Christianity's Mis-begotten Child


By Carole A. Buleza

I am not alone in thinking there is something very wrong with Christianity today. A particularly salient symptom is the phrase, “It doesn’t matter the church you go to, we all worship the same God.” The disorder has been named “relativism,” but I believe I have found the true diagnosis: moralistic therapeutic deism.

I came across the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism,” or “MTD,” in the middle of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, by Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton (Oxford University Press, 2005). The book is the research report of professors at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. By way of forms, phone calls, and personal interviews, they surveyed 3,290 teenagers from around the United States to find out how important their faith was to them, why, and in what ways. The book contains stories as well as data, and received Christianity Today’s 2006 Christianity and Culture Book Award–-well-deserved.

Religion is very important to American teenagers, and valued by them, according to the research project – a seemingly good conclusion – but this good news is qualified by the way the respondents attempted to explain what they meant by “religion.” In what follows, I’ll explain moralistic therapeutic deism, a phrase the authors developed to describe in general terms the teenagers’ faith. In my opinion, this is the faith of a large portion of Christians in the United States. For whatever reason, the study did not include Orthodox Christians; but we would be foolish to ignore the study, and “MTD.” MTD is being absorbed, unwittingly, as if by osmosis, by our teens just like all the others.

Moralistic

The term moral means “having to do with principles of right and wrong.” For the purposes of their survey, the authors describe the “morally significant universe” as one in which there is an overarching story – a “meta-narrative” – that explains all the struggles, failures, and victories in life. The story is composed of a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it provides the framework in which one’s own life story is bound. The world is understood to be held up by forces larger than oneself, and there is a standard by which a person knows who he is and how he should act. “In such a reality, moral temptations are serious business, as choices for right and wrong reverberate far beyond our own lives and affirm or violate a larger cosmic order” (Soul Searching, p. 156). Those who live in a morally significant universe have reason to believe that all things, including their own lives, are headed to a goal, or “telos.”

By contrast, in a morally insignificant universe,

...there is no Creator who set humanity here and guides our lives and history with Providence. There is no larger law-like order in nature that structures the moral living of the human race. There is little worth spending life to fight for that does not seem arbitrarily chosen. There is no judgment, no final retribution or punishment, not even a remembrance of one’s life or anything human after time and physics have run their course. There is no telos, but simply the given self and world of experience (ibid., p. 157).

One of the most important things that teens say religion provides them is guidance in being a “good person.” As one said of religion, “Makes me a better person, you don’t just go out and do immoral things” (ibid., p. 151). It is not necessary, according to the teens, to be religious in order to be good, as they knew many good people who were not religious. It is easy to understand why they believed that knowledge of right and wrong is common sense – not defined by the word of God. The data showed that most teenagers in the United States live lives that are embedded in a morally significant universe. One precept seemed adequate to address the moral issues in their lives, “Thou shalt not hurt oneself or others” (ibid., p. 155).

Therapeutic

Therapy is a term used to denote the treatment of an illness, whether mental or physical. Therapeutic denotes the favorable or beneficial outcome. The second important reason why teenagers value religion is because it gives them feelings of mental and psychological security, and it helps them get through their problems and troubles. Similarly, it gives them confidence and direction, while helping them keep a positive attitude toward life. Here are some of the comments. 

“If I’m having a hard time, it makes me feel better.”

“They change my perspective on life, my perspective on problems, how I look at stuff.”

“Helps me gain a sense of respect – that I’m supposed to do things, helps me understand and be more respectful of things.”

“If I need something I can just pray.”

“It makes you feel better” (ibid., pp. 152-3).

While reviewing hundreds of pages of data and transcripts, the researchers took note of recurring words and phrases. A small minority of teens used specifically religious terminology in explaining their faith (such as repentance, salvation, resurrection of Jesus, discipleship, loving one’s neighbor). They were outnumbered four to one: the rest used therapeutic phrases. Furthermore, the specific phrase “to feel happy,” was counted in the data more than two thousand times (ibid, p. 168). Who doesn’t want to be happy – but is that what religion is all about?

