Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

The language of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

This morning on the way in I was listening to an old episode of the unfailingly excellent and indispensable Mars Hill Audio Journal, in which sociologist Christian Smith discussed his findings about American youth and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I was struck by the part of his discussion with host Ken Myers about how American teenagers lack the basic vocabulary to discuss religious particularities. They are so theologically ignorant they can’t even articulate what their own traditions teach. And in this, Smith suggests, they are like their parents.
Myers asked if there are any data to indicate that teenagers today are any more ignorant than past generations of Americans. Not really, Smith said, but anecdotally, when he interviews older professors, they tell him that young people today are markedly less able to discuss religion to any informed degree. Atheist humanities professor Camille Paglia is also bothered by this, but for different reasons:

Can you have a vibrant culture without cult? Traditionalist conservatives say no. Dr. Paglia is inclined to agree – and says that our lazy secularism and superficial religiosity puts America at risk of succumbing to acedia, the Greek term for spiritual slothfulness. She is shocked to discover how few of her college students grasp basic biblical concepts, characters and motifs that were commonly understood one or two generations ago. This stunning loss of cultural memory renders most Western art, poetry and literature opaque.
“The only people I’m getting at my school who recognize the Bible are African-Americans,” she said. “And the lower the social class of the white person, the more likely they recognize the Bible. Most of these white kids, if they go to church at all, they get feel-good social activism.”
What are they left with? “Video games, the Web, cellphones, iPods – that’s what’s left,” Dr. Paglia laments. “And that’s what’s going to make us vulnerable to people coming from any side, including the Muslim side, where there’s fervor. Fervor will conquer apathy. I don’t see how the generation trained by the Ivy League is going to have the knowledge or the resolution to defend the West.”

We seem to love cultural and religious particularity, so long as it’s not our own.
Back to the Myers-Smith interview, I found depressingly accurate Smith’s observation that our culture has become so acutely aware of difference that we deal with diversity by refusing to talk about it. This matters greatly, says Smith, because the disinclination of teenagers to discuss differences (as if noting differences and asserting that one thing is better or more true than another were offensive) makes it impossible for them to reason morally, because they won’t allow themselves to think in terms of comparing and contrasting moral positions.
In his remarks subsequent to the interview, Ken Myers quoted a contemporary Christian thinker whose name I can’t recall, saying that unlike ages past, when it was most important for the church to preach the Good News to the world, our situation today in the West makes it more important for the church to focus on articulating its teachings, and its distinct way of seeing the world, to itself. This is a powerful reason for some form of the Benedict Option as a way of responding to our cultural situation. It’s not so much a rejection of the world as it is a recognition that religious particularity is in serious danger of being lost — and that maintaining it across the generations requires communal withdrawal in some meaningful sense.

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posted February 4, 2010 at 11:49 am

More thoughts here from Deneen on this same point…
The dominant form of toleration implicitly recommends indifference or apathy toward different ways of life. Yet many cultural and religious traditions are not indifferent to the question of how we should live — they are, to use an unpopular word, judgmental. Can an overarching culture of toleration in fact tolerate a judgmental stance?

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Upstate Crunchy

posted February 4, 2010 at 1:36 pm

For a philosophical/theological analysis of this same problem in 1989, check out William Placher’s _Unapologetic Theology_.

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posted February 4, 2010 at 1:37 pm

The first thing that pops out to me is that the socio-ethno-economic groups that have the highest divorce rates, the highest crime and drug use rates and the greatest general instability of their lives are those most capable of explaining their faith and beliefs.
Despite herself, Paglia seems to show that whatever you think about the theological correctness of MTD, the people who follow it (and their children) are the pillars of our civilization and culture.
As for the claim that upper middle class white kids are susceptible to Muslim extremists because their belief system doesn’t have a countervailing all-encompassing good-and-evil belief system isn’t supported by casual observation. Sure, there is John Walker Lindh, the half-Syrian kid from Mississippi who ended up in Somalia and a handful of others, but they number in the single digits.
Perhaps mass literacy and globalization have made old school religions obsolete for those who thrive in this new world.

