March 29, 2016
Despite the fact that many teens today feel estranged from religion, many actively and unknowingly participate in a conglomeration of religions known as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), discovered nearly ten years ago by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Their findings were published in a book known as “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.” The results concluded that most teens believe: 1. A god exists. 2. God wants people to be nice to each other. 3. The biggest goal in life is to feel good about yourself and be happy. 4. God does not need to be particularly involved in their lives except when they need something. 5. Good people go to heaven when they die. The moral portion of MTD means being a good, nice and fair individual without any major character blemishes.
Subjective feelings of well-being, getting along with others and feeling good about oneself through building self-confidence or through acts of service is paramount to MTD. This belief system involves ongoing, subtly-changing ideas such as individualism, self-love, the golden rule, the value of personal success and of a distant god.
Dr. David W. Kling, professor and chair of Religious Studies at the University of Miami, compares the religion of today’s teens to Lake Okeechobee.
“It’s a huge mass of water. There are lots of religions out there, but it is not very deep,” Kling said.
In “Soul Searching,” Smith and Denton categorize an MTD god as both a divine butler and a cosmic therapist. This god is present to meet the needs of those who call on him and makes them feel uplifted when they pray, but remains absent in their day to day lives. Senior Matthew Loucas prays rarely, in times of needs or occasionally when he feels grateful.
“I don’t tend to focus on God unless something either extraordinarily good or bad is happening. I feel as though he’s there when I need him. Other than that, I’m usually talking to air,” senior Matthew Loucas said.
A lack of established religion in a teen’s life is connected to their daily demands. Kling explains that while many teens want to make religion a priority in their lives, there are so many other activities and influences that demand their time and attention.
“Religion competes for so many other things in a teen’s life,” Kling said. “I had four kids [who] all went to Palmetto. You’re competing with all kinds of voices, whether it’s the Internet or Facebook, so it’s very difficult for religious leaders to get teens’ attention of this.”
Such sentiments are significant in the lives of some irreligious teens. Freshman Katie Johnson is an eight year veteran dancer both in and out of school and a Girl Scout.
“Nothing really has stopped me from returning [to my faith]. I just don’t have time anymore to do it. In reality, yes of course, I have enough time, but I stay up late doing homework every night and struggle to keep my grades up,” Johnson said. “I feel like it’s too much and that there’s no time to pray, talk to or appreciate God.”
While her faith occupies only a small portion of her life, her belief remains firm from her instruction at Christ Fellowship Academy, which lasted through fifth grade. Johnson has expressed a desire to return to her Christian roots.
“God should be part of your life at all times, [but] I’m not the perfect Christian and I definitely don’t pray everyday,” Johnson said.
Her personal beliefs oppose the moralistic identity that many teens ascribe to by denying that good people go to heaven when they die.
“There could be some really good, nice people who don’t go to heaven because they don’t believe and I think even if you do a ton of bad things as long as you understand what you did was wrong and ask God for forgiveness, you will go to heaven,” Johnson said.
These thoughts echo teachings of the Christian Gospel that say dependence on Christ is the only means of salvation and entry into heaven; sharply countering how many adherents of MTD believe their good deeds will secure such a spot in the afterlife. Many teens who never received or believed in such Christian ideas lean toward a strong sense of morality embedded in the idea of being a good person.
“I would say I’m a good person,” junior Madison Herron said. “Good people do their best to help others when possible. I’m kind whenever I can be kind. And I give what I can give. And I think that constitutes me as a good person.”
Herron takes four AP classes, is involved in Palmetto Women’s Union and is on the girls volleyball team. She gives her time to No Place for Hate/Student Voices and the Helping Art Liberate Orphans (HALO) Foundation (which aids homeless shelters internationally) in the hopes of bettering the lives of others. Herron feels that being kind is a major priority in her life.
“My first priority all the time is that I am being a morally good person, or the kindest I can be, and that comes first over being the smartest or the most athletic,” Herron said. “Then also I guess with that is helping other people. Third, is that I’m doing my personal best. That I am doing the best that I can do at that moment.”
“Soul Searching” noted that many teens agree that the best way to be happy is to try their best, get along with others and be a good moral person. Herron said her excellence-driven attitude helps build her confidence.
“What gives me confidence is the feeling of knowing that I’m doing everything I can in that moment. I did all the work I could. I studied as hard as I could. I’m pushing myself as much as I can,” Herron said. “And, the feeling of knowing that validates my confidence for me.”
Although Herron identifies with the Jewish faith, she does not believe a relationship with God is necessary for her day-to-day life.
“Because I’m not so religious, I don’t depend on God,” Herron said. “I think that if you believe in God and you feel like you have a strong relationship with God and that makes you your best self, if it gives you whatever you need in that moment in time, if your relationship with God gives you that, then I support it completely.”
Like many other teens, Herron did not grow up in a religious environment but she is very passionate about promoting self-love and aligns closely to a belief of personal fulfillment of happiness.
“ Life is short and there is not enough time to worry about everything that you have to do right, but doing what makes you happy, what makes people feel loved and accepted,” Heron said. “I think happiness has to come through accepting yourself and accepting others, loving others, giving other people a voice, letting yourself be heard. If you do those little things, you can make yourself happy.”
Herron’s parents taught much of what she believes to her and are also not religious. Her family celebrates Christmas and Easter, alongside Hanukkah and Passover as a pastime, but not for any spiritual significance.
“We’re all kind of on the same page. My mom grew up more religious. When my mom moved out of her parents’ house, she wasn’t required to go to church… so she lost touch with any religious part of herself. My dad never was growing up really,” Herron said. “They’re no more religious or less religious than I am.”
Since teens are usually influenced by the beliefs of their parents, Kling claims that the beliefs of teens are not drastically different from those of the general population.
“There is a correlation. If the parents are religious, oftentimes the kids are,” Kling said. “One of the predictors of teen religiosity are parents’ religiosity. I think a lot of teens’ simply follow their parents’ footsteps. Teens mirror the general population.”
Junior Noah Oliver engulfed himself in the Protestant beliefs of his family from an early age. Oliver believes his father most heavily drew him toward his faith by giving him an example on how to live.
“Well for one, he had a household that followed Christian values and didn’t allow any behavior that would break out of those values. Also, and probably the most influential, was the way he lived his life and raised my siblings,” Oliver said. “My father also required church’s attendance and he also was always involved in my life. He always, and still wants, to know what’s going on and how I’m doing.”
Oliver knowingly sets himself apart from the common beliefs included in MTD by clearly understanding and believing the Bible.
“I disagree [with statement four of MTD], because the Bible clearly states that God takes priority and must be first in our lives,” Oliver said. “I have to disagree with number five, though it may sound harsh, I believe I have been saved by faith alone, and being good doesn’t get people into heaven.”
According to Kling, such statements make Oliver an outlier among his peers.
“Except for a small percentage of teens, most are inarticulate about their faith,” Kling said. “They don’t talk to other about it. They don’t talk to their parents about it. For most teens, belief is pretty much a private affair.”