Therapeutic Individualism

A review of a new sociological study about the religious beliefs of American teens- “Moral Therapeutic Deism” – published at The Revealer has a good comment that shows how culture dominates religion, and how religion relates to culture. The basic point is that self-described Christian American teenagers are as materialistic and self-absorbed as their peers.


… therapeutic individualism, a set of assumptions and commitments that “powerfully defines everyday moral and relational codes and boundaries in the United States.” Personal experience is what shapes our notions of truth, and truth is found nowhere else but in happiness and positive self-esteem. In religious terms, according to teenagers, God cares that each teenager is happy and that each teenager has high self-esteem. Morality has nothing to do with authority, mutual obligations, or sacrifice. In a sense, God wants little more for us than to be good, happy capitalists. Smith and Denton elaborate: “Therapeutic individualism’s ethos perfectly serves the needs and interests of U.S. mass-consumer capitalist economy by constituting people as self-fulfillment-oriented consumers subject to advertising’s influence on their subjective feelings.” And to be good, happy capitalists, we should be good, unless if being good prevents us from being happy.
These beliefs are killing American religion. The authors call it Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The creed is simple and, yes, conventional — but, where the authors find that it matters, MTD is not traditional. Basically, God exists and watches over human life, which was created by God. God wants people to be nice, as it says in the bible and in most world religions. God does not have to be involved in our lives except to solve our problems and make us happy. Good people will be even happier in heaven after they die. The religious beliefs of American teens tend to be — as a whole, across all traditions — that simple. It’s something Jews and Catholics and Protestants of all stripes seem to have in common. It is instrumentalist. “This God is not demanding,” say the authors. “He actually can’t be, because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good.”
The instrumentalist parasite of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is killing off the “historically key ideas in America’s main religious tradition, Christianity”: “repentance, love of neighbor, social justice, unmerited grace, self-discipline, humility, the cost of discipleship, dying to self, the sovereignty of God, personal holiness, the struggles of sanctification, glorifying God in suffering, hunger for righteousness.” And this is lamentable.

I don’t think the commentary can be limited to teenagers. The survey says a lot about the condition of Christianity in America. It is patriotic, materialistic and more dedicated to the affirmation of the self than to dying to self. It confirms that the trends towards hedonism and narcissism in Western culture identified by sociologists and social critics (Daniel Bell, Christopher Lasch, for instance) have penetrated the Christian churches. Christian principles are no antidote – they are almost decorative. Most religious leaders are primarily concerned to build their churches and to maintain them. Their technique is producing entertaining, intense experiences of spoken words, music and social solidarity carrying a message of self-fulfillment for believers and criticism of targetted others.
I admire writers like this, but I wonder if they would be better off to walk away from the Church. They have no better chance of reforming the church than of transforming the values of culture.
PS – In the linked review, there is a (sometimes) broken link that refers to Charles Taylor. Wikipedia has an entry on Charles Taylor, the philosopher who taught at McGill and Northwestern.