The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



Moral Therapeutic Deism and Notre Dame: A match made in heaven?

| Friday, December 3, 2021

Is the Catholicism we see practiced in campus spiritual life today consistent with the traditional values and practices of the Catholic Church? Or have we strayed to a new and different belief system, more suitable to the modern practitioner?

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) is a revisionist version of what traditional Christianity practices. In Christian Smith’s “God, Religion, Whatever,” we get an outline of the core tenets of this modern and informal tradition: 1, God exists and watches over us; 2, God wants us to be “good”; 3, the goal of life is happiness; 4, God has a minimal presence in our lives until He needs to troubleshoot a problem; 5, good people go to heaven. While relatively basic, these central beliefs encapsulate some important aspects of Christianity well and misunderstand others.

It’s clear that MTD offers a much more casual approach to belief. God here is seen as a deity (technically heretical), but this is a tempting lens to use. God is like a big brother — He’s cool with us and will give us guidance when we need it, but will leave us alone when we don’t. With this kind of moral flexibility, it naturally follows that teens/Gen Z/our generation fall into the trap of adopting MTD as their personal theology. In other words, I think it’s accurate to say that MTD is among the dominant ideology for “believers” in this generation. I can’t speak for all 2000s babies, but I think the intent is often rightly-motivated. Religion gets a bad rep these days, and today’s youth are trying to reconcile a progressive and sometimes intolerant modern movement with thousands-of-years-old religions.

MTD offers adolescents and young adults a much more palatable and permissive belief system than is traditional. And this alternative to the traditional institution of the Catholic Church offers a huge draw to more and more young Catholics. As such, it poses what some would consider a “threat” to traditional belief systems.

But this new-wave spin on Christian belief is valuable in its own right. It reflects many of the shared values of younger Christians: tolerance, individuality, kindness.

While I acknowledge the link between my generation and MTD, it remains unclear to me whether this relationship is just between MTD and youth today or rather if it’s MTD and youth in general. Is it just a phase, and if so, will we grow out of it? My gut feeling is that some version of MTD is common among youth in general, as it offers a mode of theological reflection that is somewhat superficial and allows the practitioner to make their own decisions. During adolescence and young adulthood, this seems to be what we want. I do believe, however, that as we get older and wiser, some former MTD kids will see God’s truth.

On the university level, it seems we are inching ever closer to Moral Therapeutic Deism. And that may not be a bad thing. Whether our generation grows out of MTD or not, there’s something to be said in favor of “trying on” the belief system.

Alexa Schlaerth is a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame pursuing degrees in Chinese and philosophy. As an Angeleno, Alexa enjoys shopping at Erewhon Market, drinking kombucha and complaining about traffic because it’s “like, totally lame.” Alexa can be reached at [email protected] over email.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Tags: , , ,

About Alexa Schlaerth

Contact Alexa