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posted February 4, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Rod, as CEO of a small town symphony orchestra in a rural part of the country, this is a topic near and dear to my heart. I’m particularly concerned by the broad-based indifference to our cultural legacy. I think this from your column is dead on:
Dr. Kirk taught that reviving the “moral imagination” – meaning re-engagement with the art and literature of the West’s cultural patrimony – in the face of the disaster of modernity, was vital to saving our civilization.
My organization is doing what we can, but I feel a bit like a Dutch boy plugging holes in a dike. Just the past three years, we’ve started a musical instrument lending library, a free Rock n’ Roll camp for teens (yeah, a symphony orchestra promoting “rock”), a free youth orchestra for kids, and a number of other programs. But it isn’t enough, and finding funding, particularly now, is really tough. I’ve been particularly inspired by what is probably the world’s best music programs for kids — the El Sistema program in Venezuela. I wish there was more like this going on in our country, but we seem to be distracted by other things, from wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, to the latest about Tiger Woods.
For those interesting in learning more about El Sistema, you can go here to see the Venezuela Youth Orchestra perform at
And go here to see Jose Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, talk about the program:
Best regards,

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posted February 4, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Here’s a nice quote from Abreu about the importance of kids playing music:
José Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, the children’s music curriculum currently considered to be the best in the world, says this: “An orchestra is a community that comes together with the fundamental objective of agreeing with itself. Therefore, the person who plays in an orchestra begins to live the experience of agreement. And what does the agreement of experience mean? Team practice, the practice of a group that recognizes itself as interdependent where one is responsible for others and the others are responsible for oneself. Agree on what? To create beauty.”
– from
“Beauty” is the real key, in my humble opinion.
Best regards,

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Francis Beckwith

posted February 4, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Thanks for posting this, Rod.
The great irony in all this is the fact that “diversity” is not what people who clamor for it really want. What they want is philosophical and moral monism under which each individual or group is allowed to superficially and cosmetically present to the rest of us their peculiar traditions. But these traditions serve no greater purpose in the liberal narrative than do ornaments on a Christmas tree. That is, they don’t get to nourish or become part of the organic growth of society and its institutions, and they can replaced without any loss or gain in our culture. They are, in a word, expendable.
At some point, several decades ago, some half-wit thought that because evil people do evil things because they have strong beliefs, the way to solve this problem was to discourage the holding of strong beliefs. The unintended consequence of that pivot was that without strong beliefs (or deep moral traditions), you’ve lost the ground by which you can have warrant to assert that there are evil people who do evil things. The problem was never “strong beliefs,” it was wrong beliefs. But to make that sort of judgment requires real work, the sort of work that demands careful and devoted attention to argument, history, philosophy, and theology. But who has time for that?

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posted February 4, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Madame Paglia lives in Philadelphia. You should look her up.

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posted February 4, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Dear Francis,
Thank you for telling people “who clamor for [diversity]” what they want.
In other news, you want meatloaf for dinner.

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posted February 4, 2010 at 2:20 pm

The only problem with the Benedict Option is that as currently articulated and promoted it only seeks to go back and recover history, (which is admirable), but not to reach out horizontally and engage culture. Part of what makes beliefs strong is a commitment to engage the social and personal diversities of life. Such engagement serves not only as a refiners fire but often enables the believer to see who they really are through the eyes of another. I believe this is what you are doing as you journey with an author like Wade Davis or Daniel Everett in the Amazon. You discover affinities you never thought might exist between you and others within this time, or times past.
Too many people who rightfully want to return to the richness of the Western canon and a vigorous historical engagement, wrongly discard diversity (especially the cultural kind) as some spawn of the devil. Without realizing that the viability of that canon will depend on how well we horizontally approach other canons and cultures that will provide us critique as well as sympathy.

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the stupid Chris

posted February 4, 2010 at 2:23 pm

They are so theologically ignorant they can’t even articulate what their own traditions teach. And in this, Smith suggests, they are like their parents.
It’s got electrolytes!

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John E - Agn Stoic

posted February 4, 2010 at 2:29 pm

The great irony in all this is the fact that “diversity” is not what people who clamor for it really want.
Francis, how do you know this to be correct?

