Be Nice, Get Help, Go to Heaven?
We look at Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. What is it? How is it different than true Christianity? And how does it reinforce the need to deeply understand our beliefs?
To debate worldviews, you need to know them well enough. Watered-down or incorrect versions won’t suffice when it comes to defending your beliefs or questioning those of others. This makes the prevalence of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in North America particularly troublesome. We need to identify it and separate it from true Christianity if we expect to bring solid Christian arguments into our public squares.
A recurring topic on this blog is how some philosophies freely enter the public square because they masquerade as something else. For instance, naturalism as a philosophy routinely gets conflated with science. It is acceptable to talk about a spontaneously generated universe, or evolution as the origin of life – all in the name of science. Not so with Christianity. It doesn’t disguise as easily, and it’s harder to bring it to the public square as a result.
Making matters worse, the increasing secularization of North American society has watered down its perception of Christianity beyond recognition. This reinforces the rhetoric of our faith as a superstition, or an emotional crutch, incapable of providing credible answers to our most pressing philosophical questions. I think Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, or MTD for short, plays a big role in that perception; and from a philosophical and apologetical context, it’s important to understand it and to call it out as something different than Christianity.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
The concept of MTD was coined by sociologist Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, who first described it in their 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. The book captured their findings from interviewing thousands of teenagers from religious backgrounds as part of the National Study of Youth and Religion. Five years later, the authors interviewed 230 of these individuals – now as young adults – and published the follow-up book Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults.
As their titles imply, the studies and books were focused on adolescent spirituality. But I find that the way these ideas trace back to the previous generation, and the noxious impact of secularization on even the modern North American church, make the concept relevant beyond this demographic.
Let’s start by unpacking the name: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. What does this mean? Let’s look at it in reverse. First, MTD invokes an 18th century idea, deism – a loosely defined belief system in which a personal, intelligent, uncaused God created our universe, but doesn’t intervene in it. This God created the universe with all its rules and then, in a figurative sense, wound it up and walked away. This God does not intervene in its universe, instead letting natural laws and processes run their course.
Deism also upholds that this God gave humans the ability to reason, which becomes the only way to discover and approach this God. And as a result of this, deism opposes revelation, Scripture, church teaching, worship, prophets, and miracles. This God is kind of in hiding.
The 60-Second Philosophy YouTube channel sees 18th century deism as a way to bridge the chasm between rationalism and empiricism in the Age of Enlightenment. Reason and the senses were the main sources of accepted knowledge in that age, and they weren’t always on the same page. Religion also had an outsized influence. In this context, 60-Second Philosophy sees theism as a form of “acceptable atheism” that preserved some elements of a belief in God, but subjected them to the rule of reason and human perception.
Why is MTD deistic? Smith found that American teenagers and young adults from various religious backgrounds believed in a distant God. Yes, God created and ordered the world, and watches us – but, except for a caveat I’ll call out later, he doesn’t get too involved in our day-to-day lives. To be clear, not all thinkers agree that this suffices to consider MTD a form of deism; but at the same time, deism is very loosely defined, with no authoritative text or governing body. Whether the term truly fits is largely a matter of opinion.
So that’s the “D” in MTD. But – why therapeutic? Surely that’s a good thing? In this context, “therapeutic” actually implies a concerning idea – a troublesome opposition to discomfort and suffering; to the extent that the original notion of deism is tweaked to allow for selective and convenient interventions of this remote God in order to provide help and comfort. (This is the caveat I mentioned earlier.)
This is dangerously close to the concept of idolatry, which we explored in “Episode The 13”. An idol is a curious construct: a mythical being endowed with purported supernatural power and control over creation, but whom creatures nonetheless can bribe or cajole into helping them in specific ways.
Going back to MTD, I really like this use of the word “therapeutic”, because it conveys the idea of someone who can help and work for you, but without getting too close – too personal.
Finally, this notion is moralistic because it stresses the importance of being a good person. And I find that if you remove its supposedly spiritual elements, this worldview sounds an awful lot like the spiritually neutral emphasis on “niceness” and “kindness” that is so prevalent in our public elementary school system. Not that that’s a wrong thing to educate on, but I just find it very curious that an intentionally secular viewpoint overlaps so much with a pervasive articulation of adolescent spirituality.
That is MTD in a nutshell. A good but remote God created and ordered the world. He seldom intervenes in it, except when you need his help. He does observe you, and expects you to be nice and behave morally towards others. As a reward, when you die, you’ll be with him in heaven.
MTD is commonly criticized on two fronts. One, already mentioned, is the use of the word “deism” in the concept. The other is disagreement on whether MTD is a new “civic religion” – a new kind of cultural belief system that pervasively blends in the background of a society.
Could we say that MTD is, or was, a result of a generation that couldn’t engage in sufficiently deep thought? Is this due to religious kids being too engrossed in then-emerging video game consoles, smart devices and the internet to engage in significant theology? In his excellent book The Gathering Storm, Albert Mohler pushes back against this idea. These youngsters are very well versed in mythical worlds, movie franchises, and other complex ideas. Intellect or lack of attention isn’t the issue. Quite the opposite. Mohler observes that these folks have been closely watching and mimicking their parents’ corrupted and diminished religious lives, and have copied them to a T.
The Need for Precision and Depth
With that, I want to comment on the effects of MTD in society at large, and particularly on public theology and apologetics.
This concept is now adolescent itself – it’s about 16 years old. It’s reasonable to assume that it’s become more pervasive across larger demographics, and much more influential in modern society. More recent studies and commentary certainly seem to confirm this.
Here are some implications. If you’re a non-believer, and you think MTD describes Christianity and that Christianity isn’t a fully formed or solid philosophy, I don’t blame you. Indeed, MTD is not a fully formed philosophy. It seems to answer the five key philosophical questions – origin, identity, purpose, morality, and destiny; but it does so in hollow and unsatisfying ways. I would say it’s not even a religion. It certainly has no theology, or a very poorly developed one at best: there is no theology of salvation, no theology of sacrifice, no theology of sin in it – to name just a few glaring holes. It’s just a very loose articulation of a common modern trope, that of being “spiritual but not religious.”
Therefore, if you’re a non-believer and you want to debate Christianity’s merits, I would encourage you, in the friendliest possible way, to make sure you’re not lured by a deficient look-alike like MTD.
Believers need to heed this warning too. MTD has infiltrated many Christian communities, and some members aren’t aware or even able to tell them apart. And even where core Christianity is concerned, we have a duty to epistemic soundness and intellectual honesty. If you are regenerate, if you live by faith, if your beliefs feel true and solid to you – I’m very happy for you. I think you’re focused on what truly matters. But I have bad news and good news for you.
The bad news is that the public square cares little to nothing about these things we hold dear. The good news is that the mirror image of our beliefs in the natural world is a solid, coherent, cohesive and intellectually honest philosophical framework. Science is not the enemy. Logic, reason and knowledge are not the enemy. Sloppiness, ignorance, moral compromise, denial of reality and the ensuing chaos, are.
Whichever side of the debate you’re on, here’s my invitation to you. Let’s not adopt a viewpoint on a whim or as a family heirloom or due to some epicurean treat or a pet peeve from an opposing viewpoint. Let’s develop a deep understanding of the main philosophical tenets on all sides. Let’s choose our side wisely and wholeheartedly. And let’s enjoy meaningful, respectful, and enriching debates. We’ll all be better for it.