Moralistic, therapeutic deism

Christian Smith is a sociologist who has spent years researching teen spirituality in America today. As quoted in Christless Christianity:

“Smith observed that most teens — including those reared in evangelical churches who said their faith is ‘very important’ and makes a big difference in their lives — are ‘stunningly inarticulate’ concerning the actual content of that faith. ‘Interviewing teens,’ he relates, ‘one finds little evidence that the agents of religious socialization in the country’ — parents, pastors, and teachers — ‘are being highly effective and successful with the majority of their young people.’ In contrast to previous generations that at least had some residual knowledge of the Bible and basic Christian teachings, it seems there is very little serious ability to state, reflect upon, or examine their beliefs, much less to relate them to daily life. Many young people seem to be living on the hype and the familiar circle of friends in the youth group, both of which eventually lose their influence, especially in college.

“Smith defines moralistic, therapeutic deism as expressing this sort of working theology:
1. God created the world.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and 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 needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.”

Sound familiar?


  1. arestelle says:

    Sounds like the mainstream, enormous, entertainment-center churches to me. It can be different when you’re in smaller churches, or go to private religious schools; I was required to take a Bible class each year of high school–Old Testament, New Testament, Church History, and a senior reflection- and application-based course.

    In college I also took a course on roots of pacifism in the Bible. And as a philosophy student I saw some arguments related to Christianity from some major philosophers of the Early Modern era and 19th century.

    So now as an agnostic, I’m more informed than a good many ‘Christians.’ 😉 (Scarequotes because, really, it’s not the kind of thing you can be a true examplar of if you don’t even know what it is.)

  2. Unfortunately it is not only in the entertainment-center churches…

    Curious, what in your studies led you to an agnostic conclusion?

  3. arestelle says:

    It sounds like you think that my agnosticism is a result simply of my studies. That isn’t true.

    I have always had a strong inclination towards logic; even in high school, when asked “Why [is/do you believe that] Jesus the son of God?”, my answer was logically-oriented. I said “because of the angels” – Mary becoming pregnant outside of wedlock would have been a stone-able offense. The combination of accounts of angels appearing to her, to her husband, and to an objective third party seemed to provide a reason for her husband to not seek punishment against her and an example of independent verification. Of course, I later realized that I was simply assuming the account itself to be factual. I recognized that this assumption was not justified by anything independent of the account, and my reasoning was faulty.

    I was taught, implicitly, to fear giving real thought to the possibility that some basic tenet of Christianity were false. The main thing my studies did was allow me to consider that possibility. One of the more important encounters was a professor of theology who was raised Pentecostal and later became Anabaptist, who holds a belief that is contrary to that of the vast majority of Christians (even of religious people in general).

    At any rate, God is claimed to be beyond the limit of the physical world (supernatural, “not merely physical”). Because of this, our observations cannot yield either corroborative or falsifying evidence of claims about God. I have seen arguments that attempt to prove a priori the existence of God, but they have been dubitable at best. So to the best of my understanding, it is intellectually irresponsible to claim to know either that God exists or that he doesn’t.

    (Sorry for such a long reply.)

  4. 11:1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

    The Bible is not a science book; it’s a faith book. Now you
    must decide if it’s better for you to have faith in God and His promises, or faith in the literal dead-end that is atheism. (Agnosticism is essentially Atheism because you don’t believe in the Real True Living God, but, at best, you believe in a god of your own imagination.)

    Jesus said that if we seek, we shall find. You, my friend, have given up seeking too soon. Press on in the things of God
    and perhaps you shall find the a posteriori evidence that you’ve been lacking so far.

    As for me, I know that God lives because He lives in me.

    8:14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.
    8:15 For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.
    8:16 The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:

    • arestelle says:

      (Oi. I should have known they would not read what I wrote.)

      Gen. 1:31 And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.

      You believe that God exists, and that God created you, correct? Humans are naturally rational creatures. The extent of our rationality is probably our biggest difference from other creatures — our greatest gift, compared to the rest of creation, you might say. That is part of the world you believe God created–the world you believe that he/she/it called very good. From the believer’s perspective, using the reason you naturally have, to the best of your ability, is then a form of worship, and refusing to use that reason is rejecting a gift from God. Do you not see this?

      In the words of Galileo, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

      (Wait, now he probably thinks that Galileo was evil. Oi.)

