A counterfeit form of Christianity is more popular than the real thing, according to respected researcher Dr George Barna.
“Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” is a worldview that is defined and driven by current culture, more than by historic religious truths or a comprehensive and coherent doctrine, according to Barna. In other words, it is the sort of Christianity that lots of people want.
George Barna was the founder of The Barna Group, a well-regarded market research firm specialising in studying the religious beliefs and behavior of Americans. He is now director of research at Arizona Christian University.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) was first identified as a set of beliefs held by teenagers, in a study back in 2005 by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton.
The teenagers have grown up and maintained those beliefs as MTD is now the most common worldview held by Americans, according to the new research led by Barna.
MTD beliefs include:
- Belief in a God who remains distant from people’s lives.
- People are supposed to be good to each other (i.e. moral).
- The universal purpose of life is being happy and feeling good about oneself.
- There are no absolute moral truths.
- God allows “good people” into Heaven.
- God places very limited demands on people.
The American Worldview Inventory 2021, published by Barna’s team from Arizona Christian University, shows that 38 per cent of adults are more likely to embrace elements of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This puts MTD ahead of other popular worldviews, including Biblical Theism (or the biblical worldview), Secular Humanism, Postmodernism, Nihilism, Marxism (or its descendant, Critical Theory) and Eastern Mysticism (or ‘New Age’).
MTD forms part of a tendency towards syncretistic beliefs (the merging of various belief systems or schools of thought). “88 per cent of Americans have Syncretism, rather than a substantively coherent and recognisable worldview such as Postmodernism or Secular Humanism, as their dominant worldview,” Barna says.
As further explained by a Gospel Coalition article, MTD is a mixture of ideas gathered from various thought systems rather than a new religion. Speaking of MTD’s effect on youth ministry, Gospel Coalition writer Brian Cosby wrote: “That a youth ministry ‘teaches the Bible’ does not necessarily mean it teaches the gospel. Many mistake the gospel with moralism — being a good person, reading your Bible, or opening the door for the elderly in order to earn God’s favour. But the gospel is altogether different.”
The idea that being good gets a person to Heaven – whether the good works are individual acts of kindness, or political activism – gives MTD a wide reach. Orthodox Christian writers such as the Southern Baptist Albert Mohler were quick to identify MTD as a false gospel, almost as soon as it was first identified. Despite this, MTD has established itself in the US culture.
According to American Worldview Inventory 2021 – described as the first-ever national study of biblical and competing worldviews – three out of four people (74 per cent) who embrace MTD do consider themselves to be Christians. However, only one-sixth (16 per cent) qualify as born-again, based on their theology.
“Simply and objectively stated, Christianity in this nation is rotting from the inside out.” – George Barna
The study found conflict between beliefs held by the vast majority of this MTD group, and basic biblical teaching. For example, they:
- Do not believe people are sinful and need salvation through Jesus Christ (91 per cent).
- Trust sources other than the Bible for moral guidance (88 per cent).
- Contend that good people get to Heaven through good behavior (76 per cent).
- Do not believe that the Bible is true and reliable communication from God (71 per cent).
After a lifetime of surveying Christianity in the US, George Barna’s verdict is simple. He identifies MTD as fake Christianity.
“The fact that a greater percentage of people who call themselves Christian draw from Moralistic Therapeutic Deism than draw from the Bible says a lot about the state of the Christian Church in America, in all of its manifestations.”
“Simply and objectively stated, Christianity in this nation is rotting from the inside out.”