Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

16 Apr 2018

American Youth’s Default Religion: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

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What is the most common religion among teenagers and young adults today (and probably a large percentage if not a majority of adults)? Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).

This was a suggestion first made by Christian Smith (and Melinda Denton) in 2005 in their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers based on extensive surveys and interviews with U.S. teenagers. Their suggestion is not that most teens expressly hold the view of MTD, nor is there any particular religious institution that is promoting it. Rather, they note that teens from a variety of religions seem to share common ideas/beliefs to varying extents. Additionally, these teens seem to have largely adopted it from the adults in their lives. Smith and Denton use the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to try to capture the heart of these beliefs.

The term Moralistic helps indicate the importance of right living in this religious perspective. (NOTE: the following quotations are all taken from Christian Smith, “On ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith,” in Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture, 2005 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Theological Seminary, 2005)

  • “[MTD] believes that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That 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.” (47)
  • “Being moral in this faith means being the kind of person who other people will like, fulfilling one’s personal potential, and not being socially disruptive or interpersonally obnoxious.” (47)

The therapeutic label emphasizes the importance of feeling satisfied, fulfilled, and happy.

  • “This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etc. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. 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.” (48)

Finally, the term Deism is used to highlight the largely uninvolved approach this god takes. A nice god who helps you feel nice

  • “[MTD] is about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs–especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance.” (49)
  • “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.” (50)

In short, MTD is about a nice God who helps you be nice and feel nice.

Smith offers the following five statements as a kind of informal “creed” or summary of MTD

  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 he is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

In a series of five blog posts, I will consider each of these statements and will seek to answer four questions.

  1. What do people believe?
  2. What does the Bible say?
  3. How might this show up in our lives?
  4. How might this affect our evangelism?