MTD: The “Whatever” Religion

MTD.001You may be asking, “What is MTD?” MTD stands for “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Sociologist Christian Smith of the University of North Carolina coined the phrase in 2005 to describe the basic religion of many teenagers in America in our day.1 Summarizing MTD, R. Albert Mohler wrote:

As described by Smith and his team, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of beliefs like these: 1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.” 2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.” 3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” 4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.” 5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”2

MTD is called deism because it involves a god that is disconnected from human life. It’s called moralistic because it involves a little bit of morality (but not much). It’s called therapeutic because the thrust of its morality is that religion’s main purpose is simply to make people feel good about themselves.

The more than 3,000 teenagers interviewed in the study were articulate generally, but were quite ignorant and inarticulate about religion.3 Their main thought about religion could be summed up in the word “whatever,” because “whatever” would be the answer to many important questions we would like to ask about any religion. For example:

  • In what religious practices should we engage? MTD answer: Whatever. Do what you feel makes you happier.
  • Must we literally believe in the God of the Bible? MTD answer: Whatever. Believe in a higher power.
  • What religious documents should guide our life? MTD answer: Whatever. People have different faith journeys and traditions, each of which is valid in its own way.

If Smith is right in saying that MTD is the basic religion of American teenagers today, then the future of American culture is bleak. The study shows that teenagers think that niceness is the central human virtue, but that niceness is inconsistent with Bible-based conviction:

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism “is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one’s health, and doing one’s best to be successful.” In a very real sense, that appears to be true of the faith commitment, insofar as this can be described as a faith commitment, held by a large percentage of Americans. These individuals, whatever their age, believe that religion should be centered in being “nice”–a posture that many believe is directly violated by assertions of strong theological conviction.4

Notice this carefully: MTD teaches that we must be “nice,” and that niceness means we do not stand for what the Bible teaches. Increasingly, I see MTD showing itself in statements made by Christians who say they want an emphasis on the person of Jesus with a de-emphasis on His doctrine.

We must encourage Christian teenagers to stand for the true religion even in a culture that is abandoning the true religion in favor of totally unorganized and unrecognizable religion: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).

  1. “On ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith,” Princeton Theological Seminary, (n.d.). 

  2. “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—the New American Religion,” (2005). 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid. 

- 2017