Deism

During the Enlightenment, a way of thinking about God gained prominence in philosophical and scientific circles. The miracle stories, any others which seemed to be supernatural, and any claim to the intervention of God in human history were dismissed by these men as “unreasonable.” Rationality, and observation of the natural world, together became the only way of “knowing” for them. While they did not call themselves “atheists,” they radically stripped God of His Biblical identity. The deists described God as setting the world in motion, then leaving it to run according to the way it was designed. An apt analogy was found in the clockmaker. After the clockmaker has finished assembling the clock, he winds it up, and it goes on and on, without his interfering. By analogy, the deist god is sometimes described as the “Supreme Architect.” The motto on the website of the Worldwide Union of Deists (www.deism.com) summarizes their viewpoint well: “God gave us reason, not religion.”

When we recall that our nation was founded on Christian principles, because “God” is mentioned in the documents, it is good to remember also that a minority of the founders, like Thomas Jefferson, were more deist than anything else. Jefferson took the time, in fact, to cut out all of the miracle stories from his personal New Testament. The other sections he left intact, as he believed Jesus to be a great moral teacher.

The deism of Jefferson is not an exact match with the beliefs of the teenagers interviewed. Both would agree that God is the Creator, and is watching over everything from above; the teens, however, do believe that God intervenes in the world because they receive things they pray for. Furthermore, they believe that God forgives them when they ask, but they aren’t overly concerned with avoiding God’s displeasure. While on the one hand, the responses of the teens show that they aren’t authentic deists, on the other hand, the researchers argue, this is not the God of traditional religion either.

But this God is not Trinitarian, he did not speak through the Torah or the Prophets of Israel, was never resurrected from the dead, and does not fill and transform people through his Spirit. 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, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved (Soul Searching, p. 165).

Today’s teens have put their own spin on the deist philosophy by “making the distant God selectively available for taking care of needs” (ibid.).

The Code of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Of all the conclusions that were drawn by the researchers, I believe their phrase, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” and its summary below, are

the most valuable.

Here we attempt to summarize our observations by venturing a general thesis about teenage religion and spirituality in the United States . . . . We suggest that the de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers is what we might well call, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” The creed of this religion, as codified from what emerged from our interviews, sounds something like this:

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 God is needed to resolve a problem.

5. Good people go to heaven when they die (ibid., pp. 162-3).

When I read this, I thought, “This is what adults believe as well.” Indeed, the study found that most of today’s teens are content to “go along with” whatever faith their parents practice. The authors connect MTD to the concept of “civil religion,” and discuss Robert Bellah’s understanding of the ways in which civil religion, abstracted from Judaeo-Christianity, serves the national interest of order, unity and purpose (ibid., 169).

Moralistic therapeutic deism surpasses Bellah’s civil religion in usefulness, since it can seemingly cross all religions. It is valuable to those who subscribe to it, in that it facilitates interpersonal relationships, helps them succeed in life, fosters subjective well-being, and allows them to get along with others who are otherwise different. As a bonus, there is no need to leave the family’s “traditional” religion. Since it is not self-sufficient, it comes to traditional religion and sets up camp there.

If moralistic therapeutic deism seems harmless as a “civil religion,” consider the final words from the chapter which follow this comment from a Catholic boy in Pennsylvania: “Yeah, religion affects my life a lot, but you just really don’t think about it as much. It just comes natural I guess after awhile” (ibid., pp. 170-1).

However, it appears that only a minority of U.S. teenagers are naturally absorbing by osmosis the traditional substantive content and character of the religious traditions to which they claim to belong. For, it appears to us, another popular religious faith, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, is colonizing many historical religious traditions and, almost without anyone noticing, converting believers in the old faiths to its alternative religious vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness . . . . We can say here that we have come with some confidence to 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 (ibid, p. 171).

The book Soul Searching has much more to offer, in particular, on how Christians in America have moved away from traditional religion. I hope to continue to offer its insights in essay form. The authors, through their work with teens, have given us a snapshot of American culture. When you next hear the phrase, “It doesn’t matter what church you go to – it’s all the same God,” recall the summary of MTD above. While it is easy to dismiss the phrase as relativism, an understanding of MTD gives us a firmer grasp of what lies beneath.