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Lord Karth

posted February 4, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Here’s another long post. I apologize in advance for it, but this is another one of those occasions where a simple one-paragraph snippet simply will not do for treating with complex ideas. Feel free to zip past it, at need.
–Karth, Lord sutai-D’vistrill, tai-Fulton, epetai-Fisher
Mr. Dreher @ 10:41 AM, writes:
“In his remarks subsequent to the interview, Ken Myers quoted a contemporary Christian thinker whose name I can’t recall, saying that unlike ages past, when it was most important for the church to preach the Good News to the world, our situation today in the West makes it more important for the church to focus on articulating its teachings, and its distinct way of seeing the world, to itself.”
Perhaps a bit of rewording is necessary to more correctly understanding the situation: [O]ur situation today in the “post-Western nations” makes it more important for the church to focus on articulating its teachings, and its distinct way of seeing the world, to the people of those post-Western societies.
This is a necessary and important distinction because it allows us to more accurately represent and recognize a basic social reality: that the current dominant culture in the US, Western Europe and Japan is not “Western” and has not been “Western” for a lengthy period of time. “Western civilization” has traditionally been recognized as having sprung from Christianized cultures; it is Rome as well as Athens and Jerusalem that have served as the memetic springs from which those societies have drank.
Christian faith—particularly in the wake of the first two World Wars—has suffered a serious diminution as a cultural motivating force. What has replaced it has two main components. The first of those is a faith in technology as a manipulating, altering and “perfecting” force on both the physical and social levels of society. Technology is seen as displacing more traditional faiths because it can be seen as actually being able to deliver the goods, and in real time to boot.
Consider this: the typical Human being of today is born with the same basic abilities to learn and perceive that his/her predecessors have. Among those are the abilities to feel pleasure and pain, to think and to remember. In a very real sense, Humans are “preprogrammed” with the ability to comprehend receiving stimuli in all those areas. This is why Humans can, for example, be afraid of experiencing severe discomfort even if they never have experienced it before. Also, to a very young child or infant, the various phenomena of nature are mysterious and unknown, and even after they are explained to the child they continue to have a hint of mystery.
I submit that exposure to—and more importantly, immersion in—technology at an early age has some deleterious effects on the Human mentality, absent exposure to countervailing forces. First, it convinces the child, on a subconscious and preconscious level that mystery can be resolved or explained to the point of being understood. This is not a bad thing; it can often lead to the development of curiosity and confidence, due to the emergence of a sense of mastery of one’s environment.
Without, however, a sense of setback, a knowledge that there are things and events and forces that are beyond oneself and more powerful than oneself, this can lead to what the Greeks called “hubris”, a sense that one is all-powerful and utterly in control of one’s environment. In the more extreme cases, the perception arises that the Self is “God”. In the real world, we see this in the life experiences of people like Tiger Woods and Paris Hilton; such people have seldom if ever been told “no”when they have asked for something (money, sex, power, etc.) As we have seen, this breakdown of the social feedback mechanism can produce disastrous results.
Almost as important for Human development is the notion of “endurance”; persistence in the face of denial of gratification. Several experiments have documented the link between the ability to deny oneself immediate gratification as a child and success in a variety of endeavors later in life. Religious faith and instruction can assist in this by first acknowledging the existence of suffering and then by providing not just a way to endure suffering but demonstrating that the ability to endure suffering is a useful and positive thing to have.
Modern technology, especially in the field of communications, has not only increased our ability to secure gratification of our wants (through production and distribution of not only more material goods, but higher-quality goods that are more attuned to what we perceive as our wants), but to reduce the time between the conception of a want and its satisfaction. We focus more on the immediate, at the expense of the long-term.
Also, we have to take into consideration the fact that our capacity to attend to the world around us is finite. This increased focus on the near-term, for most Humans, reduces our ability to consider the long term; and that includes the eternal-term as well.
It’s not just Christianity that has been taken down in status, it is ALL faiths emphasizing a supernatural Being or Beings that have had reduced status as well. Modern “Technolatry”, for lack of a better term, can erode one’s sense of the supernatural, and even one’s awareness of time extending beyond one’s own death. In this sense, childbearing is a statement of faith in the world lasting beyond one’s own death. As parents, we go through considerable pain and suffering and sacrifice in order to have and raise children, and very few of us (mercifully !) outlive them. They are a story that we begin telling the world—–and we do not know how it will end.
We see the evidence of this loss of faith—“crowding out”, so to speak—in the demographic trends in ALL post-Western nations, not simply those in formerly-Christian Europe. The key trend is in Japan; Japan is not a fundamentally Christian nation, yet its demographics are worse than in most other advanced nations. The average Japanese woman of fertile age is simply not interested in having babies. The distractions of modern urban living are simply too attractive.
We also see this in Red China. The “One Family, One Child” policy currently in force was enacted by a central government that explicitly repudiated the notion of life extending beyond death. Communist ideology as practiced in the 20th century was fundamentally atheist; it attempted to “immanentize the eschaton” or bring about Paradise on Earth. Chinese fertility trends are such that the current crop of “little Emperors” will have to provide financial support for two parents and four or more grandparents or older relatives.
Christianity was the central target in the US, but that is primarily because Christianity was the dominant religious faith in the US. We can see this implicit denigration of other faiths, paradoxically enough; in our very sense of “tolerance”. We simply do not perceive these other faiths as being “real enough” to be a threat. Had we truly perceived, say, Islam as an existential threat, there were any number of relatively practical steps available to address it: banning travel from “terrorist” Islamic nations, closing off our borders, actually creating a workable and effective database of known potential threatening people, and practical counterintelligence surveillance of known mosques and masjids that are centers of Islamic agitation. Our actions are revealing in this instance: the current cultural/political leadership is more concerned with the threat to its own self-image—its own “Godhead”—-than with actual, real-world threats.
In the final analysis, the “articulation” issue—“missionary issue” is a more accurate term— that the Church has to deal with in regard to post-Western societies in the technologically developed states is fundamentally different from previous such issues. The Christian churches have to deal with people who are much less capable of being ministered to on a spiritual level than those in other regions. In Africa, Christians can (and do) successfully compete with Islam for converts. In Latin America, the various branches of Christianity duel for new members, successfully. Even in China, Christian churches can and do win converts—to the point where China may be a largely Christian nation within 20-30 years.
But none of those regions have undergone the systematic memetic assault on traditions and beliefs that has occurred in the US and Western Europe in the 20th century. I suspect that the carnage in the fields of France in World War I, along with the Holocaust (committed by culturally “Christian” peoples in Germany in WW II) along with the Hiroshima/Nagasaki atomic bombs caused a fundamental crisis of confidence in the Christian faith (which produced the mental environment that allowed for technological advance), and an overreaction that culminated in coming to rely on “faiths” that delivered actual results on Earth: Communism (which was invented in the West, even if it was primarily applied in the East), and an aggressive secularism modernism/Technophilia/consumerism.
Experienced history, combined with deliberate government policy and efficiently-applied publicity techniques, overwhelmed the traditions and practices of Christianity in those nations. It will be interesting to see whether they are able to do the same in the rest of the world.
I am not optimistic about the likely course of events.
Your servant,
Lord Karth

