Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the Classroom

One of the things I’ve been thinking about during my absence is something Rod comments on frequently: the modern phenomenon of “religulosity,” or quasi-religion, in the form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  The Wikipedia link includes the following definition, culled from interviews of thousands of American teenagers:

  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.

Why is this such a problem?  Rod points it out as an aside in this lengthy entry that’s actually about another topic:

This is why I’m always going on about the curse of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Whatever it is, it’s not authentic Christianity, not by the historical and doctrinal standards defining orthodox (small-o) Christian belief. If we Christians declare that tradition is not binding on us in any meaningful way, that we are free to believe about our faith whatever “works” for us, then we are theologically bankrupt. I find it easier in some ways to understand the atheist who believes it’s all nonsense than the self-described Christian who takes what he wants but ignores the rest, especially the hard stuff. To be clear, I don’t believe that only saints are authentically Christian. I sin. We all sin. I struggle to understand many of the teachings of the faith. But I don’t decide, on my own authority, that I don’t have to believe this thing or that thing, because it’s too difficult, or it doesn’t “work” for me. I am not a good Christian, but I can make that judgment because I have a clear standard of what a good Christian is — a standard that exists independent of my own preferences and moods.

Amen and amen. MTD is the Oprah of religions (this is part of what I loathe about Oprah.  She is NOT harmless; she advocates for a worldview in which the self is the measure of all things.)

Now, midway through Year 8 of teaching in classrooms at an extremely conservative Christian institution, I am shocked by how much of this mindset has crept into the thoughts and actions of my students.  Here are the biggest fallacies I’ve observed:

  1. Effort = achievement.  Over and over, students argue that they deserve an A on a paper because they worked really hard.  Once, after I explained that part of the grade was creativity, several students turned in papers written in colored ink and plastered with stickers.  When I expressed disbelief, they countered that they were trying to be “creative.”  This was one moment in which I despaired of ever being a good teacher.
  2. Prayer instead of effort.  We begin every class with prayer, and I am often touched by the number of students who remember the sick, the poor, the unborn and all who struggle.  But I also notice a growing number of students who pray almost as a substitute for their own efforts.  For instance, one of my students a number of years ago asked prayer for her grades at every single class, but almost never turned her work in on time.  Just about every student has prayed desperately for snow at some point in his life, but many of the students I encounter really seem to believe prayer is some sort of magic charm.
  3. Prayer as a shopping list.  In seven and a half years in the classroom, the only prayer of thanksgiving I’ve ever heard is after the birth of a family member — maybe two or three a year.  Thinking back to my own experience at a Christian school growing up, the requests always outumbered the thanksgivings (we are humans, after all, selfish by nature, and God knows I understand this!) but there were things for which we were grateful: time with friends, deliverance from sickness, and occasionally even good grades. (Aside: Most of my students are Catholic and refer to prayer requests as “intentions,” so it could be that that term is specifically intercessory, and that’s why they so seldom give thanks.  I’m not sure.)
  4. Struggle is bad.  Maybe this is an unfair expectation, since I only really learned to enjoy the struggle of learning in college (see any entry about Gussow!) But I do seem to remember understanding, as I wrestled with Geometry proofs or oil painting, that I might just have to accept that this was too difficult for me to fully understand right now. My students just can’t understand how struggling could be a good thing.  In their view, the best kind of assignment is easily completed and makes them feel good afterward — completely devoid of struggle — and the worst kind of assignment is one that requires wrestling and may not even result in a good grade (see “effort = achievement” above.)  Similarly, they argue increasingly that Hester Prynne was unfairly ostracized for her sin and had every right to abandon her life in Boston for a new one in which she could live unapologetically with a new husband and their illegitimate child.  They know premarital sex is a sin, but they have seen so much of it that they can’t see why it should have repercussions on the rest of an otherwise-virtuous life: “She’s a good person.  Who cares if she did one bad thing, especially if it was with someone she really loved?”
  5. Stress is struggle.  I’m sure I complained, as a teenager, about my stress level.  I’m also sure it was far less than what my students juggle: they are so overextended in so many areas that I could write a separate essay on the evils of extracurricular activities. What I want to point out here is the most common excuse for almost any academic infraction, which is “I’m so stressed out right now.” Somehow they have taken the work of learning and replaced it with activity — which becomes an excuse for not completing required tasks.
  6. It’s all about me.  My friend Terry, a journalist and educator, has been an unbelievable source of support in this area: students love to write about themselves, to the extent that they expect to use first-person narrative in most academic papers.  I had one student argue that she didn’t see how I could take points off her paper, since it was based on her opinion: “How can my opinion be wrong?”  Yeah.  It’s come to that. Curiously, they appear simultaneously self-conscious about their opinions: if I had a dollar for every time I’ve crossed out “I believe,” “I think,” or “I feel,” I would be writing this entry from French Polynesia.  They want to state their opinions and make sure you thow they’re their opinions.

What does all this mean for teachers?  I’m not sure yet.  For now, I’m just aware (and wary) of this philosophy’s pervasiveness.