Sunday, June 20, 2010

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism: Deus ex Machina

h/t Creedal Christian

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) is a term that Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton authors of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers used to describe their findings from a study of the dominant religion among contemporary teenagers in the United States. The creed of this religion, is summarized as follows,

1. "A God exists who created and orders 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 he is needed to resolve a problem."
5. "Good people go to heaven when they die."

Do any of those sound familiar?

Do any of those sound wrong?
#4 made me think of this:

My High School English teacher taught us that the Deus ex machina method of plot resolution was an indication of a weak writer whose storyline had probably gotten too confused to resolve without the help of an external source. From what I can remember of those confused, conflicted, teenage years, I probably would have been happy with such a god, one who would drop in only when I was in a jam. Where was that god when I was taking the SATs?

In his summary of these findings, Smith writes,
"Feeling good about oneself is thus also an essential aspect of living a moral life, according to this dominant de facto teenage religious faith. Which leads to our next point. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is also about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents. This is not a religion of 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, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etc. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace."
I wonder how much of that teenage self centered pleasure seeking is due to nature vs. nurture.
"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, since 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 in the process."
Where do teens get these ideas? Perhaps they get them from church and parents!
" seems that (MTD) is simply colonizing many established religious traditions and congregations in the United States, that it is merely becoming the new spirit living within the old body. Its typical embrace and practice is de facto, functional, practical, and tacit—not formal or acknowledged as a distinctive religion. Furthermore, we are not suggesting that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a religious faith limited to teenage
adherents in the United States. To the contrary, it seems that it is also a widespread, popular faith among very many U.S. adults. Our religiously conventional adolescents seem to be merely absorbing and reflecting religiously what the adult world is routinely modeling for and inculcating in its youth."

I'll buy that argument as far as the Episcopal church is concerned with its poor track record of educating and retaining youth.
"...the elements of its creed are normally assimilated by degrees, in parts, admixed with elements of more traditional religious faiths. Indeed, this religious creed appears in this way to operate as a parasitic faith. It cannot sustain its own integral, independent life. Rather it must attach itself like an incubus to established historical religious traditions, feeding on their doctrines and sensibilities, and expanding by mutating their theological substance to resemble its own distinctive image."

I am not sure if I would have used the term "incubus," and maybe I would have opted for our current favorite term "the Borg."

And what happens when the church gets taken over by the Borg?
"...we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of “Christianity” in the United States is actually only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions."

Name those institutions, please.
"The language—and therefore experience—of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be being supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward."

We have not heard the earned reward part much at our church, but the niceness and happiness part is large part of the Episcopal package.
"It is not so much that Christianity in the United States is being secularized. Rather more subtly, either Christianity is at least degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith."

Christian Smith is the Stuart Chapin Distinguished Professor and associate chair in the
Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Smith is the director of the National Study of Youth and Religion, a research project funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc.

Thank you Christopher Smith. Now what do we do about it?

Maybe the god will drop in and resolve the problem. Unfortunately, I have discovered that particular god is constructed and controlled by human stage hands.


  1. Todd Granger8:22 PM

    For the past few years Christian Smith has been the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame.

    His webpage is here:

  2. Smith and Lundquist nail it. The etiology of this new "religion" is located in Society's ever increasing attacks against concepts of sin and judgment necessitating atonement and grace. These concepts make us feel all "icky" and we can't have that, can we?

    Unfortunately, more denominations/congregations are buying into it in order to make themselves seem palatable to the rest of the world. What they forget is the injunction of James in Chapter 4, Verse 4.

  3. Thanks Todd for the update!