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Recognize This Religion?

The most common religion in American might surprise you.  It’s not Christianity.  Neither is it Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Scientology, or Oprahism.  Neither is it atheism or science.  According to Christian Smith, 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, the most popular religion in our day–at least for young adults–is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Never heard of that denomination or religion?  That’s because it doesn’t officially exist.  In fact, those who espouse this worldview wouldn’t call it that.  They would call themselves Christian or Mormon or Muslim or Jewish or agnostic, etc.  But, they are not really those faiths.  They are more of an amalgamation of lots of different religions and no religion at all.  It’s half religion, religion lite.  I’m afraid that this worldview is becoming the default American religion of the emerging generation, and we should be on guard, lest our children go the way of the culture.

Let me break down the three parts of what Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Deism is the belief that god created the universe but remains apart from it and permits creation to administer itself through natural laws. God basically wound up the universe, and let it go.  Deism thus rejects the supernatural aspects of religion, such as miracles and belief in revelation in the Bible, and stresses the importance of ethical conduct.  So, in this worldview, god is mostly distant and not particularly personally involved in our affairs—especially affairs in which we would prefer not to have god involved.  Here god is kept at a safe distance.  God is seen as existing but really has no relevance to life other than being the first cause of the universe.

This deism is therapeutic in that this distant god still wants everyone to be happy and occasionally is willing to get involved when a person has an unhappy crisis.  As Smith says, “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. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people,” (Smith, “On ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith,” p3, http://scr.bi/jH7tS8).

God here basically becomes my means of getting what I want.  He’s the cosmic Santa Claus who puts nobody on the Naughty List.  This god wants me to be happy with me and be the best me I can be.  Of course, given the self-esteem and self-help movements of the last few decades, is anybody surprised that young people would conceive of a god in this way?

Finally, this deism is moralistic.  In other words, this god wants people to be nice and fair to each other, which this worldview thinks is the upshot of all world religions.  This aspect has two underlying false doctrines.  One is the belief that all religions are essentially the same, such that it doesn’t matter which one you follow as long as you are good through it.  One young lady from Maryland that Smith interviewed said, “Morals play a large part in religion; morals are good if they’re healthy for society. Like Christianity, which is all I know, the values you get from like the Ten Commandments. I think every religion is important in its own respect. You know, if you’re Muslim, then Islam is the way for you. If you’re Jewish, well, that’s great too. If you’re Christian, well, good for you. It’s just whatever makes you feel good about you,” (Smith, “On ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith,” p3, http://scr.bi/jH7tS8).

The second false belief underlying this moralism is that mankind is naturally and basically good.  These young folks believe in an afterlife, even a Heaven and Hell, and “good” people go to Heaven, which includes almost everybody.  Hell is only for the vilest perpetrators among us—mass murderers and child rapists.

So, in summary, what we have here is an uninvolved god who wants me to do what makes me happy, hopefully doing more good than bad over the course of my life so that I’ll go to Heaven when I die.  Know any moralistic therapeutic deists?  Might there be one or a budding one in your house?

In my next blog article, I’ll more closely look at the actual beliefs of this worldview and show why they fall terribly short of biblical truth.  Until then, think about what’s missing from this worldview.  I also want to point you to a great interview that Al Molher, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, did last Fall with Christian Smith about this very topic.  Listen at http://bit.ly/mT68MV.

2 Comments

  1. Great article. I’m thinking that the therapeutic and moralistic views may have been inheirited, in part, from the teenager’s parents/churches. Would you agree that the basic understanding of the gospel in too many American churches is therapeutically/moralistically focused while still maintaining the belief in a God who is very personal in our affairs, at least in theory? Of course, they may believe in a personal God but live as if He is far away!
    Jeremy Vanatta

    • Jeremy, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that the basic understanding of the gospel in too many American churches has been therapeutic & moralistic with only a nod to God, giving it that deistic flavor. This situation hasn’t sprung up in a vacuum. It had precursors & influences. I listened to Mohler’s interview with Smith, which I linked to on the article, and here’s what Mohler said in conclusion concerning our young people being moralistic therapeutic deists: “It’s not because they’ve not been listening. It’s because they have.” In other words, the younger have learned it from the older. As you say, this is part of the problem.

      The other part of the problem is simply growing up in a multicultural environment where pluralism and political correctness are applauded. This reality tempts our young folks to syncretize and develop a lowest-common-denominator religion like MTD. We must learn to live in peace, but we must not live in compromise.

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