The most popular religion that you’ve never heard of.
What is the most popular religion in the world? Some might say Christianity, some Islam, some Hinduism. But it may be that the most popular religion in the world is one of which you have never heard. This religion can often coexist with another religion; so on the surface someone might sincerely claim to be a Christian, but underneath their real religion, the one that has really captured their heart, and drives their thoughts and actions, is something else. Someone might claim to be an atheist, and still believe in this religion without knowing it. Indeed, you may be an adherent of this religion, and never have known it. I am talking about the religion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD for short) is a phrase from a book by the sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, published in 1995, called Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Smith and Denton had surveyed thousands of teenagers to find out what they really believed; not what they said they believed, or what others said they should believe, but what they really believed. They found that the beliefs of these young people could be summed up in five points:
- A god exists who created and ordered 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’s 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 was this set of beliefs that Smith and Denton called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”; there is a very helpful introduction to MTD by Adam4D here: https://adam4d.com/mtd/ . The phrase sums up three core elements in MTD:
- We should all lead a morally good life. Not as defined by traditional moral codes, but we should be kind, pleasant, compassionate, and non-judgmental. An MTDist’s favourite Bible verse is often Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge”, (often without the second half of the verse- “or you will be judged”). More recently, moral goodness might be defined by caring for the environment, as in the Fridays for Future movement, or by being “woke”. Older generations often make the mistake of thinking that 21st century young people are immoral and rebellious. They are not; they often live by a strong moral code, from which no rebellion is allowed. What is not clear in MTD is if there is any possibility of real grace and forgiveness. If believers in MTD believe in an afterlife, then they believe that good people (on this definition) go to heaven.
- Adherents of MTD believe, (all thought they might not be able to put this into words), that the purpose of religion is to act as a form of therapy, and that the goal of religion is to make someone feel good about themselves, have good self-esteem, and be a happy, secure, person, who lives at peace with others. For believers in MTD, religion is about our personal well-being.
- Deism is an old belief from the 18th century, that held that there was a god who had created the world, but had then left it running, and hadn’t played much part in since then, and in particular hadn’t spoken to tell us what to do or not to do. MTD had revived this god. He is in effect an idealised projection of MTDists themselves: kind, accepting, affirming, and non-judgmental. But also rather distant. This god does not get involved in people’s lives unless they need him to do so, to help them with their problems and make them feel better about themselves. Smith and Denton describe him as a combination of a butler and a therapist.
Smith and Denton were writing about American teenagers. But with the dawn of the internet, and the growth of globalisation, MTD has arguably spread and become the dominant religion of the Western world. Perhaps this is not surprising, as those teenagers are now in their 40s, and running tech companies, websites, and media outlets. When I was a vicar in rural England, with congregations of older people, I found that it was an accurate description of many people’s basic, default beliefs. In many churches- including evangelical churches- it may be the actual religious belief of most of the congregation. This is because MTD can act as a powerful filter through which people strain what they hear. So people may here the Bible, or a sermon, or a liturgy, and assume that what they are hearing is MTD- even if it was nothing of the sort. Moreover, MTD has actually been taught in churches, and especially in church youth groups, even though people thought that they were teaching Christianity.
The problem is that the religion of MTD is completely antithetical to the religion of Jesus. What Jesus taught is opposed to MTD at almost every point. That has become clear to me as I have read Matthew 10, Jesus’ sermon on mission, which I am preaching on in Christ Church at the moment. Consider how Jesus contradicts MTD:
- Instead of teaching that all good people go to heaven, Jesus taught that what mattered was how someone had responded to him and to the Good News that God’s kingdom had come in him. So if some rejected him God would reject them, even if they had lived an otherwise good life. But if someone welcomed and accepted him, God would welcome and accept them, even if they had lived an otherwise rotten life (Matthew 10:32-33, 40-42). It is this personal focus of Jesus’ teaching that is the big difference between his religion and MTD, and every other religion on earth.
- Jesus did not set out to make people feel good about themselves, or to give them peace of mind. He told people that they needed to repent, (Matthew 4:17), which implies that there were some things seriously wrong with them, which they shouldn’t feel good about. He warned that hell awaited for those who rejected him and his messengers (Matthew 10:15,28). His teaching couldn’t have been farther removed from a “feel good” message. He said that his followers would be arrested and beaten, (Matthew 10:17-18), that they would be betrayed by those they most loved and hated by everyone, (Matthew 10:21-22), that his teaching would be divisive, (Matthew 10:34), that his followers would have to make the most difficult and painful choices, and that they would have to deny their own feelings, dreams, and desires to go his way, indeed that they might have to die a horrible death for him (Matthew 10:37-39). Sadly, few churches and youth groups try to prepare young people for this.
- Jesus’ God is not a distant, non-judgmental God, who is there when we need him; he is very much and interventionist God. Indeed, Jesus is the intervention of God. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was about to begin (Matthew 4:17, 10:7). The Kingdom of God is the invasion of the world by heaven, God coming in person to rule his world. So Jesus spoke with authority, and demanded absolute loyalty from his followers. Jesus’ God could not have been different to the god of deism. He is both a judge (Matthew 10:28), and a compassionate, caring Father. He is a God who is intimately concerned with and absolutely sovereign over even the smallest details of his world, and who deeply loves and cares about his children (Matthew 10:29-31). The god of MTD is a weak god, who is in the end rather bland and boring; the God of Jesus is a strong God, an exciting God, who has the power to save.