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Historical and modern deism is defined by the view that reason and logic, rather than revelation or tradition, should be the basis of belief in God. Deists reject both organized and revealed religion and maintain that reason is the essential element in all knowledge. For a "rational basis for religion" they refer to the cosmological argument (first cause argument), the teleological argument (argument from design), and other aspects of what was called natural religion. Deism has also come to be identified with the classical belief that God created but does not intervene in the world, though this is not a necessary component of deism.
Deism encompasses a wide range of views on the nature of God, particularly on whether God intervenes in the world. The classical view is that the universe was created by a God who then makes no further intervention in its affairs (the clockmaker hypothesis). In this view, the reason God does not intervene in the world (via miracles) is not that God does not care, but rather that the best of all possible worlds has already been created and any intervention could not improve it. Historically, many deists adhered to this view; others hold a more pantheist or pandeist view that in creating the world, God became the world and does not exist as a separate entity from it; while some hold that God intervenes only as a subtle and pervasive force in the universe which is defined as Panendeism.
It must be understood that defining the nature of God is up to the individual Deist and not a collective effort. This is because the true nature of God is beyond human comprehension at this time in our development. As such, Deism does not define God but each individual does which leads to different views of God based on Reason that all fall under the umbrella of Deism.
The classical view of an impersonal and abstract God has caused many to claim that deism is "cold" and amounts to atheism. However, it is more accurate to state that the Deist conception of God is one that is Transpersonal and transcends notions of the personal and impersonal. Deists believe that this view leads to a feeling of awe and reverence based on the fact that personal growth and a constant search for knowledge is required. This knowledge can be acquired from many sources including historical and modern interpretations found in the many varied fields of science (biology, physics, etc.) and philosophy. Deism, like many belief structures, seeks to reconcile and unify with science and "modern views." However, both deism and other religions have differing views with science on evolution, see Evolutionary Creationism.
The term deism was created by eighteenth century deists to draw attention to their affirmative belief in a God. The words deism and theism are closely related and this sometimes leads to controversy. The root of the word deism is from the Latin deus, while the root of the word theism comes from the Greek theos (θεóς), both meaning god in English. However, theism can include faith or revelation as a basis for belief, while deism includes only belief which can be substantiated through reason.
Deism can be considered as the form of theism in opposition to fideism, while other schemes separate deism and theism. A helpful comparison of the common positions regarding belief in divine beings can be found in the theism article.
Unofficial Tenets of Deism (Excerpt from, Modern Deism: A Primer):
- Belief in God based on a foundation of Reason, Experience and Nature (nature of the universe) rather than on the basis of holy texts and divine revelation. Essentially, through the use of Reason, God’s existence is revealed by the observation of the order and complexity found within nature and our personal experiences.
- Belief that the nature of God is abstract and generally incomprehensible which puts it beyond definition for humanity at this time. Furthermore, human language is limited and inadequate to define God; however, man can use Reason to theorize and speculate on what this possible nature is.
- Belief that man's relationship with God is transpersonal which transcends the personal/impersonal dichotomy. However, this does not create a feeling of a distant and cold deity but of one in which God has a profound and unfathomable relationship with all of creation (nature) rather than just one aspect of it.
- Belief that humanity has the ability to use Reason to develop ethical/moral principles and through the application of Reason these principles can be used to implement moral behavior, which in turn creates a rational morality. Essentially, humans can be guided by reason and their conscience in matters of morality.
- Belief that humans have the individual capability of experiencing God, which is defined as spirituality. These spiritual experiences are multi-faceted and can include awe, epiphany, fellowship and even the transcendental. Essentially, each human is capable of having a profound experience of God and nature.
- Belief that God should be honored in a way that the individual believes is best and most appropriate for them. Individuals must determine for themselves how best to honor God and only they can develop how to accomplish this. For many, it is a multi-faceted and an individualized process.
- Belief in the principle of Natural Law that states that all men and women are created equal to each other with inherent freedom and liberty so that no human has more worth than another. Essentially, each human is equal in terms of the freedoms that they have and in the eyes of the law.
- Belief that mankind’s purpose is to use our God-given reason to understand what it means to be alive in every sense of the word (to live life to the fullest) and to act in such a way as to secure human happiness and contentment for everyone.
- Belief that Reason and Respect are God-given traits to mankind and that we are to utilize them in all aspects of our daily lives thus creating a practical approach to life. This includes respecting other alternative views and opinions of God (other religions) as long as they do not produce harm and/or infringe upon others.
Deism and prayer
Many deists who do not believe in divine intervention still find value in prayer. They think of it as a form of meditation and self-cleansing, which can improve one's life and lead to one's efforts being more effective. Such prayers are often appreciative (ie, "Thank you for ...") rather than supplicative (ie, "Please God grant me ...").
One reason for this goes back to the concept that the Deity has created the universe perfectly, and no amount of supplication, request, or begging can change the fundamental nature of the universe. Another reason is that the Deity is not an entity that can be accessed by human beings through petitions for relief, but rather, can only be experienced through the nature of the universe.
There may be other justifications for use of prayer or refusal to use prayer among deists as deists have arrived at their conception of Deity and the nature of the universe through logic and reason (a path which often varies from person to person) rather than through "divine revelation" (or a set dogma that is regulated and not allowed to vary among the adherents).
