Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

About 15 years ago, Christian Smith released the findings of qualitative research he conducted, interviewing approximately 3000 high school students (Smith & Denton, 2005).  His summary interpretation of kids’ statements about religious faith and practice: “we suggest that the de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers is what we might well call ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’” (p. 162).  The tenets or creed of this “religion:”

  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.

Though this ‘creed’ is particularly apparent among kids with Catholic and mainline Protestant backgrounds, it is also quite evident among Protestants that are more ‘conservative’ in theology and practice.  In their summation, Smith and Denton provide three points worthy of consideration:

  1. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) is about the indoctrination of a moralistic approach to life.  Many sermons are moralistic in nature.  “Do good, try not to do bad” is the mantra of a moralistic version of Christianity. 
  2. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is “about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents” (p. 163).  Simply stated, God’s main job is to make us happy.  MTD is not about repentance, gratitude, dying to self, building character through difficult circumstances, giving of one’s self to social justice, etc.
  3. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism follows the basic tenets of deism – God created the universe and humanity, defines the general moral order, but is not particularly personally involved in the affairs of humans, especially where we prefer he not be involved. We call on him only when necessary and blame him when we are not happy or when things don’t go our way. Deists view God as “watching over us from above.”

Though Smith’s research is almost 15 years old, it is fair to conclude not a lot has changed in the course of the past decade or so.  Therefore, it is imperative that we be aware of the tenets of MTD as we communicate what following Jesus looks in our culture(s).  We want to help people know Jesus; MTD focuses on what we can get him to do for us.

Reference: Smith, C., & Denton, M. L. (2005). Soul searching : The religious and spiritual lives of american teenagers. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.