Moralistic therapeutic deism
Moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD) 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 is used to describe what they consider to be the common beliefs among American youth. The book is the result of the research project the "National Study of Youth and Religion".
The author's study found that many young people believe in several moral statutes not exclusive to any of the major world religions. It is not a new religion or theology as such, but identified as a set of commonly held spiritual beliefs. 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. (See "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 is that the term is tendentious rather than descriptive, since, as even the originators admit, "no teenager would actually use the terminology 'Moralistic Therapeutic Deist' to describe himself or herself". The term is usually applied to denigrate a set of beliefs less traditional than one's own.
A third critique is that moralistic therapeutic deism is thus more of a general worldview than a religion or theology in itself. The above mentioned moral concepts of MTD (what the original study called the "5 core beliefs") are not unique to any particular religion or spiritual practice. They can, however, be seen as principles extracted and generalized from orthodox Christianity, but devoid of specific doctrines about God and humanity.
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. Archived from the original on 17 December 2016. Retrieved 17 December 2016.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
- "Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers". ND.edu. Archived from the original on 4 May 2016. Retrieved 4 May 2016.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
- Smith & Lundquist Denton 2005, pp. 162–163.
- 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. Missing or empty
- "What Is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD)?".
- Smith, Christian; Lundquist Denton, Melina (2005). Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-803997-6.