Deism is an almost all but forgotten religious philosophy that believes god is a metaphorical “divine watchmaker” and that once he started the universe (Big Bang Theory), he willfully stepped aside and let it run without intervening in the affairs of men. Deism, because of its emphasis on self-realization through the examination of the environment, is also known as the “Natural Religion.”
Deism, a theological and philosophical position concerning god’s relationship with the natural world, emerged during the period in European history known as the Enlightenment. Because of its influence on Enlightenment thinking, deism has also had a great influence on the modern world as well.
Recognizing a universal creative force that is far greater than mankind, supported by the personal observation of laws and designs in nature and in the universe is one of the main tenants of the theological doctrine used by Deists. This doctrine in the belief in a universal creative force is perpetuated and validated by the innate ability of human reason coupled with the rejection of the dogma of organized religions, particularly the dogma associated with the special divine revelation from the holy texts of organized religion. While some of the vocabulary Deists use have historically been conflated with those of the Judeo-Christian faith, it is important to make the distinctions between the Judeo-Christian faith and Deism in terms of their vocabulary.
For the Deist, the word “god” can be defined as the universal creative force which is the source of the laws and designs found throughout nature. The American scientist, Albert Einstein, offers a good Deistic definition of god:”My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”
In addition to having a slightly different definition for “god,” Deists also define Intelligent Design differently that the American Judeo-Christian faiths. In Deism, Intelligent Design has nothing to do with the Biblical myth of creation. For the Deist, Intelligent Design refers to the structures in Nature which can be observed and the complexity of which required an intelligent Designer. In this context, the term “structure” means something arranged in a definite pattern of organization.
One way of illustrating the Deist’s definition of Intelligent Design is William Paley’s watchmaker analogy from the Enlightenment. In Paley’s book, Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearance of Nature, published in 1802, Paley makes a teleological argument for the existence of God. Using analogy, Paley’s argument states that the design in and of the universe implies that there is a designer. Paley’s watchmaker analogy has played a prominent role in natural theology.
Another term often used by Deists is natural religion. Natural religion or natural theology comes from a paradigm shift in the worldview of Enlightenment Europe. Essentially, natural religion is a belief in god based on the application of reason to the laws and designs of Nature. This tenant of Deism is a sharp departure from the Judeo-Christian belief in a revealed religion based on alleged revelations. Because Deism is a natural religion and not a revealed religion, the Deist is freed from the inconsistencies of superstition and the negativity of fear that are represented in the “revealed” religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Another tenant of Deism is reason. Reason can be defined as being the mental faculties one uses when forming conclusions or inferences based on fact. According to the Deist, reason is the second greatest gift from Nature’s god to humanity. Life is the greatest gift of Nature’s god. Thomas Paine explains the Deist idea of reason well:
“There is a happiness in Deism, when rightly understood, that is not to be found in any other system of religion. All other systems have something in them that either shock our reason, or are repugnant to it, and man, if he thinks at all, must stifle his reason in order to force himself to believe them. But in Deism our reason and our belief become happily united. The wonderful structure of the universe, and everything we behold in the system of the creation, prove to us, far better than books can do, the existence of a God, and at the same time proclaim His attributes.”
For Paine and his fellow Deists, the philosophical and theological underpinning of their dogma is reason. In fact, one could argue that reason is their only dogma. In the more traditional Judeo-Christian meta narrative, faith takes precedence over reason. The Deist rejects that notion. Voltaire sums up the Deist’s position in the debate of faith vs. reason when he writes: “What is Faith? Is it to believe that which is evident? No. It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith but of reason.”
Essentially, Deism is the knowledge of god based on the application of our reason on the designs and laws found in Nature. Because of Deism’s acknowledgement of Nature’s god and its emphasis on reason, Deism has the potential to connect with every human being on the face of the earth because every human being on the face of the earth possesses god given reason and this god given reason is the natural state of humanity.
Whereas the Age of Faith found its dogma in its religious traditions, the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason finds its dogma – in the form of natural law – in observable natural phenomena and individual human reason. Deist authors from the Age of Reason used terms such as Supreme Being, Divine Watchmaker, Grand Architect of the Universe, and Nature’s God (as found in the Declaration of Independence). Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers, called the divine being “The Father of Lights” when he proposed that the meetings of the Constitutional Congress begin with prayer.
One of the reasons that mankind’s perception of the divine changed during the Age of Reason was because the 17th century saw remarkable advances in scientific knowledge. For example, the work of scientists like Copernicus and Galileo put to rest the old notion that the earth was the center of the universe and the universe was larger than previously imagined. The scientific revolution in Europe posed a serious challenge to religious authority and religious authorities. Consequentially, the Judeo-Christian Bible came to be seen as a book that was authoritative in matters of faith and morality but was no longer authoritative and was not meant to be authoritative on matters of science.
While Deistic thinking is most closely associated with the Enlightenment and emerged as a religious and philosophical movement in Europe during the Enlightenment, the basic tenants of Deistic thinking have been around since ancient times. Heraclitus, a philosopher from Ancient Greece, saw the patterns of the natural world and called the supreme rational principle that governs the universe the “logos.” In addition, another philosopher from Ancient Greece, Aristotle, conceived god as being an “unmoved mover” in his book, Metaphysics. While the basic tenants of Deism have been around for millennia, the word “deism” as it is understood today primarily refers to the “natural theology” of Enlightenment Europe.
Early works of Enlightenment Europe such as Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and Benedict Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise paved the way for the widespread influence of Deism. However, in England, the term “deist” first appeared in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. Lord Herbert of Cherbury, author of the book, De Veritate, the first major statement on deism, is considered the “father of English deism.” Deism flourished in 17th and 18th century England and in 1730, Matthew Tindal wrote Christianity as Old as the Creation, commonly known as “The Deist’s Bible.” John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (first published in 1690), marked a turning point in Enlightenment Deism. Prior to Locke’s work, Herbert’s De Veritate had been the foundation of deist epistemology (loosely defined as being what can be known about the nature of reality). Locke dissected Herbert’s idea of innate ideas and replaced this deist foundation with a theory of knowledge based on experience. After Locke, English deism transformed from being an “innatists deism” to being an “empiricist deism.”
Deism spread from England to France, most notably through the work of the French writer Voltaire. In the works of Montaigne and Montesquieu, we can find an Enlightenment French tradition of religious skepticism. However, the most famous of the French Deists was Voltaire. Other noteworthy French Deists were Robespierre and Jean Jacques Rousseau. For a short period of time during the French Revolution, Deism was the state religion of France.
Not only did Deism spread from England to France but it also spread to far off places in Germany and in what is now the United States. In the United States, Deism played a major role in creating the principle of religious freedom in the Bill of Rights. In addition, the political speeches of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Gouverneur Morris show the distinctive influence of Deism. In addition, James Madison and possibly Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Paine were also likely Deists. In Principles of Nature (first published in 1801), Elihu Palmer wrote what is considered by many to be “the Bible of American Deism.”
As an influential school of philosophical and religious thought, Deism began to decline in the early 19th Century. The term Deist was rarely used, but Deist beliefs, ideas, and influences persisted. The influence of Deism can be seen in much of the work of American author, Ralph Waldo Emerson. While Deism declined throughout the 19th and 20th Century, people are again turning to Deism in the 21st Century.
For those who are interested in reading more about Deism, Thomas Paine’s book, The Age of Reason, is probably the most accessible. In addition, Elihu Palmer’s The Principles of Nature is also a good resource. Both of these books and many more resources can be found at The World Union of Deists website: www.deism.com