At worship in the church of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Watching One Love, the concert for those affected by the recent terrorist bombing in Manchester, was a strangely quasi-religious experience, and a fascinating insight into the secular rituals that have come to define public mourning in the secular West.

Scheduled on a Sunday, the event was designed partly as an act of defiance by Ariana Grande and her management team, and partly as a semi-religious grief ritual for the city of Manchester.

Some of the songs performed at the concert made passing reference to religious themes, like the Black Eyed Peas’ song Where is the Love, a kind of prayer for world peace, which includes the line, “Father, Father, Father help us/ Send some guidance from above.”

Robbie Williams sang his oddly quasi-religious song, Angels, and Coldplay did Viva la Vida with the cryptic lines about the bells of Jerusalem, missionaries in a foreign field, and something about St Peter not calling my name.

While other songs, although not specifically religious, were performed with a kind of gravity befitting a secular hymn. Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Don’t Dream It’s Over and Don’t Look Back in Anger united the audience in a type of collective optimism usually reserved for religious singing. Or football anthems.  

Of course, there were some explicitly religious moments, like when Justin Bieber declared that “God is good in the midst of the evil. God is good in the midst of the darkness. He loves you.”

His announcement was met with cheers.

Remember, this is modern day Britain, one of the most secular nations in the world. A recent survey on religious affiliation in the UK found formal religion, particularly Christianity, is declining dramatically in popularity. Half the population (48.5% to be exact) do not identify with a religious tradition at all.

That compares to a quarter of Americans, and slightly less (23%) in Australia.

And yet in this increasingly secular nation, Brits can cheer a testimony of faith from Justin Bieber and sing along with Robbie Williams “I’m loving angels instead”, while holding signs declaring that those killed in the May 22 bombing had turned into angels in the afterlife.

What are we to make of this kind of folk religious ritual?

It reminded me of Christian Smith’s research into the religious beliefs of American teenagers, published as Soul Searching in 2005. He claimed that American adolescents weren’t so much Christian in their outlook (even when they self-identified as such), but could be better described as holding to what he termed, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

Smith described Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as consisting of the following beliefs:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth;
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by 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 God is needed to resolve a problem;
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die. Or turn into angels, as the case may be.

It felt to me like One Love was the perfect example of a Moralistic Therapeutic Deist worship service. Ariana Grande was the worship leader. Justin Bieber was the preacher. And Bono (beamed in via satellite) was the senior pastor.


And instead of crosses, everyone wore bunny ears.

I think those of us trying to commend faith in secular societies will have to get used to operating in this spiritual landscape. No longer will people turn exclusively to the church to manage such rituals. Funerals, memorials, weddings and other public events previously exclusively the domain of the church are now being outsourced to others.

I remember after the Boxing Day tsunami in South Asia in 2004, our mayor asked me to participate in a secular memorial service to honor the more than 250,000 people who lost their lives.

It was a citywide event, not a church service, so various local people and organizations made contributions. There were readings from the Bhagavad Gita, positive thoughts from a local New Age therapist and a choir sang John Lennon’s Imagine.

I was asked to read a passage from the Bible (of my choosing) and say a few brief words. I thought it would be tough to segue into a word about Christian hope after everyone had just swayed along to, “Imagine there’s no heaven/ It’s easy if you try/ No hell below us/ Above us only sky.”

But no one seemed phased. For them it was easy to drift from sacred Hindu writings to Christian ones, from a secular hymn to a performance of Amazing Grace. I realized pretty quickly that I was participating in a ritual at the church of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

But herein lies the challenge for traditional religious practitioners. Do we withdraw completely, saying the whole thing is an insipid mash-up of the least offensive parts of various belief systems? Or do we recognize if we want to be heard at all we need to join in?


Some say it’s demeaning to God when we’re willing to put our religious beliefs on the great smorgasbord of ideas currently in vogue in the West. Jesus came to abolish religion, they say, not create another one of equal value to sit alongside all the others. And I hear that. It has the ring of truth. And it makes my heart sing a little.

But with the church in such rapid decline in the UK and elsewhere, it seems like religious suicide to say we’re not willing to participate in such public rituals and we won’t join our voice with the voices of the grieving and the fearful in places like Manchester and London and Melbourne.

And don’t think you can wait until your city is faced with a significant calamity before you decide. In every likelihood they won’t even think of inviting you, let alone ask for your input, unless you’re already a trusted voice in the city.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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11 thoughts on “At worship in the church of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

  1. Hi Mike, good thoughts, thank you. A couple of reflections from me, if you don’t mind:
    1. The creatives have filled the void left by the church to speak into our grief. I applaud them and their to define our response by love, not hatred. Yet, I grieve (majorly) my church that has failed to renew itself over the last 50 years and effectively said to this generation ‘There’s no place for you’. I am CofE and we are aging (actually, we’re old). Few of the people at the concert would find a place in an average CofE church, if they ever went.
    2. And yet… The response the concert called is unmistakably Christian. Whatever you think about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, it could only be built on a Christian foundation! (Oh, the irony). Only the love of God for all people expressed in Jesus can shape the cultural response we saw at the concert, even if Jesus himself only got a look-in via Justin Bieber.
    So, I am grieving this sadness and how it has again exposed how my church has made the post-modern generations homeless by not making ourselves a fit harbour for them. And yet they are not as far off as we think!

