Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

I've been reading the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith (with Melinda Denton). The book, published in 2005, summarizes data collected by the National Study of Youth and Religion. During 2002 and 2003 the NSYR conducted a random and national phone survey of American households containing at least one teenager between the ages 13-17. In the spring of 2003 in-depth follow-up interviews were conducted with 267 of the teenagers previously interviewed on the phone. According to Smith, the 2002-2003 research was the "largest, most comprehensive and detailed study of American teenage religion and spirituality" ever conducted. The survey asked questions about the religious and spiritual identities, affiliations, beliefs, experiences, and practices of U.S. teenagers.

So what does the religious faith of American teenagers look like?

In Chapter 4 of Soul Searching Smith offers a summary of the NSYR data and its findings. Specifically, Smith suggests that American teenagers subscribe, implicitly or explicitly, to a religious creed that Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. According to Smith, the "creed" of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is captured by these five beliefs (pp. 162-163):

1. A God exists who created and orders 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 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 God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
Smith observes about this creed:
[V]ery few teenagers would lay out the five points of [this] creed as clearly and concisely as we have just done. But when one sifts through and digests hundreds of discussions with U.S. teenagers about religion, God, faith, prayer, and other spiritual practices, what seems to emerge as the dominant, de facto religious viewpoint turns out to be some version of this faith.
As can be deduced from Smith's label, the de facto faith of U.S. teenagers (and, one suspects, many adults) has three distinct aspects. First, the faith is moralistic. Smith again:
First, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism 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. This means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one's health, and doing one's best to be successful...Being moral in this faith means being the kind of person that other people will like, fulfilling one's personal potential, and not being socially disruptive or interpersonally obnoxious.
Second, the faith is therapeutic. Smith:
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 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, etcetera. 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 obtaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people...It is thus no wonder that so many religious and nonreligious teenagers are so positive about religion, for the faith many of them have in mind effectively helps to achieve a primary goal: to feel good and happy about oneself and one's life.
Finally, the faith is deistic:
...Moralistic Therapeutic Deism 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...This God is not demanding. He actually can't be, because 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, and professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.
As I hinted at above, I don't believe Moralistic Therapeutic Deism exclusively characterizes U.S. adolescents. Many people I know subscribe to this creed. And to be clear, the creed isn't all bad. I don't mind a lot of the moralistic part. But I see God as "Divine Butler" and "Cosmic Therapist" on my campus and in my church all the time. I also see the therapeutic part a great deal (the goal of the religious life is a subjective state of happiness and self-esteem).

In fact, when you hear Americans say "I'm not religious, but I am a very spiritual person" the general gist of what they are saying is that they subscribe to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

That's what most Americans mean when they say "I'm spiritual."

Or worse...what they mean when they say "I'm a Christian."

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9 thoughts on “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”

  1. Richard -

    It strikes me that MTD is largely a rehash of the natural religion projects of the 18th century - does Smith comment on this at all?

  2. Richard,
    You said, "but we should feel motivated to call people out of this kind of thinking."

    You're saying in effect, that unless we experience the suffering (oppression) then we cannot identify with "god"(though our "disciplined" responses)...this would fall in line with empirically investigating the psychological tendencies in the "early followers of the Jesus tradition" in developing their understanding of "faith", which began as a Jewish sect...identifying with the "suffering servant" (Jesus) thus, ensuring (proving) that we "become "one with the Father" !!!This is NOT humane!

    Believe me when I say that I lived my life denying myself, and taking up my cross...many would not have thought that my personal suffering was anything compared to what others that are "truly oppressed experience", but, I disagree! Humans psychologically are affected by oppression, which is in the guise of political, physical or spiritual. Reasonable people do not want to put people through such "investigation". But, scientists that hold to the 'greater good" theory DO! (Collectivists mentality)These are the ones who experiment on humans without a quinge of conscience!

  3. I like this meta-solution. Interesting to ponder the ways in which Jesus' gospel responds to each of the implicit claims. And it makes me think of Mike Armour's work with Clare Graves and the development of thinking systems in response to increases in complexity. Do we revert to our inner Buddhist (qb's shorthand for MTD as a youth's default) as we are overwhelmed by complexity in the form of seemingly intractable injustice/cruelty?

  4. I'll take a shot at this ... trepidatiously. Of course, this is just my shooting from the hip, not heavy-duty exegesis from a theological professional.

    #1 God loves the world He made, and every person in it, without exception. See also, Jesus.
    #2 God gave you a heart, mind, soul, and strength. Engage them in this world for the sake of mercy, justice and truth. Be a good steward of your own life, because it's a gift, not an entitlement.
    #3 Love your neighbor as yourself. Care enough to care. Don't walk by. See also: Rich man vs. Lazarus
    #4 Remove the beam from your own eye before you pick the mote in another's. Don't be an ass. Own up and ask forgiveness, because everyone else already knows why you need to.
    #5 Live your life as if you'll be held accountable for it. Because what you live out is what you truly believe. Theological correctness isn't salvation: see also, the Pharisees.

  5. Matthew,

    Don't let your suspicions get ahead of you. Chris Smith knows his theology. Best you read the book for yourself.

  6. Patricia,

    Obviously, many in the 18-23 age range end up on college campuses, where the myth is that the academy undermines faith. But the data says otherwise. You are right to cite parent and grandparent and church and the like as the research has said this is where kids get their formation. The implication is that youth and emerging adults manifest moralistic therapeutic deism because this is what is lived out by parent and grandparents and churches. Even as youth learn critical thinking skills and a hermeneutic of suspicion, the sort of religiosity that they were raised with tend to be maintained.

  7. Hello Patricia,

    Thank you for taking a chance on such an open ended question.
    I am really grateful for your graceful tone and approach. I understand the concern from all, but admit I was fishing the blog group a bit, trying to pick up a tone - what should the expected "correct" perspective of "faith" look like (let alone asking teens as you brough up earlier)? I definitly hoped not to see a canned regurgitated exegesis - thank you LOL.

    I guess I wasn't as bothered about the results as perhaps I should be. I can't shake my head and click my tongue at how teens perceive faith - I wish my outlook of faith was that good when I was 13-17 - LOL. In general, my reaction to reading the results was indictment - of myself.

    I get the discussion around responses 3 and 4 in the survey as it reveals a self-serving disposition in relating to God - I get that.
    I know I'm cynical, but I just don't see enough ADULT Christians (who are "experienced" in the word and ministry) demonstrate a life of denying ourselves daily, picking up our cross and following Him. It's kind of tough here in 21st century America. Chances are even the rich man in Luke 16 didn't enjoy running water, let alone HDTV. and a Marie Calandar Sunday brunch after morning service. Kind of tough to voluntarily decline life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ... just because it's ... there.

    Item 5 wasn't discussed much here but I wonder what the outcome would be from a survey of adult "Christians" who do participate in ministry inside a Bible teaching church.

    Thank you again Patricia.
    Gary Y.

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