MTD: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, investigators for the National Study of Youth and Religion, see an alternative faith in American teenagers, one that “feeds on and gradually co-opts if not devours” established religious traditions: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).

If teenagers wrote out the creed of this religious outlook, it would look something like this:
• A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over 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 feel good about yourself.
• God is not involved in my life except when I need God to solve a problem.
• Good people go to heaven when they die.

If churches practice MTD in the name of Christianity, then getting teenagers to come to church more often is not the solution (it could make things worse). The solution to MTD is not more faithful attendance, but a more faithful church.

(Source: Christian Century)


  1. Unfortunately, except for the first point (actual Deism), this is not unlike most of what is preached every Sunday in Churches across the country… Catholic and Non-Catholic alike.

    When was the last time we heard it taught that loving one’s neighbor is a distinct and often very different thing from “being nice” or “being fair” to everyone. Sometimes love involves criticism or correction, perhaps even condemnation for their actions when they are in error.

    How often are we reminded at Church that the Christian life involves suffering and sacrifice as a path to happiness? If you just hear about the “joy and happiness” part, you conclude that that is what’s important and act accordingly.

    How often are these young people taught that prayer is about thanking God and being grateful for our many blessings rather than “praying for…” whatever we are desiring or wanting? Even at Mass we “pray for” this and “pray for” that. Doesn’t that infer that the purpose of our relationship with God is to ask for things?

    When was the last time we heard prayers at a funeral that actually HOPE that the deceased will live eternally in heaven rather than just assuming it because they were “good”? Does anybody actually preach about Hell any more? Eternal suffering as a consequence of sin? If not, then doesn’t it make sense that everyone goes to heaven.

    It seems that the children have learned well what has been taught.

    1. Well, the thread of moralism as a substitute for discipleship has a long, long history. Moralism appears not only in the guise of a reductionist Social Gospel, but more broadly in the focus on Being a Good Boy/Girl under whatever guise – it often long inculcated with an emphasis on obedience, purity and piety, then the desiderata of a purely Social Gospel, and in both cases slighting the more existential spirituality of theosis that is a necessary part of mature discipleship.

      In other words, same disease, slightly different symptoms.

  2. Where does liturgy fit in this schema? According to some of my family members and friends, ‘church’ is an optional activity like a hobby. If you enjoy it that’s great. If you don’t get anything out of it and quit going, that’s fine too. All that matters is being nice and helping people, and if liturgy gets you amped up to do that, then cool, whatever works for you.

  3. Jeffrey – you’re quite right. They have simply absorbed what was served up as catechesis to them. But this isn’t limited to religion – my boss bemoans how younger people interviewing set out their expectations as to promotion schedule – no concept it must be earned and is not automatic or universal. It is great that children are taught nowadays that they are special. They also need, however, to be taught that, while true, all other children are equally special too. The culture of entitlement, greatly on display within and without the Church, is in dire need of reform.

  4. “The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself.”

    Quite scary when it comes to worship. So often I hear this as a reason for going to church – because it is good for you or it makes you feel good. Even to the point of advertising church as a marketable commodity. MTD will lead to a worship of the self at the expense of God.

    This is particularly challenging in my tradition where most people view worship attendance as optional (and certainly not a duty), along with the cult of leadership (going to the church with the best preaching or whatever aspect), and lack of mission thus making the gathering a social club and not the church.

    Correcting this trend sure isn’t going to feel very good. 🙂

  5. We have to get used to the reality of our Western world, at least the United States: the individual is the only significant entity, feeling good is the main goal of life (or else “freedom,” with no idea of what the freedom aims at), and that the youth of our nation are being inundated with this anti-human, advertising sentiment day and night. What in the world would you need with a “God,” unless you get something nice out of it. As far as church goes, the question today seems to be, “was it good for you?” I do not believe cultures can hold together with a meta-narative such as this, and the same for church, needless to say. RELATIONSHIP, of a real kind, seems left out, and a real relationship with God is often not part of the equation any more. Sorry to be negative, but I would say we are in trouble!

    1. Fr. Foley, I tend to agree with your comment and the other comments above. It is a cultural trend in our society and unfortunately among many Catholics. What they experience at Mass, if they attend or participate, does not counter this phenomenon except in a few places. Homilies are like pablum or worse yet, the “opiate” for dulling the truth. Liturgies are banal, feel good experiences, especially much of the modern music which sounds in tune like feel good Broadway hits. Funerals gloss over the reality of death, the possibility of hell or purgatory and become instant canonizations, more infallible that the Church’s official canonization process. Catechetics, if one experiences it, doesn’t seem to have a cutting edge to it or form people in right teaching. We live in an egalitarian society and we don’t want to offend anyone except perhaps Catholics who actually embrace the claims our religion makes which to some is too elitist and Muslims for reasons relating to terrorism. False egalitarianism waters down the faith and makes all religions or none irrelevant. Just be good and be happy.