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Francis Beckwith

posted February 4, 2010 at 5:04 pm

“Francis, how do you know this to be correct?”
Because I have never seen a case where the diversity police suggest anything except that everyone must embrace their understanding of the nature of community, human sexuality, and religion. Take, for example, the case concerning Hastings Law School and its denial of the Christian Legal Society official status as a campus group because it does not allow in its leadership those who are sexually active outside of marriage (including both gays and straights). For Hastings, every group must look alike, all in the name of diversity. The Christian group cannot act as if Christianity is true, for to do so would violate the canons of “diversity.” So, what happens is that Christian theology and moral beliefs are diminished in order to service a monistic ideology, one that cannot tolerate disagreement on matters sexual or religious unless those that disagree deny the normative status of their beliefs.
I believe that America should be a welcoming place, one that allows communities, both religious and otherwise, to flourish. But it should not be a place where one narrow ideology–called “diversity”–requires that members of each community are not permitted to act as if their traditions are true.
How ironic is that in one court in California, opponents of prop 8 are claiming that it is unjust for the state to not recognize one sort of community–gay coupling–while in another court in California (the Hastings case), supporters of the state are claiming that it is unjust for the state to recognize another sort of community–the Christian Legal Society. So, it is not “diversity” that is being demanded. It is “uniformity” with a nice sounding word.

