Ten years ago, sociologist Christian Smith coined the now famous phrase “moralistic-therapeutic-deism” (MTD) to summarize the prevailing worldview of today’s youth. He first attached this description to high school students, ages 13–17, interviewed by his team of researchers from 2001 to 2005. His findings are reported and interpreted well in his 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.
Four years later, he reported about follow-up interviews with some of those same students in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. In that second work, he stated, “MTD is still alive and well among 18- to 23-year old American youth” (Souls in Transition, 155).
When I interviewed 40 college students who had recently come to saving faith, I specifically looked for evidence of MTD in the testimonies I heard. Would these college students’ stories still echo the themes Smith reported almost ten years earlier?
The short answer is “Not really.”
Here’s a longer answer.
Lesson 6 of my 21 Evangelism Lessons:
We need to treat individual people as individuals and resist the pull to treat them all the same.
Smith summarized the “creed” of MTD as “something like this:”
- A God exists who created and orders 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 oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life, except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die. (Soul Searching, 162–163).
Here are some of my thoughts about Smith’s five points. I’ll use letters instead of numbers because I am not making a point-by-point response.
A. Smith’s summary is too monolithic. Some of the students I talked to would affirm some, but not all, of the points above. Some have not thought as clearly as even these rather vague statements would imply.
B. Smith’s statements are either too simplistic or too complex, depending on whom you talk to. Several students believed that life was about far more than just “being happy and to feel good about oneself.” Some might even be offended if their views about God were summed up by Smith’s statement #2. But others were just confused and very frustrated with that.
C. Smith’s statements seem to imply settled conviction and relative happiness. I didn’t hear that from too many of the students I talked to. When they described their “faith” before becoming Christians, they showed a kind of paralysis in making thoughtful decisions about anything serious. Our culture’s drumbeat of open-mindedness has actually produced shallow thoughtlessness.
People who do research in the social sciences often confess that summarized descriptions of many people describe no one in particular. The very act of making a conglomerate description of different people’s experiences can distort or water down our understanding of those experiences.
It’s like the joke of the biologist, physicist, and statistician who went deer hunting. The biologist shot and missed the deer by 5 feet to the left. The physicist shot and missed the deer by 5 feet to the right. The statistician stood up and cheered, “We got him!”
If someone asked me to summarize today’s college students’ worldview, I would try as desperately as I could to decline the request. If pushed to support or reject Smith’s MTD slogan, I’d say that today’s students are moralistically inconsistent, therapeutically confused, and religiously so relativistic as to be hopelessly vague—and so indoctrinated in the importance of so-called “tolerance” as to be incapacitated to make logical decisions about faith. Thus, they are starved for a message that has any substance whatsoever and may be remarkably open to the gospel!
In other words, we need to be very good listeners who resist the temptation to pigeonhole people into neat acrostics of summaries of belief.
Some may hear about MTD and despair at how far we have fallen from a Biblical worldview. That would certainly be understandable. But that very same fall, I believe and pray, may set God’s people up to proclaim good news to people who will respond like parched mouths longing for springs water that well up to eternal life.