Deism was a rationalistic movement that started in the seventeenth and continued into the eighteenth century. Its adherents, who were mainly opposed to revealed religion in general and Christianity in particular, held that nature’s existence is obvious and that no further proof, such as that found in the Bible, is needed of a Creator or Supreme Architect of the Universe. Organized religion was scorned for encouraging superstition, and biblical revelation was considered spurious. Both the Old and New Testament were attacked as being a collection of inauthentic, not revealed, writings. Voltaire, one of the most famous, argued that belief in miracles is, logically, blasphemous, implying as it does that God has somehow bungled His creation and needs to make repairs. The deists emphasized morality, and they denied that the Creator, once his creation was finished, interfered further with the natural laws of the universe. Petitionary prayers could not be expected to be answered, for the Creator has gone and cannot hear them. Using the analogy of the watchmaker, He had created the world, He was now elsewhere, and man’s interest now needs to be in the thoughtful utilization of His creation, not in the Creator who presumably will remain unknown. Basically, deism was a system of thought which advocated natural religion. The light of nature - lumen naturae or reason - was man’s only reliance.
Deist authors and their works included
- Thomas Morgan (The Moral Philosopher, 1737);
- Thomas Chubb (Discourse Concerning Reason, 1731; True Gospel of Jesus Christ, 1739; and Posthumous Works, 1748);
- John Toland (Christianity Not Mysterious, 1696); and
- Matthew Tindal (Christianity as Old as the Creation, or the Gospel A Republication of the Religion of Nature (1730). Tindal, whose work sometimes is called “the deist’s bible,” was not so restrained in his criticism of Christianity as was Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583—1648), who is called “the father of deism.” Lord Herbert simply commended natural religion for its reasonableness.
In addition to Voltaire, the ranks of the deists included Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. The Founding Fathers of the United States were particularly attracted to deism, for they could no longer accept the Church of England nor the King of England as God’s representative on Earth. Nor did they desire the formation of a national church, choosing instead to write a Constitution that guaranteed religious freedom for believers and non-believers alike. Ethan Allen’s Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1784) and Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason (1794 - 1795) were deistic works.
Many of the deists were Freemasons, and the Masonic ritual is in keeping with deistic thought.
Deism differs from theism, although Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary in 1827 defined the two words as synonymous. Both posit God, although deists are more apt to use a term such as Supreme Architect of the Universe. Deism indicates a philosophical, as opposed to a dogmatic, belief in God, and deists emphasized natural theology as contrasted with revealed.
Deism's Appeal in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries
Eighteenth-century deism appealed to the liberalism of Unitarianism and Universalism, two churches which were protesting Calvinism and were attempting to reconcile religious belief with scientific thought.
But by the first decade of the nineteenth century, deism had lost much of its influence among major writers, who were becoming interested in a new philosophic and literary movement: transcendentalism.
However, even in the 20th century, some still choose to label themselves as deists and publish Think! (Box 47016, St. Petersburg, Florida 33743).
Deism, according to J. C. A. Gaskin’s Varieties of Unbelief from Epicurus to Sartre (1989), is “[b]elief in a god who ordered the universe and masterminds its general laws but has no concern with such particular effects as individual men and women and has made no special revelation of its (his or her) nature or purposes to the human race.” Gaskin differentiates deism from attenuated deism, the “[a]acknowledgment of the possibility of some inconceivably remote and unknowable creator-god who is neither concerned with nor of concern to the human race, nor thinkably like a human person.”
The case for deism as made by E. O. Wilson (The Atlantic Monthly, March 1998) includes the following:
- Deistic belief, by persisting in attenuated form to this day, has given scientists a license to search for God. More precisely, it has prompted a small number to make a partial sketch of Him (Her? It? Them?), derived from their professional meditations. Few scientists and philosophers, however, let alone religious thinkers, take scientific theology very seriously. A more coherent and interesting approach, possibly within the reach of theoretical physics, is to try to answer the following question: Is a universe of discrete material particles possible only with one specific set of natural laws and parameter values? In other words, does the human imagination, which can conceive of other laws and values, thereby exceed possible existence? Any act of Creation may be only a subset of the universes we can imagine. On this point Einstein is said to have remarked to his assistant Ernst Straus, in a moment of neo-deistic reflection, “What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world.” That line of reasoning can be extended rather mystically to formulate the “anthropic principle,” which asserts that the laws of nature, in our universe at least, had to be set a certain precise way so as to allow the creation of beings able to ask about the laws of nature. Did Someone decide to do it that way?
Wilson then adds:
- The fatal flaw in deism is thus not rational at all but emotional. Pure reason is unappealing because it is bloodless. Ceremonies stripped of sacred mystery lose their emotional force, because celebrants need to defer to a higher power in order to consummate their instinct for tribal loyalty. In times of danger and tragedy especially, unreasoning ceremony is everything. Rationalism provides no substitute for surrender to an infallible and benevolent being, or for the leap of faith called transcendence. Most people, one imagines, would very much like science to prove the existence of God but not to take the measure of his capacity.
The World Union of Deists has a home page. Also see the article by Ernest Campbell Mossner for deism in the Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 2. Also see the entries for Clockwork Universe, for Pierre Viret, and for Ethan Allen. For deism (1624—1760) in the United Kingdom, see Gordon Stein’s Freethought in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. In his Freethought in the United States, Gordon Stein also refers to Canadian deism.)