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posted February 4, 2010 at 6:13 pm

I’ve been working on a little monograph on the Culture War in this country, specifically the generational element. Each generation largely takes the liberals’ side of the previous generation’s argument and moves on to arguing the next issue that arises.
Some thoughts so far on the generational element in the area of theology in the public square begin with a generation of argument about secularism in public life after the first World War. (The ACLU was founded in 1920, incidentally.) After the second World War there was a generation of argument whose major object, if often not obvious because it was quite one-sided, was naturalism. From the late Sixties to the early Nineties seems to have been an argument about a broad ecumenism/leveling of status and efficacy of the major denominations and religions. (During the Eighties TV programs resorted to witty and wise rabbis as the one uncorrupted and nonthreatening, therefore broadly acceptable, form of religious authority.) There’s a lot of effort expended on this blog arguing with and mourning the outcome of these arguments- and mentally scheming to recover elements of the lost public legitimacy of religionism, supernaturalism, and hard particularism.
The generational argument since the Early Nineties is not entirely easy to categorize, but there are many pieces that add up to a consistent conclusion. Evidence would be things like the appearance of ‘MTD’ and the New Atheists as significant and the appearance of the significant ‘spiritual but not religious’ demographic. This is countered by fervent philosophical effort to generate new apologies for theist religion and strong assertions these and older apologies. There is also the relative shift of average believers to interest in works rather than theology, and their own experience rather than sophisticated theory.
It seems to me to amount to argument about, and erosion of, the credibility of the traditional (i.e. Ancient World) religious metaphysical conceptions. This ‘Big Question’ approach to trying to wage a fighting retreat and a few ambushes for credibility of religious metaphysics that the Templeton people are engaged in is a curious sign of the times.
I regard this all as incremental attack on, grinding down, and discarding of the elements of religion that lack in sufficient truth as Americans and American culture mature- the Ancient World’s authoritarian Nature deity religion, its fertility cultism, and forms of occultism/defective mysticism which got imported into the religions of America.
Where this leads for Christianity (and for all other religions) when purified of these is to the distinction between the philosophical notion of deity and mysticism’s notion of men attaining a quality given the shorthand ‘deified’. The Gospels are read as supporting the former but can well be read for the latter. Emerson’s Divinity School Address would be an example.
Christianity succeeds these days, to the extent it does, in two ways. One way is by free riding on the repudiation of authoritarian Nature deity religions termed Modernity. And it likewise sells on promises of the believer attaining the powers of the mystic- contact and merger with transcendence, purity of mind and body, prayer that avails, purging and atonement of wrongs, annihilation of selfishness, ability to act with true love and according to a standard of true justice, ability to see the fullness of beauty and love in the world, a share in something immortal. All the while actively repudiating of Modernity and adamant that Jesus is exclusive mediator.

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posted February 4, 2010 at 9:06 pm

I think this article is correct. Christianity has accepted anybody who would sign on, because that’s the only way to get enough adherents to prevail in a democratic society.
In return, once you prevail in a democratic society, you encounter pressure from people who want to change your positions because you’re bossing them around in ways they dislike.
If christians followed a Benedict option, demonstrating what a full-on practice of the religion would be like, they would probably be as respected as the Amish are. And about as influential. Both of which would, IMO, be good for the church and its members.

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posted February 5, 2010 at 11:40 am

“Fervor will conquer apathy”
If this is true, then why hasn’t the religious right taken over this country yet????

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posted February 5, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Thanks, Lord Karth.

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posted February 5, 2010 at 1:12 pm

I don’t get Camille Paglia, but then again I was a science major and never really took to the humanities.
First, what is lazy secularism? A Google search implies that it is atheism that isn’t strident in its opposition to religion. But secularism is the concept that government should exist separately from religion, not that religion shouldn’t exist. So it is not atheism.
Second, I think she’s turned the horse and cart around. The first generation stopped finding religion relevant or believable, so they stopped understanding it or the literary works which shared its world view. Then they stopped being involved with it or raising their children with it. Granted the next generation would be largely ignorant of religion, but they would not be ignorant of their parent’s world view. So the same factors would alienate them from it as well.

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Jonathan Inteleman

posted February 6, 2010 at 9:08 am

I think most teenagers, from whatever generation, have a hard time focusing on anything to any degree. There’s plenty of time to be thinking about religion and philosophy after their hormones settle down.

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