    1. I would disagree about the ability of the new translation to address this problem. People can stop attending because it just doesn’t “feel right.” I firmly believe that the new translation will have immense benefits for the Church, but it isn’t a panacaea.

    2. How will English word forms, many archaic and widely unknown to those listening, and crammed into Latin syntax address the problem?

      1. I was thinking about all this translation business on the way home from Mass today and how many people think that this will “fix” everything that’s been wrong with the Mass since 1969.

        Let’s consider first, is there going to be a commission, or visitation, or some equivalent, such as Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth I had, to make sure that there is compliance and that the new missal is present and is being used and used correctly?

        Secondly, priests ad-lib, change, mutilate, or fix the prayers of the Mass now, to their liking, what makes everyone think that this won’t continue when the new translation is being used? Or that they will just continue to use the old missal prayers that they have memorized, creating a half-breed Mass, some from the old and some from the new missal?

        So, bringing it back to the topic on hand, will the new translation reduce or correct the MTD in the church or will it continue to push people to find a place where they hear what they want to hear?

  6. MTD: what a sociologically up to date way to promote spiritual pride and sectarian Christianity!

    Sectarian evangelists have long preached against “secular humanists.” But SH is an endangered species, existing in some elite sanctuaries, like universities. Not very creditable.

    But look at the sociological data: Yes, Americans believe in God, the pursuit of happiness, and self improvement. Mix together. Voila MTD! A new religion without any institutions. Less self confessed adherents than SH!

    But very convenient for spiritual pride! You can always find fellow church members, even many ministers, who are a little bit too vague on God, or a little bit too interested in happiness or self improvement. Obviously guilty of MTD! Instant spiritual superiority for yourself!

    Being against the “World,” projecting it outside one’s self and own institutions has a long history, especially in monasticism and sectarian forms of Christianity.

    But as Merton says in “Is the world a problem,” the world that is a problem is the world inside myself, e.g. the love of money, of social status, of self-love (including spiritual pride).

    Among Catholics, see the pitiful attempts to project the sexual abuse scandal unto our culture. How difficult to acknowledge its fostering by the bishops’ love of money, social status, and pride. How difficult for bishops to give up spiritual superiority, confess and repent of their worldliness.

    So easy to make phantom MTD the problem.

  7. This has certainly been going on for quite some time. The same view was very current about a decade ago when I was a teenager. I remember being challenged by a priest who said that in the present we tend to look at God as a “Sugar Daddy,” and how incomplete the view was. My youth group laughed at the comparison, mostly I believe because we saw our own warped sense of the relationship. I like to think that many of us were challenged to a deeper, less superficial faith at the time.

  8. I’ve spoken with priests who are very afraid to offend sensibilities tied to this way of thinking. It doesn’t take much to have a crowd of folks leave your parish and take their offertory dollars with them. Homilies and music end up being something to “draw them in”. Serious music and homilies that ask for sacrifice don’t exactly do that, but they are necessary for the very nourishment that people seek. I still say that a concerted effort to redirect the Mass back towards God will solve a lot of problems. How many times have you heard someone say that they go to Mass for a weekly “recharge”? You know they want something from it and from God, rather than giving of time and concentration selflessly, which leads to a much better and long-lasting “charge.”

  9. I agree with many of the posters here that MTD can lead to a narcissistic belief that’s light on doctrine and heavy on self-gratification or aggrandizement. Let’s face it: heavily doctrinal and liturgical religion also generates quite a bit of narcissism. I suspect that many people disenchanted with organized religion lean towards MTD because of bigotry, hypocrisy, or sanctimony in their former religious body. Neither extreme offers any lasting peace.

    I’m slouching towards “D” at this moment. MTD’s rather materialistic view of God as a conceptual talisman turns me off. I find a deist/agnostic view comforting: my idealism about the Church, its liturgy, and attendant doctrine has completely crumbled. Why not believe in a prime mover that keeps the world from going into tilt but has no interest in his creation? This aloof god does not tally up my Sunday obligations or care that I doubt core doctrines. Still, the D of MTD does not satiate our need for community even if living in community is sometimes painful.

  10. Jordan, your post offers some support for those who believe that man created God, rather than the inverse. When we doubt the teachings of the Church, the entire fabric unwinds. While I do not check my intellect at the church gate, I do have enough humility to remember that Christ appointed Peter and his successors as head of the church. I am obliged to obey and try to understand those things that may not make sense to me right now. I also understand that the Church’s teachings may change over time, but I will still wait for those changes in obedience.

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