  2. I wonder if Isis sees Justin Beiber and Miley Cyrus as representatives of the Christian West

  3. Numbing grief with celebrity performance is what the secular society does and has always done in one way or another. I am skeptical of these events as I tend to see them for what they ultimately are…major publicity exposure for celebrities. They don’t need the money so it’s no sacrifice for them to do a benefit concert from time to time. The good PR that comes from the event will pay off big time later.

    Last summer, one of the teens in my church community died suddenly while serving at a summer camp. The church responded with a gathering to do one thing – grieve and lament together. For 2 hours we cried, sang songs of lament, read Bible passages of lament, and simply sat in quietness. Everyone left exhausted yet full.

    I agree with you that the church should be willing to participate in such public rituals like OLM, joining our voices with those of the grieving and the fearful in places like Manchester, London, and Melbourne. But I’ll take our churches lament gathering over a star-studded benefit concert any day.

  4. I find it sad that you took the time to criticise this event. People are sheep without a shepherd and whatever you think about the publicity helping the stars involved going to a concert and getting back safely would help those traumatised by the concert bombing. I was pleased by what Justin Bieber said, not just because it received a cheer because I believe that people will seek God as a result.

    Perhaps this will be the way that this nation comes back to God, quite the opposite effect that the terrorists had in mind.

  5. Interesting thoughts by Mike. However I think you miss a few aspects of the event. This was an expression of grief, compassion, shock and anxiety. I am a pastor and community leader in the city and someone who led a secular vigil 5 days before the concert for nearly 1.000 people including many Muslims, just next to the venue where the convert was held.
    The church has been very involved at all levels following the bombing, not I think wanting ‘to be heard’ in a secular society, but simply weeping with those who weep and sharing Christs love.
    We don’t stand outside our city looking in observing its rituals and its responses, we are our city, we are the people, we are grieved and shocked and we sing the Manc song “Don’t look back in anger”
    I have waited many times outside the same venue the bomber chose to greet my daughter after a concert. I like many parents and young people feel deeply affected.
    This is incarnation, being in, among, with, alongside not standing outside observing.
    We are deeply proud of our city, with its non judgmental reaction and rejection of hate. That was what the concert was about, we shall stand and sing and cry and cheer. It was a ritual that expressed some of the deepest values of the kingdom of God, we see our role in affirming and being part of that response and not offering a critique.

    1. Wow! Thank you Rev Roger Sutton for sharing that! It is often easy to look at an event like that from the outside and write an opinion. It is another thing to be right there where it happened.

      I believe this very strongly illustrates the idea that it is easy to teach topics from observing life in the news or in books, and easy to make mistakes when we teach, and possibly reproduce those mistakes. It is much more difficult, yet preferable, to teach through imitation and immersion.

      You were there, Rev Sutton. You should be the one to teach us about the church’s response and participation in events like what happened in Manchester.

      Just my opinion.

      1. Certainly, if you were there you have a very important opinion. But not being there (and not being from Manchester) doesn’t stop us from interpreting the event and the spirituality it presents.

        1. Yes! This is so good…

          Thank you to both of you. Rev Rog and Mike Frost.

          One of the interesting things about Christianity is that Christ both founded a religion and yet signalled the end of all religions. Jesus said there will come a time when we worship in spirit and in truth rather than on one mountain or another.

          From what I can tell your both right. In Christianity, we need both the priest and the prophet. If religion loses the prophet, it can become prideful and arrogant. If it loses the priest, then you end up with nothing but silence. Christ can thus be seen as founding an irreligious religion, a religion that critiques the idea of religion, a religion without religion.

  6. Our heart go out in love to the people of Manchester and London affected by people whose heart is void of God’s love. May people affected by these senseless acts know personally love that is genuine through Jesus Christ. His death speaks a better word for all mankind in that God’s love is poured out for those willing to accept. The only way to stop terror is for people to know Jesus personally. YES the world needs love and it has been given, waiting for people to be open to receive. Repent and turn for Jesus has all authority and is waiting for you.
    Jesus said ” Repent for the Kingdom of God is near” How near is it to you today?

  7. Interesting to follow the comments. I think Mike´s thoughts have some prophetic quality, and looking at society in general, I wholeheartedly agree. Another point of view is the “sheperd´s” perspective, e.g. expressed in Roger Sutton´s response. When you are close and with people, you might see things differently.
    Point is: we need both perspectives, even when they are in tension to one another. And problem is, that in today´s postmodern culture, “feeling with people” is what most see as genuine Christian, while stepping back and trying to discern (which Michael does) is regarded with distrust. However, we really must struggle to keep a horizontal and a vertical view together.

  8. These are exactly my thoughts on Christmas.

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