In many ways, Deism is a transitional belief system. Back before the enlightenment, especially before the late 1700s, The dominant belief in Europe and America was Christian Theism. There was, overall, a firm belief in the Creator God of the Bible who was personal and who directly interacted with his created order. By the end of the 1800s, the beginning stages of a true Naturalism was taking hold where belief in God was completely abandoned. In modern times, this Naturalistic mindset dominates a very large part of Western society.
But between those times was a period when many still held a belief in God, but the notion that he had a personal interest in and interaction with the material world began to fade. This was where Deism slipped into the picture.
Deism was actually never really a massive movement in America, but there are those who assert that it did have a significant impact on the founding of the country. While there is a certain amount of controversy about the beliefs of the founding fathers, many hold that a good number of them were essentially Deists. The biggest names put forth by proponents of this position include such notables as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine. There is even a case made by some that there is a strong Deistic influence evident in the nation’s founding documents. While the alleged beliefs of these founders and the belief that Deism influenced the founding documents is not a consensus position, there is no doubt that there was some influence from this system in those early days.
As for the spread of Deism into general society, it was the artist class which was greatly instrumental in this effort. In reality, it is the work of artists, writers and musicians in every generation who end up being the most influential in introducing various ideas into pop culture. As for that era, Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain) was one of the ones who put Deistic beliefs in a form which allowed them to be easily disseminated to the general public. His writings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries went a long way in stealthily spreading Deistic beliefs. Heretofore those beliefs had been more commonly held among the more elite members of society. It is quite likely that Mark Twain’s writings were influential on many levels in helping with the breakdown of more solidly Theistic beliefs and opening the door to more acceptance of Naturalistic ones.
Deists are those who believe in the existence of a divine Creator but deny that this God is personal or that he has in any way personally revealed himself. They believe that the only way anyone can know anything about God is to deduce his characteristics by observing nature and by human reason.
Deistic thinking has been around since ancient times but it was not dealt with as a considered philosophy until relatively modern times. It began to emerge as a matter of philosophical discussion during the European Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. It was during that period that the emphasis on deductive logic, and empirical thought began to push aside the idea of a personal God who had revealed himself. Deism was sort of an in-between belief system that had not completely abandoned God, but was not fully accepting of him, either. It had a great influence among politicians, scientists and philosophers beginning in the late 17th and on into the early and mid 18th century. It was particularly prevalent in England, France, Germany and the United States.
Deism was based on the premise that matter behaves in a mathematically predictable way that can be grasped by understanding the laws of nature. The idea is that even though God does not reveal himself to us directly, we can scientifically observe what he has created and deduce things about him. Early Deists believed that the Bible contained important truths, but they rejected the concept that it was divinely inspired or inerrant.
As a religious system, it began as a somewhat radical form of Christianity. This system rejected miracles, revelation, and the inerrancy of the Bible. As it developed, Deism became continually more disassociated from Christianity.
The popularity of Deism began to diminish as the middle ground became less attractive between belief in God and the denial of his existence. Those who were inclined toward Naturalistic thought tended to move more toward Atheism. This became even more pronounced as David Hume and Charles Darwin popularized Naturalistic thought. On the other side, Christian awakenings inclined those who believed in God to cling to a more personal understanding of him. The middle ground of Deism was basically squeezed out.
Basic Beliefs and Practices
Most Deists adhere to the “clockmaker God” view of reality. They believe that God created the universe, “wound it up”, then let it go to run on its own. They strongly disagree with both atheists, who believe that there is no evidence of God’s existence, and with Christians, who say that God is personal and personally reveals himself to mankind. The most common Deistic beliefs include the following.
- No divine revelation is able to tell us anything specifically about God.
- A belief in God is based on reason, experience and an understanding of nature. God’s existence can be deduced by observing the order and complexity of nature and by analyzing our own personal experiences.
- The exact nature of God is abstract and unknowable. On top of that, human language is too limited to be able to define God. Man can, however, use reason to theorize and speculate about his nature.
- Man cannot have a personal relationship with God, but can have feelings of awe about him which is experienced in the human soul as epiphany, fellowship and spirituality based on the magnificence of his creation.
- God has a profound and mysterious relationship with all of his creation (nature) rather than just one aspect of it (mankind).
- Human beings have the ability to use reason to develop moral principles. By observing the order in the universe, human reason is able to lead us to a morality which respects order and directs us to a utilitarian-humanist morality.
- Individuals must determine for themselves how best to honor God. No book (scripture) or human organization (church) can express this kind of information.
- All men and women are created equal with innate freedom and liberty. Natural Law leads to an understanding that every human is equal.
- The purpose of humanity is to live life to the fullest and insure that all people are allowed the opportunity to pursue that goal.
