Moralistic therapeutic deism
Moralistic therapeutic deism is a term that was first introduced in the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005) by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. The term (abbreviated MTD) is used to describe what they consider to be the common religious beliefs among American youth. The book is the result of a research project, the "National Study of Youth and Religion," privately funded by the Lilly Endowment.
The authors find that many young people believed in several moral statutes not exclusive to any of the major world religions. It is this combination of beliefs that they label Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:
- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
These points of belief were compiled from interviews with approximately 3,000 teenagers.
The authors say the system is "moralistic" because it "is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person." The authors describe the system as being "about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherent" as opposed to being about things like "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..." and further as "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."
The remoteness of God in this kind of theism explains the choice of the term "Deism", even though "the Deism here is revised from its classical eighteenth-century version by the therapeutic qualifier, making the distant God selectively available for taking care of needs." It views God as "something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he's 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."
The authors believe that "a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity's misbegotten stepcousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."
CNN online featured an article, "More Teens Becoming Fake Christians" on Kenda Creasy Dean's 2010 book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. (Oxford University Press, 2010). She writes, "The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe, namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people…" She goes on to say that "if churches practice MTD in the name of Christianity, then getting teenagers to church more often is not the solution (conceivably it could make things worse). A more faithful church is the solution…. Maybe the issue is simply that the emperor has no clothes."
Deist writers have leveled two criticisms against use of the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. First, it has been argued that the word "Deism" has been too radically redefined by the coiners of the phrase. Deism in the classical sense means belief in an intelligent designer arrived at through reason and observation of the natural world. One critic states that, "the 'religion' called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism would be more accurately called Moralistic Therapeutic Theism. There is no reason to invent the phrase Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to begin with—because it is, as has already been stated many times, merely a diluted version of the revealed religion that already exists. In truth, it holds no relationship with Deism as we know it."
A second criticism against use of the term is that it is essentially vacuous since, as the originators of the term even admit, "no teenager would actually use the terminology 'Moralistic Therapeutic Deist' to describe himself or herself," and since the term is always applied relative to one's own position on a spectrum of adherence to or ignorance of Christian scripture and tradition. As one critic argues, "The case for this can be especially strengthened when you consider the issue of executing disobedient children, as we discussed earlier [referring to Deuteronomy 21:18–21]. Almost no Christians actually follow that part of the Bible. . . . To an extent, then, all Christians fit into the MTD category—the only difference between American teens and the rest of them is that American teens hold the beliefs of MTD to a higher degree, and therefore hold the beliefs of traditional Christianity to a lesser degree."
In fairness, though, some Christian theologians refute this secondary criticism as uninformed, and applied from a fairly severe lack of understanding of the fundamental Judeo-Christian concept of the completion of messianic soteriology; a criticism similar in character, but not in scope, to believing that Christians actually eat physical human flesh and drink human blood in the Christian rite of Holy Communion. The confusion of the topics of Christian soteriology and biblical criticism has long been an issue for both Christians and non-Christians.
Damon Linker suggested in a 2009 blog post that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, while theologically "insipid," is "perfectly suited to serve as the civil religion of the highly differentiated twenty-first century United States," a contention that was disputed by Collin Hansen, Ross Douthat, and Rod Dreher.
- Collin, Hansen (20 April 2009). "Death By Deism". Christianity Today. Retrieved 9 January 2010.
- Veith, Gene Edward (25 June 2005). "A nation of deists". World. Retrieved 9 January 2010.
- R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Moralistic Therapeutic Deism--the New American Religion, Christian Post, 18 April 2005.
- Smith & Lundquist Denton 2005, p. 163.
- Smith & Lundquist Denton 2005, pp. 163-164.
- Smith & Lundquist Denton 2005, p. 164.
- Smith & Lundquist Denton 2005, p. 165.
- Smith & Lundquist Denton 2005, p. 171.
- Blake, John (27 August 2010). "Author: More teens becoming 'fake' Christians". CNN.
- Underwood, Drew (22 September 2011). "Moralistic Therapeutic... Theism?". Springfield Deism Examiner. [self-published source?]
- Smith, Christian; Lundquist Denton, Melina (2005). Soul Searching : The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-803997-6.