Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism by Robynn

My husband Lowell recently read a book entitled, Soul Searching, by Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton from Duke University. In it the authors interview a significant number of teenagers from across the United States from various faith backgrounds, across varying denominational lines. They wanted to know what today’s youth believe about God. They wanted to explore faith among the next generation.

I find their results staggering and sad.

It turns out that what teenagers believe can best be described by the coined term, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”.

Let me break it down for you.

We’ve taught our kids to be good citizens, to look out for each other, to be kind on the playground and in the classroom. We’ve asked them to be nice. We’ve asked them to embrace morality.

They also want to be healthy. They want to be happy and have fun. They want to feel good about themselves. They want a God that gives them free therapy. He shows up when life is rough and he talks them through it. The teenager lies on the couch; God sits nearby in a chair with a clipboard in his hands and he asks them questions, “How did that make you feel?”; “Tell me about that.” It’s nothing more than holy therapy.

Teenagers certainly believe that God exists. He created the world but then he stepped back a little. He’s a little distant, perhaps, but at least he’s on call.  He got things started but will only intervene when we call him up like the genie from the bottle. Today’s youth are deists.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

In and of themselves these things aren’t bad. It’s nice to be nice. God does provide healing and of course he’s attentive to our needs when we call upon him.

But surely there is more than that? Moral Therapeutic Deism reduces us to a superficial self-absorbed pseudo-faith. There is no depth, no conviction, no substance to that type of belief structure.

I want more. I want more for my teenagers. I want much more for myself, for our family and our community of faith.

Of course I want our children to be nice…but I’d rather have them filled with a sense of God-himself. I want them marked by the fruits of God’s Spirit living in them: love and peace; patience, kindness, self-control.  Certainly there’s morality in that but it’s more than that. There’s a radical essence to Jesus…when that permeates the hearts of my children they’ll be more than nice and well-mannered, they’ll be radically like Jesus. That’s what I long for my kids.

Therapy is a wonderful tool that our family takes advantage of each week. However, God doesn’t exist to make my children feel good about themselves. He’s not their counselor on speed dial. He is God Almighty. He longs for them to be healthy and to experience joy but He also walks them through suffering.

Suffering becomes the raw material for the “eternal weight of glory” that He has in mind for them.

Through suffering they are transformed. I want them to push into their pain, not try to avoid it altogether. When they honestly admit their suffering, and walk into it, and through it, into true healing they allow themselves to become ‘wounded healers’ (as Henri Nouwen says) that can speak authentic truth into the hurting world around them. That sets them apart. No longer are they victims. They transcend their suffering and their story of healing becomes a story of redemption and hope for themselves and for others. In this way of honest living they avoid the faults and flaws of fatalism. They understand that pain has purpose and that purpose includes restoration and redemption.

English: Jesus Christ - detail from Deesis mos...

I long for my kids to know Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity. He’s the only thing that separates deists from theists. It’s true, God mysteriously and miraculously created the world (however long it took him, whatever method he employed) but He didn’t check out after creation. He continues to sustain and redeem. He is present and active, accomplishing His good purposes. The Holy Triune God is remarkable and relevant. He has a plan and an agenda that He is actively implementing. God became king in and through Christ Jesus and he is active in extending that kingdom until such time as Jesus returns and restores all things.  He does woo the wounded to Himself and bind up the broken-hearted. But he is far from distant. He is here and now. When you get too much talk about god, god, god and never get around to Jesus or the work of the Spirit you violate trinitarionism but you also violate theism, you violate God.

It seems to me that Moral Therapeutic Deism is what happens when we reduce all world religions to their lowest common denominator. It’s something we can all agree on. This isn’t limited to our teenagers. This is what we are all tempted to believe, it gets us through our days. This belief system sustains our sanity. It anchors us. It promotes world peace at the global level and civility on the playground at the local level.

Those of us raised across borders have the easy ability to speak with people of all faiths, all backgrounds, all socio-economic levels of comfort. It’s a skill-set that’s grown out of our story. It’s part of our heritage. In a sweet way that spirit of communicating across cultures reflects God’s own heart. Like any good parent, he longs for his children to get along. However with this skill, comes the particular temptation to tiptoe around the truth, to reduce our faith to its lowest common denominator. Consequently we speak of god and prayer, of hope and happiness with ease and yet we avoid Jesus, the Great Stumbling Block. Sadly we’ve learned to dodge the name of Jesus.

There has to be a way to maintain the depth of our faith and our true convictions and still talk respectfully with grace and kindness with others of other denominations, traditions or faiths. The Spirit of God leads us if we let him. We can engage vigorous debate, humourous banter and hearty conversation with kindness and self-control. We can show love and affection. We can choose to live out our faith in that space past morality and therapy and deism, where sincere spirituality, a healthy transformative understanding of suffering and our Holy Triune God reside.

