulders at the thought of absolute truth, "has become the mantra of the emerging generation."
What is ironic about this is that the majority of teens in the U.S. actually hold a very positive view of religion, and churchgoing youth consistently answered surveys like Barna's and the NSYR by stating that God and religion were very important in their lives.
According to Soul Searching, in interviews many teens "said things like, 'Oh, [religion is] really important, yeah,' 'It's the center of how I live my life,' and 'Faith influences many of my decisions.'"
But what did they mean when they made such statements?
Moralism Run Amok
In trying to characterize what churchgoing kids actually believe, Smith and Denton coined the phrase "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." Each word presents a core facet of what is becoming the dominant religious view among the nation's youth.
First, they explained, the religious beliefs of many teens are moralistic because they see faith as being essentially related to mere human goodness. In other words, kids believe "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."
And that's where religion fits in. "Most U.S. teens think that one of religion's primary functions is to help people be good," said Soul Searching.
Orthodox Christian doctrine teaches that goodness is neither an inherent human trait nor, even if it were, is it sufficient for a saving relationship with God.
But that's just the problem. Many religious teens do not hold to an orthodox Christian belief concerning goodness and salvation. Barna noted from his research: "Amazingly, even though they have personally prayed to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, half of all born-again teenagers believe that a person can earn his or her way into heaven."
Smith and Denton said, "Viewed in terms of the absolute historical centrality of the Protestant conviction about salvation by God's grace alone, through faith alone and not by any human good works, many believe professions by Protestant teens, including numerous conservative Protestant teens, in effect discard that essential Protestant gospel."
If religion is important only to help people live good lives, might it not also be true that the definition of a "good" life would differ from individual to individual?
In fact, that is what the majority of youth believe. "In this context ... the very idea of religious truth is attenuated," Soul Searching said, "shifted from older realist and universalist notions of convictions about objective Truth to more personalized and relative versions of 'truth for me' and 'truth for you.'"
This rigidly individualistic view of religion "is not a contested orthodoxy for teenagers," the book said. "It is an invisible and pervasive doxa, that is, an unrecognized, unquestioned, invisible premise or presupposition."
Having completely digested the doctrine of inclusivity and diversity, it is no surprise that typical responses in the Smith and Denton interviews were statements like, "Who am I to judge?," "If that's what they choose, whatever," "Each person decides for himself," and "If it works for them, fine."
With a view of religion that is so intertwined with individualism and which rejects any transcendent truth, it is also not surprising that the majority of teenagers reject the very idea that religion is necessary at all.
Most American teenagers "do not view religion as necessary for anyone being good because they see many means to being good and many good non-religious people. Hence, most U.S. teenagers conclude that religion is a non-necessary condition for achieving one of [religion's] primary functions. In other words, the thing religion specializes in does not actually require religion to achieve. Consequently, many U.S. teenagers construct religion in non-essential terms, as an optional individual lifestyle choice that does indeed help many people but is certainly not itself ultimately necessary."
'Religion Helps Me Feel Happy'
The second facet of Smith and Denton's portrait of dominant religion in America is that it is therapeutic. That is, faith is meant to make a person happy, and help him get through life -- much as a therapist does.
This means that concepts like repentance from sin, praying for God's mercy and grace, or faithfully "living as a servant of a sovereign divine" are absent from the religious lives of many teens, and even many so-called Christian teens.
"Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people."
In their interviews, the researchers logged the number of teens who mentioned certain key phrases. When it came to what the researchers called the "historically central religious and theological ideas," few teens uttered them, if at all. For example, only 47 mentioned "personally sinning or being a sinner," and the numbers trailed off dramatically after that. Next on the list: Only 13 mentioned "obeying God or the church." Concepts such as "the kingdom of God" or "the grace of God" were even less frequently mentioned – by only five teens and three teens, respectively.
On the other hand, 112 teens spoke about "personally feeling, being, getting, or being made happy" because of religion. And that was simply the number of teens who mentioned such words in connection to religion. Teens used the specific phrase "feel happy" more than 2,000 times!
Smith and Denton said: "What our interviews almost never uncovered among teens was a view that religion summons people to embrace an obedience to truth regardless of the personal consequences or rewards."
'Heaven and Stuff'
The final characteristic of the prevailing religious view among American teens was deism. 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. He is often described by teens as 'watching over everything from above.'"
In fact, most teenagers' beliefs about God and their own religious faith were so vague as to be almost incomprehensible. Smith and Denton found "the vast majority of [teens] to be incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives." The vast majority of these churchgoing youth, they said, "simply could not express themselves on matters of God, faith, religion, or spiritual life."
Consider the response in one interview, when a 17-year-old Presbyterian boy was asked to describe his Christian beliefs: "Um [pause], I don't know, I just, uh, just like anybody else I guess. There's nothing really to say, I don't know, just the Presbyterian beliefs. Just like I believe in all the sin and stuff and going to heaven and stuff, life after life."
Or this 13-year-old Catholic girl: "I'm not sure, not sure, I can't remember what I believe. Oh, mm-mm, yeah, like Jesus and God and them guys. That he is alive and watching over us."
Smith and Denton reminded the readers of Soul Searching that "these were not throw-away comments of teens, these were their main answers to our key questions about their basic personal religious beliefs."
Some parents might be tempted to think, "Well, my teenager can't articulate much of anything at his age." But Soul Searching insisted that the problem was not related to their age. "Many of the youth we interviewed were quite conversant when it came to their views on salient issues in their lives about which they had been educated and had practice discussing, such as the dangers of drug abuse and [sexually transmitted diseases]."
And these kids were not stupid, as if knowing details of their own faith was somehow beyond their intellectual capacity. "In the end, many teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were," the researchers noted in Soul Searching.
A Parasitic Faith
Smith and Denton are careful not to overstate their case about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism by implying that it is in any sense an official religion competing with Christianity, and thus successfully proselytizing America's teenagers. Instead, their description is of a phenomenon that is more insidious, and they sounded more like science fiction writers than social scientists.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism "is simply colonizing many established religious traditions and congregations in the United States," and "becoming the new spirit living in the old body. Its typical embrace and practice is de facto, functional, practical, and tacit, not formal or acknowledged as a distinctive religion."
Thus it operates 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."
This is why religious teenagers can remain happily within their original faith traditions, while believing in things diametrically opposed to the actual tenets of that religion.
This parasitic faith, Soul Searching said, has been alarmingly successful. Smith and Denton said they had come to believe "that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity's misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."
If this is the diagnosis of the disease, what is the treatment? Soul Searching seemed clear in its assessment that the church -- and Christian parents -- have failed in the task of educating youth about the core beliefs of Christianity.
In what was perhaps the saddest comment in the entire 300-pages plus of Soul Searching, the researchers said: "Indeed, it was our distinct sense that for many of the teens we interviewed, our interview was the first time that any adult had ever asked them what they believed and how it mattered in their life" (emphasis in original).
If true, that statement represents a situation which is a travesty. And rather than worrying about whether or not apostasy may come to America in the future, perhaps we should mourn the fact that it is already here.
Ed Vitagliano, a regular contributor to AgapePress, is news editor of AFA Journal, a monthly publication of the American Family Association. This article, reprinted with permission, appeared in the January 2006 issue.