      Also, you claim that agnosticism is essentially the same as atheism. You are wrong, and offensively so. Look up the article on Atheism and Agnosticism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (I suggest this, although I’m sure you won’t.) Atheists claim that God *does not exist* — they are nearer to theists in this way than to agnostics, since both groups (theists and atheists) make a positive claim regarding the existence or nonexistence of God. Agnostics claim that we do not or that we cannot *know* whether or not God exists.

      But by your reasoning, Hindus and Wiccans and atheists are all the same, because they don’t believe in The God From Your Particular Holy Book (This Being Capitalized Which Makes It Loftier). Good grief.

      (Again, ukrainiac, sorry for such a long reply — I’ll leave your comments section alone now, as I suspect this attempt at discussion will be unfruitful.)

  5. arestelle: No need to apologize for your long comments. As long as discussions remain civil with each participant attempting to clearly state his own viewpoint, I have no problem!

    Thank you for your response to my question; you’re right, I thought your viewpoint came about through your studies. Though I disagree with your conclusion, it seems that you have given much thought to this question.
    Don’t get too far away — I may have more questions for you!

    tim: Thank you for entering the discussion!

  6. >From the believer’s perspective, using the reason you >naturally have, to the best of your ability, is then a form >of worship, and refusing to use that reason is rejecting a >gift from God. Do you not see this?

    Isaiah 1:18
    Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD:

    God does not ask us to give up our reasoning ability.

    What I’m asking for you to understand is that there is more to reality than your five *physical* senses can tell you.

    God is Spirit. We are created in God’s image. Thus we are spiritual beings. But, our spiritual ears and eyes have gone deaf and blind though disuse. A person needs to seek more deeply, to try to exercise his God given spiritual nature. (Of course, you really need to be born-again for your spirit man to come alive…but there’s enough of an ember in each person to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus.)

    I don’t know his work too well, but Ravi Zacharias writes a lot about God from a strong philosophical basis. Perhaps you could check out his books and sermon CDs? (

    • arestelle says:

      Isaiah 1:19-20 : If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

      ‘Do as I say and you get sweets; if you don’t do as I say, you will die a painful, ugly death.’ That’s scare tactics. That’s the “reason” of the tyrant or the two-year-old, not of the thinker. Please be wary of taking scripture out of context.

      Besides, I didn’t accuse your God of wanting people to not use their reason. Read what I wrote. What I’m saying is that your God, if he exists, would not blame people whose best use of their reason leads them to a conclusion like that of agnosticism, because the very honor that they lend to reason is a form of praise for that which made them what they are (rational beings). I’m saying it’s religion that blames them and discourages reason.

      ukrainiac: anytime.

  7. Let me give you an analogy. Let’s say that there’s a certain woman who I love dearly. I love her because she’s got a lot of great qualities. But, guess what? I’m not blind to the fact that she has faults. But, I love her all the same. Why? Because the benefits of her love more than compensate for the fact that I have to deal with her faults. God makes it clear the benefits of loving Him and following Him; and He makes it clear what the drawbacks are for hating Him and turning against Him.

    Beside Ravi Zacharias, another person to consider is Derek Prince. He was a college don at Cambridge University schooled under Wittgenstein. Yet , he received the free gift of Yeshua’s grace. He said at perhaps around age 70 that “the longer I serve the Lord, the clearer my thinking becomes.”

    Would God blame people for using their God given gift of reason and coming to the conclusion that Agnosticism is the
    right path? Derek Prince, Ravi Zacharias, & myself are three people who followed their reasoning power to conclude that Yes, there is a God. There are countless others with similar testimonties.

    John 8:31 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;
    8:32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

    God makes it clear that you must seek and continue seeking until you find the truth that sets you free. That fact that you are posting to a Christian list tells me that you haven’t entirely given up seeking yet.

    James 1:5 If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

    Ask God to reveal His reality to you. If you ask it sincerely, you shall see the truth. But to reply to your position, I think that God has given each of us enough knowledge and faith to be saved. So, Yes, He will hold you guilty for not availing yourself of what is freely given to you if you would but seek Him diligently.

    Finally, I would ask you why you continue to avoid my spiritual arguments. You have sought out “physical reality” and the power of your logical mind. Try seeking out the hidden reality of God as spirit.

  8. arestelle says:

    You use a false analogy. If you wish to compare a human relationship to your “believe in God — get benefits; disbelieve — get punishment” picture, the analogous example would be loving a woman because if you don’t, she’ll beat you senseless.

