Christian Smith is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He has written (with Melinda Lundquist Denton) Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford 2005). Like a good social scientist, Smith conducted extensive interviews with hundreds of American teenagers--representing a wide spectrum of Christian and non-Christian religions--to get an idea of where they're coming from spiritually. Most of them, regardless of their tradition of origin, profess what Smith calls "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism". The passages below are from a summary of his work available as a PDF file. Those of us who are mainline Christians with even a moderately traditionalist slant will realize that these attitudes are not restricted to teenagers; in many mainline communities they have long become the conventional wisdom.
[The basics of Moralistic Therapuetic Deism:]
- 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 by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when he is needed to solve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
...being a good, moral person means...being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, and responsible; working on self-improvement; taking care of one's health; and doing one's best to be successful...As more than one teenager summarized morality for us: "Just don't be an asshole, that's all..."
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is also about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents...What appears to be the actual dominant religion among US 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.
...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, since his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. In short, God is something like a combination 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.