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The Wrong Criteria

May 16, 2009

While I think the analysis of “Moral Therapeutic Deism” (MTD) is both well-done and provocative—I’ll say more about this idea in a future post—I have to say that I didn’t much like Christian Smith’s Soul Searching. I simply don’t appreciate the perspective Smith is coming from.

He never says it outright, but I’m guessing that his view is that teens aren’t Christian enough, and that MTD is a bastardization of good religion. He’s much too sophisticated to say that outright, but he ends the book with a chapter on how much better off religiously active teens are (as opposed to inactive, MTD teens?). He doesn’t use the phrase “better off”; rather, he refers to their “life outcomes.”

How does he determine that religiously active teens are better off? He judges it with these sorts of considerations:

  • Do they have a positive self-image?
  • Do they fee like life is meaningful?
  • Do they feel comfortable talking to their parents or other adults?
  • Do they feel close to, respected by, or loved by their parents?

These sorts of considerations are not that bad, and it doesn’t surprise me that “devoted” teens who are active in some religious group score better on these questions.

More problematic is the next set of considerations:

  • Do they personally care about the poor, the elderly, or racial equality?
  • Do they donate money to charities?
  • Do they volunteer?

Devoted teens score higher on these things as well, but I would want to know what the heck it means to say you “personally care” about others. I don’t know a student who wouldn’t say they personally care about the poor. The question is do they do anything about it?! And “Do they do anything about it?” should probably involve questions other than did you give $10 to a soup kitchen or volunteer for it. In my book this doesn’t make a kid a philanthropist. It probably makes a kid a white liberal with white guilt. (Yes, I know this is an exaggeration, but I can’t exaggerate in my academic papers so I’ll do it here.)

Last, take a look at these considerations:

  • Do they smoke cigarettes?
  • Do they drink alcohol?
  • Do they smoke marijuana?
  • Do they cut class?
  • Do their parents say they are rebellious?
  • Do they watch a lot of TV?
  • Do they watch rated-R movies?
  • Do they look at pornography?
  • Do they spend a lot of time playing video games?
  • Do they intend to wait for marriage to have sex?

These are things that devoted teens score low on—which is apparently a good thing for Smith. If you’re a teen and you’re not watching too much TV or not having sex then you apparently have a better “life outcome.”

I’d like to call this the conservative middle-class white kid scale. This is ridiculous.

Why don’t they ask how many times a kid has been arrested for protesting injustice? Or how many times she’s spit in a cop’s face? Or how many times she’s tried to sabotage a factory farm? This last set of questions doesn’t tell us anything objective about teenagers’ “life outcomes”—they just reveal Smith’s parochialism and provincialism.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Jonathan permalink
    May 16, 2009 12:54 pm

    I don’t know much about this book, but goddamn it sounds stupid.

  2. May 17, 2009 7:52 am

    Christian Smith is a socially and methodologically conservative sociologist, but he really does know his shit, although his approach to contemporary religion – representative of the mainstream of nth american sociology of religion – is not necessarily one that everyone would be convinced by. His work has something of a “fuddy-duddy” feel to it – like in the opening pages of Soul Searching when he narrates sitting in his car in some library parking lot, waiting to meet meet with a teenage girl (for an interview), w/o seeming to recognise how funny the situation is (to a creep like me anyway) – but I think he’s got a much better sense of humour than people give him credit for. Most of his work is on contemporary (largely evangelical) Christianity in the USA, but his work on progressive/radical Christian movements in Latin America is worth reading. If I recall rightly, that was what he started out doing.

    As for the scale and the factors relating to “life outcome”; they’re not all causal variables there. In some cases, they’re proxies for something else, something less tangible it’s hard to measure.

    And you’re right that Smith feels that many kids aren’t Christian enough, which is a subject view, of course, something you either agree with or don’t, or feel is important, or don’t. The object part of it comes in with his notion that kids are not theologically literate enough to allow for the effective reproduction of Christianity across generations. (For my part I think he’s a little tough on the kids; he doesn’t necessarily appreciate or look for different ways they may articulate religious belief and opinion.) Theological illiteracy in this context leads equally to soft “spirituality” and shallow feel-good fundamentalism. Like I said, Smith has personal concerns about this, but it is also a legitimate social scientific thesis with a good deal of evidence. I recall reading similar, smaller studies that show a good deal of young Christians also believe in reincarnation, for example. Whether that matters to you or not, it’s clear there are important sociological issues there.

  3. May 17, 2009 7:54 am

    Sorry, when I said “subject” view and “object” view I meant subjectIVE and objectIVE. I was still giggling at that parking lot skit…

  4. May 17, 2009 7:56 am

    ALSO – I should say that that parking lot skit at the start of Soul Searching is actually valuable in reflecting on the difficulties of sociological data collection. It’s like sociology of religion’s version of Henry Rollins Get In The Van.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 17, 2009 11:49 am

    ibs: I fully agree that Christian Smith knows his shit. I think American Evangelicals is one of the best books on evangelical Christianity I’ve read. Also, I teach the one he wrote with Emerson, Divided by Faith, every semester. That’s a great book. Last, I think the analysis of MTD in Soul Searching was spot on. It’s just the rest of this book that I found lacking.

    I do find MTD scary, but probably for different reasons than he does. I want to blog about it soon.

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 17, 2009 11:50 am

    Also, on the lecherous moment: hehe. Henry Rollins rocks.

  7. May 17, 2009 12:05 pm

    Henry Rollins rocks.

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