    Point of interest: you can’t hate or turn against something unless you believe that it exists.

    As to your question about spiritual arguments, my answer was posted before you asked. Also, I have not seen you provide any justification for your claim that “God is Spirit,” or that “spirit” is a really existing part of the universe. It isn’t physical, so it isn’t observable. I suspect your reason for believing in spirit is that the Bible claims it exists. So, you claim God exists and back it up with either the Bible’s claims, or with “spirit,” then back up “spirit” with the Bible’s claims. Either way it’s because you already assume the truth of things in the Bible. (But why believe that? “Because it’s the Word of God.” This is a shining example of petitio principii.)

    Also, please be careful of your assumptions. I posted here because I browse WordPress’ tags occasionally, especially NaBloPoMo2009. I saw there a post that appeared critical of the common/mainstream modern Christian, which critical attitude I find interesting. So I came to see what the post was, and allowed myself to get dragged into a discussion that I probably shouldn’t have, as it isn’t particularly constructive.

  9. Roger Zelazny wrote, “Doubt my lady, is the chastity of the mind.” (The voice of an anti-hero speaking to a Hindu goddess.) You think that you can die a mental virgin, but I doubt that.

    Let’s say that I throw a party and invite you. And you reply, “I’m not sure if your party is real, so I’m not going to come.” You might feel like you made a good excuse, but it’s not going to float with me. I’ll tell you that I’ll never invite you again because you snubbed my kind invitation. The invitation was real enough to me (I should know, I sent out the invitations.)

    Another man once wrote, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” (Neil Peart)

    I have made my choice based on personal experience of a living God and based on empirical data which you refuse to accept or even deign to investigate.

    As to whether this discussion is productive or not doesn’t really seem to be the point does it? You seem to enjoy being in the place where you are (saying that your agnostic but really trying your best to tear down Christianity.) But, let me ask you why Christians and Christianity seem to get you so riled up that you feel like you have to leave in a huff? Do other religions do the same to you? Or is it only the name of Jesus? When you swear (assuming that you do), do you use Buddha’s name or only the name of Jesus?
    If it’s only Jesus’ name, doesn’t that show you that there’s power in his name? Power to save those who believe, and power to condemn those who reject him.

    I’ll leave with the thought that I’ll pray that God will reveal himself to you and will open up to the power of the
    following scripture passage:

    1 Cor 1:18
    For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.
    1:19 For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.
    1:20 Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
    1:21 For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
    1:22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:
    1:23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

  10. I hope you don’t mind my jumping into your discussion, but I have been following along and find it quite interesting. You both obviously have given alot of thought to your beliefs and believe passionately in them.

    I am a physician and the idea of God as spirit raises some skepticism in me. You can’t observe him or measure him. But we also cannot measure or see the entire universe, but scientists believe it exists. We just are not able to see it yet.

    As I sought answers to explain war, crime, the many illnesses that befall my patients and my own misbehavior, I became cold and selfish, thinking the only purpose for people in my life was to make my life meaningful.

    As a child I too was taught to believe in God. As I grew up I began to think, if the focus of religion was worshiping God, how could I know he actually existed and which path to God was correct, science, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity or Buddhism? Which path is true?

    As I examined the paths, I was confronted with Mohammad, Jesus Christ, etc. They all seemed to teach good things. They were real people, like you and me. However, Christ was different. He was a real man who died a real death. The difference was he claimed to be God and was resurrected from the dead and witnessed physically by many thereafter.

    As a physician, I understand after being dead for three days people just don’t return to life. He was the only major religious figure to do so. Therefore, his claims bear additional authority. He pointed to the Bible as being the very word of God. I could therefore, know and learn about this God from reading about Jesus, a real person and also the real God. The people who recorded their observations were also putting their lives on the line.

    As I thought about my own life and behavior, I wanted and needed a real God who offered real forgiveness and real hope, not just moral platitudes and rules that I already knew I didn’t and couldn’t keep.

    A righteous, holy and just God, creator of all things, would have every right to declare the rules by which we live and have our being. How can we, therefore, be reconciled with such a God? We cannot keep his rules, in fact we have already broken them many times over. We all share in the same desperate condition. The penalty is death. But in God’s mercy, he sent his Son, a real person, to pay the penalty and die in our place. Now that is real love.

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