There are a lot of religions in the world. Let’s start with some big ones: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Chinese Folk Religion. There are also many smaller religions as well, such as Scientology, Mormonism, Zoroastrianism, Rastafarianism, Raëlism, Jainism, Druidism, Satanism, Wicca, and Sikhism. We could keep going, but you get the idea. Despite all the noise about the demise of organised religion, the world is still a very religious place.
The purpose of this article is to let you know about one religion you probably haven’t heard of. While it’s not recognised as an official religion, it is a system of religious beliefs held by many people across the globe. It’s so common that there are probably people you know who practice it, even though they might categorise themselves in one of the religions listed above. So let me give you a quick overview of the biggest unknown religion in our society.
It’s called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It’s a bit of a mouthful! Now let me explain what it is.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (hereafter called MTD) is a term that was first coined in the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton. In their book, the term is used to describe what the authors consider to be the most common religious beliefs among American youth. However, many observers of religion have noticed the prevalence of MTD across the rest of the world. Let’s take a closer look at this system of religious beliefs by examining its name:
Moralistic – a religion of being a ‘good, moral person’. This is the belief that a key goal of life is making moral improvements in one’s behaviour and showing those moral improvements by being a ‘good, moral person’. This means doing your best to be a kind and respectable person, whose public conduct is at or above socially-accepted norms. Being a ‘good, moral person’ also might include taking care of your own health, working hard to be successful in your job, having a concern for the environment, and perhaps giving some money to charitable causes.
Therapeutic – a religion of receiving positive psychological benefits. This is the view that faith in a god should naturally deliver a whole bunch of psychological goodies. After all, if you’re a good person and you believe in a good god, life should be…..well….good, right? Therefore, our religious beliefs and practices should be therapeutic in effect – they should help us to resolve our problems and make us feel happy, safe, and… good.
Deism – a religion where your god leaves you alone unless you call for his help. This is where ‘god’ is somewhat remote and distant – a god who usually leaves you alone to get on with your busy life. However, he’s not so far away that he can’t be called upon to help you out. Like Superman, or a divine butler, he can be summoned to intervene if things get a bit dicey.
So that’s Moralistic Therapeutic Deism – a set of religious beliefs that says “be a good person”, “faith is about feeling good” and “God is on call if needed”. Sounds nice doesn’t it? When you think about it, it sounds very similar to what a lot of people in Australia believe today – be good, feel good, and God will help you when the chips are down. The problem is, MTD isn’t compatible with any of the major religions of the world, especially biblical Christianity. MTD is another religion altogether, and a pretty self-focused one at that.
When it comes to being a ‘good, moral person’, biblical Christianity teaches that there is only one truly good, moral person – Jesus Christ. All others fall short of God’s good standards (Rom. 3:23). Apart from belonging to God through faith in Christ, we are not good: we’re sinners before a holy God and no amount of good work can restore us to a proper relationship with God. Therefore our primary goal in life is not simply to be ‘good’, but to trust Christ and his sin-bearing death for us. Jesus himself said, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29). Having received forgiveness through faith in Christ, we then seek to do good out of thankful hearts to God. It is certainly true that God wants people to do good deeds, but these are not performed as part of some self-guided process of behaviour modification, or as a way to put us in God’s ‘good books’. Our desire to do good should come from a humble response to God’s grace shown in our truly good Saviour.
Additionally, the idea that our religious faith should mainly be therapeutic is somewhat confused. The Bible presents our key goal in life is not happiness, but finding spiritual wholeness in Christ. A simple survey of the life of Christ and his Apostles shows us that emotional comfort and happiness are not always on the top of God’s list for our lives. Sometimes God takes us through very long periods of challenges and trials to cause us to trust and rest in him. Often, it’s the hardest, most unpleasant experiences that do us the most personal and spiritual good in the long run. The cross is the ultimate example of this. While happiness is wonderful, challenges, temptations and even suffering are all natural parts of life in this fallen world. Christianity is not an escape from these difficulties in life, but a way of life where Christ leads and guides us through every challenge.
Lastly, MTD diminishes the biblical view of God. In the Bible, God is the sovereign Lord of all. While he cares for our needs, God isn’t at our beck and call. The cross of Jesus demonstrates to us a personal loving God who demands that we repent and trust him. And God is not simply on the sidelines waiting to help us out when needed. He is calling us to love, trust and enjoy him all the time. God desires that we walk with him by the power of the Spirit every single day – not just when we feel like we need his help. Remember Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not an official religion, but it is a set of religious beliefs held by many. The sad thing is, it’s not biblical Christianity. Its view of being a ‘good, moral person’ is little more than sentimental moralism. The truth is we are not ‘good’ by God’s standards. However, in Christ we can find a life of learning to do God’s good will in the world, as a thankful response to him. While knowing Christ brings much joy, life is often hard. God uses our trials and tribulations as part of how he grows us personally and spiritually. As we grow, we will slowly find new ways to know joy and contentment, even in life’s dark times. Finally, God is not a distant butler waiting to be called upon. He is a loving Father who longs for us to humbly walk with him in a real loving relationship every day.
MTD is very popular. But it’s not the religion of the Bible. Biblical Christianity provides a coherent, robust way of seeing the world and ourselves. It calls us to walk through life’s ups and downs with Jesus Christ – the loving Son of God who suffered and died for us.