The Illusion that We Are in Control

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What we learn here is that theology matters, that much of our addiction to power and control is due to false conceptions of God. Gods of our own making may allow us to be “masters of our fate” Sociologist Christian Smith gave the name “moralistic, therapeutic deism” to the dominant understanding of God he discovered among younger Americans. In his book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, he describes this set of beliefs. God blesses and takes to heaven those who try to live good and decent lives (the “moralistic” belief) The central goal of life is not to sacrifice, or to deny oneself, but to be happy and feel good about yourself ( the “therapeutic” belief). Though God exists and created the world, he does not need to be particularly involved in our lives except when there is a problem (that is “deism”).

This view of God literally makes you master of your fate and captain of your soul. Salvation and happiness are up to you. Some have pointed out that “moralistic therapeutic deism” could only develop in a comfortable, prosperous society among privileged people. People “at the top” are eager to attribute their position to their own intellect, savvy, and hard work. The reality is much more complicated. Personal connections, family environment, and what appears to be plain luck determine how successful a person is. We are the product of three things – genetics, environment, and our personal choices. – but two of these three factors we have no power over. We are not nearly as responsible for our success as our popular view of God and reality lead us to think.

Popular culture often tells young people, “you can be anything you set your mind to.” But it is cruel to say that to a five-foot-four-inch eighteen-year-old boy who yearns, more than anything else, to be an NFL linebacker. To use an extreme example, if you had been born in a yurt in Outer Mongolia, instead of where you were, it wouldn’t have mattered how hard you worked or used your talents – you would have ended up poor and powerless. To come closer to home, think of the impact of your family background on you. You may spend your younger years telling yourself that you will not be like your parents, you will be your own person. However, somewhere in the middle of your life, it will become clearer how indelibly your family has shaped you.

This was an excerpt from Timothy Keller's book Counterfeit Gods