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.
—A “non-religious white girl” from Maryland, as quoted in Christian Smith’s essay, On “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” as U.S.Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith
In his book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, sociologist Christian Smith describes what he refers to as “the de facto dominant religion among contemporary teenagers in the United States is what we might call ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.’”
The creed of this religion, as codified from what emerged from our interviews with U.S. teenagers, sounds something like this:
- A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about one-self.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
“It’s just whatever makes you feel good about you,” says the teenager from Maryland. Smith’s essay is an eye-opener. Because at the heart of it all:
It’s all about us.
Am I the only one who finds that a bit depressing?
The god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is best described as “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.”
He helps me pick myself up by my spiritual bootstraps, gives me a pat on the head and then is off to… I don’t know, take a nap or something.
Kind of like Superman, but less awesome.
Is that a god really worth believing in?
More troubling is that many of us might be moralistic therapeutic deists and not even know it. Says Smith, “ 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.”
The language—and therefore experience—of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist,and heaven and hell appear…to be being supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. 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.
So who or what do we truly believe in?
Do we believe in the God of the Bible, the God who makes himself and his will known to us; who is intimately involved in every detail of creation and is worthy of all glory and praise—or do we believe in a god who is kind of like a sweet, sleepy grandpa who loves to hand out candy but doesn’t really do anything useful?
Who or what we believe in changes everything in life, for better or for worse. When we believe in a tiny pretend god, like the one of moralistic therapeutic deism, we’re at the center. When we believe in the true God, we realize quickly life isn’t about us—it’s about God and his glory. Which do you believe?
An earlier version of this post was published in March 2010.