- Reason and respect are seen to be God-given traits which are to be used to the maximum. This leads to a very strong sense of pragmatism and a deep respect for the beliefs and opinions of others.
Deists believe that God exists but is totally transcendent. He created the material universe in a way that makes it able to run on its own without his direct intervention. Deists also believe that God can only be known indirectly as individuals use their reason to deduce his characteristics by observing nature.
In Deism, human beings are believed to have been created by God as personal beings. Man is still, however, simply a part of the mechanical operation of the universe. Deists assert that humans were created with the ability to observe the created order and deduce the natural order of life by using human reason. Deism believes that human beings are responsible for “giving life their best shot” based on their best deductions about the nature of reality.
Deistic belief asserts that a person can receive favor from God for the afterlife by living a good life in this world. As such, people should treat others with dignity and respect and God will be pleased.
Worldview Explanation (How Deism answers the seven worldview questions.)
1. What is the most fundamental reality? (Ultimate reality)
Deism asserts a completely transcendent, impersonal creator God, who does not interact personally with his creation. The idea is that he created the universe according to certain fixed laws, then let it go to run within those parameters. We find out all we can know about God from the creation itself. Other than through observing the created order, we don’t have any definitive way of knowing anything about him.
2. What is the nature of our material reality? (Material reality)
Deist teachings affirm that the universe exists in its normal state – it is not fallen or abnormal. They believe that the universe was created by God who made it to operate strictly by natural law. This creation is understood to be a closed system and God does not intervene in it in any way. No miracles are possible.
3. What is a human being? (Humanity)
Deistic philosophy asserts that human beings were created by God as personal, self conscious creatures. They are still, however, simply a part of the mechanical operation of the universe.
4. What happens to a person at death? (Death)
Death, in Deism, is simply a part of the already fixed order of the universe. Deists believe that one is rewarded or punished in the afterlife according to his or her behavior in material life. That being said, opinions vary as to what particular behavior is expected. It is largely humanistic in the sense that Deists believe God is pleased when people treat others with dignity and respect which, in turn, leads to the possibility of achieving heaven.
5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? (Knowledge)
Humans have the ability to learn about the universe and about God by studying his creation. They have this ability because God created mankind as a being who has the capability of self-consciously gaining and interacting with knowledge.
6. How do we know what is right and wrong? (Morality)
In Deism, ethics are not revealed from an outside source. Deists believe that a practical morality can be deduced by reason without any need to appeal to religious revelation or church dogma. We discern what is right and wrong by observing the natural operation of the universe. Much of the evil in the world could have been avoided and can be overcome if humanity will simply embrace the God-given ability to reason rather than give in to superstition and fear.
7. What is the meaning of human history? (History)
History, in Deism, is seen as linear. However, the course of the cosmos was completely determined at creation. The purpose of the created order is known only in the mind of God.
Human reason and the observation of nature become the primary foundations of authority in determining the nature of reality in Deism. Deists assert that we can observe the design found throughout the known universe and this realization brings us to a sound belief in an Intelligent Designer or God. They believe that there is no direct revelation of any kind given by God from outside the material universe.
Evidence for the Authority
The basic assumption that humanity can observe and research things about the universe, then come to certain understandings about it’s nature, is actually a strong starting point. Human beings do have this capability. That being said, Deism attempts a comprehensive explanation of reality which assumes that empirical data can be gathered and interpreted in a way which leads to an authoritative understanding of the actual structure of reality.
The problem is, there is no objective basis for making this assumption. Once information is gathered by human beings, they are dependent purely on the unaided reason to correctly interpret the gathered facts. This is where huge problems emerge. First of all, there is no way to know if all of the relevant data has been gathered. Secondly, different individuals interpret the data differently. Deists can give no objective reason why their interpretation is right and others are wrong. This is a particularly significant problem when trying to make assertions about transcendent reality such as the nature of God and how one can get to heaven. Deistic belief is based purely a set of faith assumptions and philosophical presuppositions.
Deism as an organized philosophical system, has largely gone by the wayside. There are certainly a few small groups around which claim to be Deists, but these are truly insignificant.
That being said, practical Deism is alive and well among a very large segment of the population who claim to be Christians, yet live life as if God had no personal interest in the goings on of individuals. It is not unusual at all to interact with people who claim to believe in God and have been baptized, but who never participate in church and have no idea what it means to engage God in an ongoing personal relationship. This approach to life allows a person to say they believe in God yet live life without having to be accountable to Biblical morality.
For Biblical Christians, it is a huge challenge to deal with these kinds of people. It becomes necessary to help them come to the realization that God is personal and does seek to actively interact in the material world through their lives. As we understand our own Christian worldview and recognize the discrepancies between it and the wrong understanding of those who claim to be Christian but are actually not, we put ourselves in a position to reach people for God who don’t even realize they are far away from him.
© 2010 Freddy Davis