18 thoughts on “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

  1. In a graduate class this week students from Sudan, Turkey, Iran, Chile, Navajo nation and all over the U.S lamented they are loosing some of their personal faith and beliefs as they long for a peaceful stable world. While indeed Jesus’ example and gospel are key to our worldly struggles, students are directly connecting “Jesus lovers” to the far right politicians that “shut the government down” which they understand will further devastate economies and corruption like in Sudan as the U.S. economy effect is so large and aid will likely be cut. I found their perspective insightful if not at least partially casual in the shift therapeutic deism. Thx Robynn- E


    1. I’d be curious to know if your students connected “Jesus lovers” or “Christians” to the political far right? If they’re connecting “Jesus lovers” then it breaks my heart…if they’re connecting the far right republican party to “Christians” then it further emphasizes a need to change our language in an attempt to separate ourselves from the prevailing cultural understanding of Christianity. Not only must we speak of Jesus and our quest to follow him among our fellow Americans but especially as we dialogue among our Sudanese, Turkish, Iranian, Chilean and Navajo neighbours and friends. Cultural Christianity wreaks of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism… we want more for ourselves and for our guests. Jesus invites people out of the cultural quicksand of superficial religion(s) and political mumble jumble and leads them into Truth and Hope.
      Thanks for your comments E. You are in our prayers.


  2. I love this post on many levels. I think the church places a high expectation on parents to raise children who are people pleasers rather than God pleasers. It’s so convenient for all of us to be surrounded by “good (godly??) kids”. We especially do a disservice to children who do not have people pleasing personalities, and I think in so doing we throw up huge barriers to faith. But I had never connected that idea to the trinitarian aspect of who God is. I appreciate that, because each one of us can bear the fruit of the Spirit in such unique ways. Our hope is what it is because we serve a triune God.


    1. I love the way you put this – good kids are ‘convenient’. They make the church look good. They make us look good. I struggled with this in recent years as one of my kids was having a faith crisis in a place of all Christians. What better place to have it if you are surrounded by people who truly care? What an awful place if you are surrounded by legalism and self-righteousness and you feel you don’t measure up. It’s convenient for everybody not to have faith crises … but that’s not life.


    2. We want to raise children who are good….but we also want to impose measuring sticks. How can we know they’re good unless they do this or do that? Raising children without those measuring sticks is scary….! If you’re a parent with people pleasing tendencies then you are even more freaked out at the possibility that your children might, in their quest for God, express their spiritual freedoms in unconventional ways. Surely if we trust our children to our Holy Triune God he will lead them through suffering and indifference to grace and redemption?
      Thanks Tracy and Marilyn. You made me think deeply about the ramifications of such truths….!


  3. I really liked this post; thanks for posting. As a teen in this world I’ve certainly fallen into that category of Moral Therapeutic Deist from time to time, and it’s a good reminder. Also, I really liked the clause “there’s a radical essence to Jesus”.


    1. That’s a good question Sarah. As parents, my husband and I, talk a lot about the availability of an Ever Present God. We hash through deep subjects like suffering and sorrow with our children. We talk about Jesus a lot. We discuss the Holy Spirit and His active role in our stories. I’m not sure how much of it takes root in their souls but I pray it does.
      I was convicted early on, years ago, while still living in India, of the importance of talking about Jesus. He is unique among deities. He is holy, sinless, loving, full of grace. I use the name of Jesus often–certainly in all of my conversations about God. I don’t know if it’s changing the world I live in…but I do know it changes me. It takes faith and honesty, it takes courage and a powerful infusion of grace.
      Thanks for not being afraid to ask the hard questions Sarah. I appreciate that!


  4. This is exactly right.

    Other studies have shown that children raised in the church are nearly as likely as secular kids to believe there are no absolutes and that all religions are basically the same or equally valid.

    The fact is, Jesus Christ is radically different from anything offered by the world’s religions, and ultimately is either very offensive or the fulfillment of their deepest hopes.


    1. I think that’s whats so alarming about this particular study….it’s kids in the church as well as kids outside the church. It makes me sad…


  5. The youth pastor at our church just wrote about this trend and how it is even creeping into the thinking of kids in our church. I think this is a particular danger for those of us living in places where it is “easy” to call oneself a Christian.


  6. This is perfect timing – My husband and I and another couple are heading out this weekend with a bunch of teens to challenge them in their faith. We will be camping in the rain so there will be lots of time for conversation. This gives me more to think about what I want to convey to them as I tell them my story of Christ’s redemptive power. Thanks!


    1. I love to think of you having the opportunity to hang out with kids and smores and talk about deep significant things. Grace to you! Have a good weekend.


  7. Robynn – you articulated what I have wanted to for so long. I think the words that shook me to the core were these ones: “When you get too much talk about god, god, god and never get around to Jesus or the work of the Spirit you violate trinitarionism but you also violate theism, you violate God.” I have never been challenged so clearly. Thank you.


    1. Thank you Marilyn. I’ve thought on these things for a long time….but seeing the data and the research captured in the book motivated me to write. Thank you for your kind comments.


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