18th century popularity
Deist thinking has existed since ancient times and can be inferred from pre-Socratic philosophers such as Heraclitus. However, it was not until the modern era, during the European Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, with their respective emphases on rigorous skepticism, deductive logic, and empiricism (experience/induction), that deism came into its own as a subject of philosophical discourse, particularly in France (Descartes, the Philosophes), Germany (Kant†, Leibniz), Great Britain (Hobbes, Hume‡), and the United States (Franklin, Hedrick, Jefferson, Paine).
Deism developed from the expanding influence of scientism in Europe and European colonial intellectual life. Newtonian physics, the intellectual basis and the aesthetic model for Enlightenment scientism, spread the idea that matter behaves in a mathematically predictable manner that can be understood by postulating laws of nature. Objectivity, natural equality, and the prescription to treat like cases similarly are central principles of the Enlightenment mentality, ideas borrowed from Newton's observational/experimental method and put to use in all domains the Enlightenment mind scrutinized; these principles informed the development of the philosophy of deism. Exasperation with the costs of centuries of European religious warfare was a powerful recommendation for the new, objective frame for spiritual matters, a perspective the most notable minds of the time found appealing.
Deism was championed by Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and some, but by no means a majority, of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are among the most well-known of the American founding deists. There is debate as to whether George Washington was a deist or not.Thomas Paine published The Age of Reason, a treatise that helped to popularize deism throughout America and Europe. Paine wrote that deism represented the application of reason to religion. Deists like Paine hoped to settle religious questions permanently and scientifically by reason alone, without revelation.
- † Kant's identification with deism is controversial. An argument in favor of Kant as deist is Alan Wood's "Kant's Deism," in P. Rossi and M. Wreen (eds.) Kant's Philosophy of Religion Re-examined (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991); an argument against Kant as deist is Stephen Palmquist's "Kant's Theistic Solution"
- ‡ Experts dispute whether Hume was a deist, an atheist, or something else. Hume himself was uncomfortable with the terms 'deist' and 'atheist', and Hume scholar Paul Russell has argued that the best and safest term for Hume's views is 'irreligion'.
Appellations for divinity
The names used for the divinity by deists include the following:
- Almighty God (used in the preamble of the 1987 Philippine Constitution)
- Creator (used in the United States Declaration of Independence)
- Divine Author
- Divine Providence (used in the United States Declaration of Independence)
- Divine Watchmaker
- Divine Essence
- Father of Lights
- First Cause
- Grand Architect of the Universe (often used by members of the Freemasonic lodges or societies which involve Masonic rituals)
- Nature's God (used in the United States Declaration of Independence)
- Prime Mover
- The One that is All
- The Eternal One
- The Living Law (Essene)
- The Living Director Principle in All Being
- The Governing Being of the Universe
- Supreme Being
- Supreme Intelligence
Decline in popularity
Several factors contributed to a general decline in the popularity of deism, including:
- the writings of David Hume (and later, Charles Darwin) increased doubt about the first cause argument and the argument from design
- several Christian Great Awakenings in the USA, especially those that taught a more personal relationship with a deity, and that prayer could alter events
- loss of confidence that reason and rationalism could solve all problems
- criticisms of excesses of the French Revolution
- criticisms that deism was not significantly distinct from pantheism, and then that pantheism was not significantly different from atheism
- criticisms that freethought would lead inevitably to atheism
- frustration with the determinism implicit in "This is the best of all possible worlds."
- rise of Unitarianism, which adopted many of its ideas
- it remained a personal philosophy and never became an organized movement
- an anti-deist and anti-reason campaign by some Christian clergymen to vilify and equate deism with atheism in public opinion
Newtonian physics, when linearized and simplified, is considered deterministic, and so deism based on that, for many, left little room for hope. However, the modern form of Deism has evolved as new scientific discoveries of our universe have been made. The newer theories in physics, most notably quantum mechanics, which has both a non-deterministic interpretation (the Copenhagen interpretation), and deterministic interpretations (the transactional interpretation and many-worlds interpretation) have had a potent effect on modern Deist interpretations and it does not step there.
Deism as a belief system thrives on diversity of thought. Modern Deism incorporates the latest interpretations found in the areas of physics/quantum physics, biology, evolution, philosophy, theology, psychology, mathematics and many other fields in the arts and sciences. The modern Deist movement is a dynamic concept in that it integrates classical and modern viewpoints with the wisdom of the past and the discoveries of the present. There is only one Deism that is defined as "a belief in God based on Reason and Nature" and this has produced many different personal interpretations under the Deist umbrella. Some modern revivals of deism resemble pantheism and panentheism.
The simplicity of the Deistic belief in a supreme reasoning power that is the Designer of Nature seems to be its brightest promise to those who don't feel comfortable in any of the various "revealed" religions. Currently, Deism is reaching many new people who either feel trapped in a revealed religion that requires they suspend their God-given reason in order to accept a particular claim or revelation key to that religion, as well as people who could not accept what they perceive to be the fantastic claims made by revealed religions and felt that because of their rejection of the revealed religions they were atheists. An example of the latter is the English philosopher Antony Flew, who turned from atheism to Deism.
External informational links
- Extensive collection of Thomas Paine's writings on Deism and religion
- From Catholic Priest to Deist. Interesting site that documents a Roman Catholic Priest's journey from being a Catholic Priest to evolving into a Deist.
- DEISM: The Union of Reason and Spirituality
- Of the Religion of Deism Compared with the Christian Religion by Thomas Paine
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine
- English Deism - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- French Deism - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- religious tolerance.org article on Deism