What's Tony Thinking

Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism


In this evening’s session of “Help My UnBelief,” panelist Josh M. reminded us about MTD, “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism.”

It is a term that scholars Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton came up with in their 2005 study to describe the pre-dominant faith of American teenagers, including those who are part of a church.

Here are the five “tenets” of Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism:

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.

To be clear, MTD is not an “official religion.” No buildings, priests, or liturgy. Except it’s everywhere — TV, social media, movies and the cultural influencers. It is a description of the operative belief system of many American teens and, I’m guessing, of many of their parents.

It is moralistic in that the emphasis falls on being “good, nice and fair,” and because “good people go to heaven when they die.”

It is therapeutic in that “the goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.”

The “deism” part is that God is pretty distant and uninvolved. You can call upon God in a pinch or to resolve a problem, but otherwise go on with life without much awareness of God or expectation of God actually doing much of anything.

It is, you might say, sensible religion. Be nice. God wants you to be happy. It is so bland you feel misanthropic in criticizing it.

And it is a very far cry from actual Christianity.

I’m preaching this coming Sunday. The gospel lesson, from Luke, begins with Jesus saying, “I came to bring fire on earth and how I wish it were already kindled,” and “Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”

Is this Jesus on a bad day?

No, not exactly. From the beginning it was clear that Jesus was the one who brought the moment of truth, who revealed the truth of our lives. As aged Simeon said in the Temple to Mary as she presented her child for circumcision, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed . . .”

MTD makes God an instrument, a servant you might say, of our happiness and fulfillment. If we’re not feeling happy and fulfilled, better look for a different faith/ church/ religion/ philosophy.

Christianity says something different. We are all afflicted, in Francis Spufford’s terms, by the HPtFtU, the “human propensity to fuck things up.” We are broken people in a bruised and broken world. We are self-deceived and strangers to the truth, as it is put in the New Testament’s Letter of James.

But this isn’t the last word. The last word is grace, grace for our sin, healing for our brokenness. And God’s relentless effort to find and reclaim all that is and all who are lost.

MTD is probably more of a threat to a robust Christian faith than outright atheism. It waters the whole thing down to the point that it’s so innocuous that you wonder, “Why on earth would you bother?” There’s nothing bold or challenging about it. It makes faith a resume virtue, an adjunct of our self project, rather than (in David Brook’s terms) a “eulogy virtue,” the true quality of a person’s life.

Over the years I had parents express a desire to have a child baptized by saying, “I want him/ her to be exposed to Christianity/ the church.” It always sounded to me like they were looking for vaccination. Expose their kid to Christianity so that they wouldn’t catch the real thing. Alas, the church was often a most-willing co-conspirator.

MTD is a vaccination against the power of the Gospel, something that won’t interfere with your life, but won’t make any real difference in it either.






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