Relevance and Prevalence of Moral Therapeutic Deism

By Scott Hughes

Under a Naked Sky - group

“Religion exists to support individuals, according to emerging adults, to provide useful beliefs and morals that help people live better lives. People should take and use what is helpful in it, what makes sense to them, what fits their experience – and they can leave the rest.”1

I’m not a runner. Never will be. Unless that is, I’m being chased and am forced to run. It’s not that I don’t exercise. I exercise regularly (almost daily). Running just seems unnecessary. Similarly, this is how many people, especially those in the millennial generation, view religion. Pew Research maintains, “Millennials are much less inclined than older adults to self-identify as either religious or patriotic.”2 Compare the fact that 36 percent of millennials self-identify as religious, whereas 52 percent of Gen Xers, 55 percent of boomers, and 61 percent of the silent generation identify themselves as religious.

Christian Smith’s research, presented in Soul Searching and Souls in Transition, states that the de facto religion for teenagers is moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD). MTD can be characterized by five main tenets:

  1. God is the creator and watcher over all,
  2. God desires niceness and equitability — as taught by all faiths,
  3. The goal of life or telos is happiness and self-esteem,
  4. God acts only when needed, and
  5. All good people will go to heaven.

Smith discovered that MTD is still a factor as teens move into their 20s and early 30s with more nuances as life experiences shake some of their naiveté. Moreover, MTD is not reserved for young adults and teenagers. What astonished me was the author’s assertion that this age group learned MTD from their parents!

In MTD or moralistic therapeutic deism, the self is the sole gatekeeper of authority. Religion is not necessarily bad; it is just perceived as unnecessary. Religion’s role is reduced to merely a resource for personal growth. Thus identity formation influenced by the wisdom and rituals of religion (of whatever variety) becomes useful only as far as an individual determines. Obviously from demographic reports, religion has become inconsequential, since many people now identify their religion in the vogue category of “None.” It is not that most are hostile to religion. Even in light of the rise of contemporary worship services and the word “relevant” being a frame for worship and programming, most MTDers just don’t care.

Reflection Questions for Individuals:

  • Do you identify as religious? Why or why not?
  • How close do your beliefs align with MTD?
  • How do you allow the beliefs of your religion/church to shape your beliefs?

Questions for Church Leaders:

  • What is the de facto religion in your church?
  • What steps might be needed to engage and move parishioners beyond MTD toward a vital connection with the Triune God?
  • "Emerging adults must be given a vision of life that moves beyond a contractual relationship with an absentee God."3 This is probably true for all adults as well. As leaders, how can we be intentional about helping people shift their theology?

Optional Activity:

If you had to write the counter to the five points of MTD, what would they be?

1 Smith, Christian and Snell, Patricia. Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. Kindle Edition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), Location 3350.

3 Setran, David P. & Kiesling, Chris. Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood: A Practical Theology for College and Young Adult Ministry. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 44.