Moralistic Therapeutic Deism: What is It and How Can We Respond to this Phenomenon?


by Rob Lundberg 

A couple of years ago one of my students in our chapter confessed that he had been experiencing some difficulties at home. Much of problem was a misunderstanding about being a well behaved young adult (college student) living under their parents roof.  However their thinking also revealed that they were questioning their understanding of God and whether God really cared and intervened in their life. What that person told me was that they were living more along the lines of a deistic understanding of how God operates in our lives.

As I think about where we are in our culture and the direction of the church, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. There appears to be a cultural religion or philosophy among our young people known as “moralistic therapeutic deism.”

What is moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD)?  What concerns does this raise for the church and our future generations? What I want to do in this post is answer these two questions and then hopefully follow up on a later post on how we can respond to this problem. Yes, it is a problem and the church is not immune from it when it comes to those in the areas of youth ministry and regular church life.

Defining in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD)

In 2005 there was a seminal work by Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton entitled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.  The main finding in this work was that that American teenagers are incredibly inarticulate about their religious beliefs, and most are virtually unable to offer any serious theological understanding. As you know we have written on the anti-intellectualism in the church, and what happens when a student goes off the college.

This MTD is a main catalyst to teens and young people are so inarticulate about their faith. Add to that a secular culture that is steeped in sexual hedonism and nihilism and you have a culture headed for spiritual disaster. So how would we describe or define this MTD?

As described by Christian Smith and his team, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of beliefs like these: 

  • The moralistic tenet is that “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.” (Moralistic)
  • The therapeutic tenet is that “the central goal in life is to be happy, and to feel good about oneself (Therapeutic).  And this does not matter on matters of morality, like sexual behavior.
  • The deistic aspect to this ideology is the the belief that there a god that exists who created and ordered the world and watches over all humans on earth. But God does not need to be particularly involved in the life of people except when God is needed to resolve a problem for us. And this God is okay with “good people going to heaven when they die.” (Deism)

The Mantra of “Whatever” Should be a Concern
 
As you look at this description, can you see  and hear the relativism wreaking in this ideology?  Can you hear your kids and their peers chanting the mantra “whatever” when they are told to do something by a parent or someone in authority?Yes, “whatever” is the new mantra and it is impacting even the most religiously affiliated U.S. teens who are showing more and more that they are not particularly interested in espousing and upholding the beliefs of their faith traditions. It is even impacting communities of faith like the church and church youth groups, who are failing in attempts to educate and equip their youth to give reasons why the Christian faith is true.When it comes to discussing moral choices, or engaging in religious discussions, we get a lot of the ‘whatever’ a person wants to believe is just fine, or  “if that’s what a person wants is fine” as common responses. To give you an example of this, not long ago I was involved in a conversation with a co worker, who graduated from the local Christian high school and who had taken an apologetics class in their time there. We were discussing a conversation I had with a student a chapter meeting about Islam versus Christianity and they told me that “whatever a person believes is fine.”

What they were essentially saying to me was why bother discussing differing beliefs, whatever a person wants to believe is fine because “God” is the same for all the religions.  Again this is a verbal cover for relativism; in this case it was a form of religious relativism.

This casual “whatever” marking so much of the American moral and theological landscapes –adolescent and otherwise — is a substitute for serious and responsible thinking. More importantly, it is a verbal cover for an embrace of moral and religious relativism. Accordingly, “most religious teenager’s opinions and views–one can hardly call them worldviews–are vague, limited, and often quite at variance with the actual teachings of their own religion.”

And we wonder why we are losing our kids?

Tying this All Together

So many can scoff at the statistics of 70-75% of Christian kids are going to walk away from their faith in the first year away from home or in college. But if you want to see how I think this all ties together, here is my take for what it is worth:

1. If you look at the culture today in our media, our music, in our politics and what we celebrate, we can see that it is nihilistic (the philosophy of meaninglessness) and sexually hedonistic. Just listen to the musical lyrics in the pop music. Just watch the award shows pontificating self aggrandizements.

2. Adding to this, MTD is an influential catalyst for why we see students walking away. Here is the regression:

a.) insulation because they cannot find peers that can help them in supporting them from the assault from professors in the classroom and peers in the lounge discussing assignments on social, scientific or moral subjects.

b.) Influenced by MTD, the next step in the downward spiral is isolation. Isolation is how the enemy of the soul attacks with the challenge to the authority of God’s truth, espousing moral and religious relativism.

c.) MTD provides a pseudo comfort and a faulty understanding of who God is, making God a god that is the same for all religions and only will intervene when we want him to.  MTD has no concern for God’s intervention of salvation in the lives of people through the person of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Instead, all good people are going to heaven.  But what is meant by “good”?  This is a question those entrapped by this ideology of MTD cannot answer. Looking inside oneself for the answer provides an answer that can be debated. But God’s answer is outside of ourselves, point to Him for the ultimate answer.

What do we need to be doing?  Youth ministers and pastors need to recognize this danger and address it. They need to allow trained apologists to come and hold seminars in their churches that will answer the questions like:

  • Does Truth Exist and Where Does it Come From?
  • Are Morals Absolute or Relative?
  • Does God Exist and What Kind of God are We Talking About?
  • Does God Want Me to Be Happy?
More articles on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
The Real Issue Apologetics Ministry has presentations that will assist your church and youth/student groups in answering these questions.  We are holding discussions with our students in our Ratio Christi Chapter at Germanna and would like to come to your church to serve you.  Please let us know how this ministry can serve you.
 This post first appeared on the The Real Issue Apologetics Ministry blog

Author: roblundberg

I am a blogger, writer, equipper, and public speaker on a mission to equip the believer to think and articulate what they believe and then take it and communicate it to a confused culture in a "brave new world." My mission involves evangelism undergirded by apologetics, and training; and equipping you to walk in the spiritual disciplines. I currently serve as the local Chapter Director and Community Apologist for Ratio Christi in Fredericksburg, VA.

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