Contrary to many stereotypes, religion plays a significant role in the lives of many American teenagers, and parents’ religious beliefs have a greater influence on teens than is generally believed, according to a recent book.

In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, University of North Carolina sociologist Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton of the National Study of Youth and Religion report that contrary to what they expected to find, teenagers are highly conventional when it comes to faith and happy to go along with the religion in which they were raised.

They found very little “spiritual seeking” among teenagers, discovering that many had never heard the term “spiritual but not religious” and didn’t know what it meant. That, they said, is contrary to the impression given by the media that there is a massive wave of seekers mixing and matching various religions and spiritualities and that adolescence is synonymous with rebellion.

Teens who are religiously affiliated are less likely to engage in risky behaviors and more likely to get along with their parents and do better in school, according to the study.

On the other hand, the authors found that the majority of teenagers are “incredibly inarticulate” about their faith, religious beliefs and practices, suggesting a failure of youth-education programs in churches.

They also identify a “de facto religious faith” of the majority of American teens, which they say is a different faith from traditional Christianity.

They describe teen morality as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” which views God as Creator and Law Giver but largely uninvolved in daily life and presumes that all good people will go to heaven, regardless of religious beliefs.

The purpose of this belief is to help people who are different get along with each other, the book says. There is little need to get too personally involved with God, until you need him.

One 14-year-old boy from Colorado described it like this: “I believe there’s a God, so sometimes when I’m in trouble or in danger, then I’ll start thinking about that.”

The authors identify a five-part “de-facto creed” of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

“Moralistic Therapeutic Design is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life,” they say. “It teaches 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.”

Another key component of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is “about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents.”

“This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etcetera,” they conclude. “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.”

“Finally, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism 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’ and ‘the creator of everything and … just up there now controlling everything.”

Like the deistic God of the 18th century philosophers, the authors say: “The God of contemporary teenage Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is primarily a divine Creator and Lawgiver. He designed the universe and establishes moral law and order. But this God is not Trinitarian, he did not speak through the Torah or the prophets of Israel, was never resurrected from the dead and does not fill and transform people through his spirit. This God is not demanding. He actually can’t be, because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. In short, God is something like a combination of Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves and does not become too personally involved in the process.”

The authors find parallels between Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and “American civil religion,” first described by Robert Bellah in 1967 as appropriating Judeo-Christian religious symbols and discourse to promote national order, unity and purpose.

“Like American civil religion, Moral Therapeutic Deism appropriates, abstracts and revises doctrinal elements from mostly Christianity and Judaism for its own purpose,” they write. “But it does so in a downward, apolitical direction. Its social function is not to unify and give purpose to the nation at the level of civic affairs.

“Rather, it functions to foster subjective well-being in its believers and to lubricate interpersonal relationships in the local public sphere. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism exists, with God’s aid, to help people succeed in life, to make them feel good, and to help them get along with others—who otherwise are different—in school, at work, on the team and in other routine areas of life.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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