Moralistic Therapeutic Deists

I know it’s a bit of a mouthful, but moralistic therapeutic deists is the term that’s being used to describe many young people growing up in evangelical churches in the United States. It’s highlighted in a recent study by Kenda Creasy Dean, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, who says that the religion of many American teens is actually “fake Christian”.

The report says that if you’re the parent of a Christian teenager your child may be following a “mutant” form of Christianity, and you may be responsible. Dean says more American teenagers are embracing what she calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Translation: It’s a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.

As many churches start their “autumn and winter’s work” especially with youth organisations, this report makes us think again about what kind of beliefs we are actually teaching our children and young people.

Moralistic therapeutic deism was first coined by author Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame to describe the common religious beliefs among American youth. It was reported in 2005 his book, Soul Searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. The research project, entitled the National Study of Youth and Religion, was funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. It found that many young people believed in several moral statutes not exclusive to any of the major world religions:

  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.

These points of belief were compiled from interviews with approximately 3,000 young 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 last, the authors say it 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.” Although a God that is available to intercede in our lives is classically theistic, the authors choose to call this a form of Deism. They say that “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.”

It seems that whatever else we communicate to our young people, we need to ensure that they understand the Gospel of grace. We are sinners. We need a Saviour. We cannot be our own saviours by our own performance. And out of love and gratitude to the One who is our Saviour and Lord, we march to the beat of his drum, not the rhythms of this world.

3 Replies to “Moralistic Therapeutic Deists”

  1. Although Dean has conducted her study in relation to young people, I wouldn’t be surprised if she found similar results even among older generations who once had orthodox Christian beliefs.

  2. Interesting article. To put it in a nutshell I would suggest that Christianity in Northern Ireland is quite often about being “nice”. However, I am not convinced that young people deserve to be singled out as MTDs. I think the middled aged tend to show more symtoms.

  3. I agree with what has been said, particularly about the older generation. We are too fond of targeting and lecturing our young people forgetting we are thier living examples and they see what we are like, and what are we like? We are masters at compartmentalising our lives, preaching one thing and living another. The sabbatarian conformist while cheating the tax man. Married Christians atending the prayer meeting while flirting or worse outside our marriages.

    We can call ourselves Moralistic therapeutic desists, if we like but hypocrite is a shorter much less cumbersome word.

    God and faith to many has become a crutch much as Marx said, based on feel good outcomes as opposed to faith driven lives. yes in theory we know the answers and say the right things something our young people mightn’t actually know but are we living lives that Christ has changed?

    it is not only our young people that are out of touch with the reality of the Christian faith, the question must be asked “am i a fake Christian?” there are plenty about, many in our churches, some even in the leadership of our churches but will we admit it or deal with it?

    How do we deal with the errant Christian? do we make them accountable for their actions, do we set an example to our young people of the standards that the bible demands? Are we Christians that love justice and hate sin? Are we lost in loving the sinner and forgetting about the sin? What standards have we set for our young people and are we partially to blame for the moral vacuum that may be at the centre of some of our congregations lives?

    The report talks of the need to communicate to our young people, I believe we have to communicate to all our people! In fact I believe we need to tackle head on the demands of our faith – Love God, walk uprighly and hate sin!

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