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Deism (// DEE-iz-əm  or // DAY-iz-əm; derived from Latin "deus" meaning "god") is the philosophical position that rejects revelation as a source of religious knowledge and asserts that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to establish the existence of a Supreme Being or creator of the universe.
At least as far back as Thomas Aquinas, Christian thought has recognized two sources of knowledge of God: revelation and "natural reason". The study of the truths revealed by reason is called natural theology. During the Age of Enlightenment, especially in Britain and France, philosophers began to reject revelation as a source of knowledge and to appeal only to truths that they felt could be established by reason alone. Such philosophers were called "deists" and the philosophical position that they advocated is called "deism".
Deism as a distinct intellectual movement declined toward the end of the 18th century. Some of its tenets continued to live on as part of other intellectual movements, like Unitarianism, and it continues to have advocates today.
The words deism and theism are both derived from words meaning "god": Latin deus and Greek theos (θεός). The word déiste first appears in French in 1564 in a work by a Swiss Calvinist named Pierre Viret but was generally unknown in France until the 1690s when Pierre Bayle published his famous Dictionary, which contained an article on Viret.
In English the words "deist" and "theist" were originally synonymous, but by the 17th century the terms started to diverge in meaning. The term deist with its current meaning first appears in English in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621).
At least since Thomas Aquinas, Christian thought had recognized two valid sources of religious knowledge: divine revelation and natural reason ("natural theology"). During the Enlightenment, some thinkers continued to accept reason, along with features of the natural world, as a valid source of religious knowledge, but they rejected the validity of revelation. These thinkers were the "deists" and the word "deism" refers to their collective attack on the idea of divine revelation.
In effect, deist authors carried out an intellectual war against the idea of revelation. It was a guerilla war in the sense that deist authors operated independently and each author carried out his attacks in his own unique way. Some deist authors attacked with calm logic, while others furiously attacked with moral indignation; some appealed to the facts of history while others wielded pointed humor and sarcasm. These authors exhibited a similarly wide variety of opinions when it came to matters of natural theology. Some believed in the immortality of the soul, posthumous punishment for the wicked, and posthumous rewards for the virtuous; others did not; some were undecided. After Newton published his discoveries, some regarded God as a watch-maker; a distant Creator and First Mover who wound up the universe, set it in motion, and then stepped away; it was pointless to pray to such a God who surely wasn't listening. Others felt a closer connection to God and believed that God heard and responded to their prayers. Those who believed in a watch-maker God rejected the possibility of miracles— after having established natural laws and set the great cosmos in motion, God didn't need to keep tinkering with his creation. Others accepted the possibility of miracles; God after all was all-powerful and could do anything at all, including temporarily bypassing his own natural laws.
The deists were also animated by a variety of different motives (which at least partially explains the diversity of their concerns and conclusions). This was the age of the Scientific Revolution; some were animated by a new-found respect for science ("natural philosophy") accompanied by a repugnance for superstition, irrationality, and nonsense. Some were saddened and repulsed by the savage religious wars that had been ravaging Europe for decades; their goal was to find a way to stop the fighting. Others were pushing back against the crushing political power possessed by the organized Churches in their respective countries, churches that forbade them from thinking freely, censored them if they tried to publish their thoughts, and (if they could be caught) punished them when they succeeded in publishing.
Details of the deist war on revelation can be found in the article on Deism in England and France in the 18th century. Here we will look at only a few representative deists, in order to show how they illustrate the many personal facets of deism.
The first major statement of deism in English is Lord Herbert of Cherbury's book De Veritate (1624). Herbert, like his contemporary Descartes, searched for the foundations of knowledge. The first two-thirds of his book De Veritate (On Truth, as It Is Distinguished from Revelation, the Probable, the Possible, and the False) are devoted to an exposition of Herbert's theory of knowledge. Herbert distinguished truths obtained through experience and reasoning about experience, from innate truths and from revealed truths. Innate truths are imprinted on our minds, and the evidence that they are so imprinted is that they are universally accepted. Herbert's term for universally accepted truths was notitiae communes – Common Notions. When it came to religion, Herbert believed that there were five Common Notions.
Herbert himself had relatively few followers, and it was not until the 1680s that Herbert found a true successor in Charles Blount (1654–1693).
The appearance of John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) marks an important turning point, and a new phase, in the history of English deism. Herbert's epistemology was based on the idea of "common notions", in effect, on innate ideas. Locke's famous attack on innate ideas in the Essay effectively destroyed that foundation. After Locke, deists could no longer appeal to innate ideas as Herbert had done. Instead, deists were forced to turn to arguments based on experience and nature. Under the influence of Newton they turned to the argument from design as the principal argument for the existence of God.
Peter Gay identifies John Toland's Christianity not Mysterious (1696), and the "vehement response" it provoked as the beginning of post-Locke deism. Among the notable figures, Gay describes Toland and Matthew Tindal as the best known, but Gay considered them to be talented publicists rather than philosophers or scholars. He regards Middleton and Anthony Collins as contributing more to the substance of debate; in contrast with fringe writers such as Thomas Chubb and Thomas Woolston.
Other British deists prominent during the period include William Wollaston, Charles Blount, Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, and, in the latter part, Peter Annet, Thomas Chubb and Thomas Morgan. Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury was also influential. Though not presenting himself as a deist, he shared many of the deists' key attitudes and is now usually regarded as a deist.
Especially noteworthy is Matthew Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730), which "became, very soon after its publication, the focal center of the deist controversy. Because almost every argument, quotation, and issue raised for decades can be found here, the work is often termed 'the deist's Bible'." Following Locke's successful attack on innate ideas, Tindal's 'Bible' redefined the foundation of deist epistemology as knowledge based on experience or human reason. This effectively widened the gap between traditional Christians and what he called "Christian Deists", since this new foundation required that "revealed" truth be validated through human reason.
Enlightenment deism consisted of two philosophical assertions: (a) reason, along with features of the natural world, is a valid source of religious knowledge, and (b) revelation is not a valid source of religious knowledge. Different deist authors expanded on these two assertions to create what Leslie Stephen later termed the "constructive" and "critical" aspects of deism. "Constructive" assertions— assertions that deist writers felt were justified by appeals to reason and features of the natural world (or perhaps were intuitively obvious) — included:
"Critical" assertions— assertions that followed from the denial of revelation as a valid source of religious knowledge— were much more numerous. They included:
A central premise of deism was that the religions of their day were corruptions of an original religion that was pure, natural, simple, and rational. Humanity lost this original religion when it was subsequently corrupted by "priests" who manipulated it for personal gain and for the class interests of the priesthood, and encrusted it with superstitions and "mysteries" – irrational theological doctrines. Deists referred to this manipulation of religious doctrine as "priestcraft," an intensely derogatory term. In the eyes of deists, this corruption of natural religion was designed to keep laymen baffled by "mysteries" and dependent on the priesthood for information about the requirements for salvation– this gave the priesthood a great deal of power, which the priesthood naturally worked to maintain and increase. Deists saw it as their mission to strip away "priestcraft" and "mysteries". Tindal, perhaps the most prominent deist writer, claimed that this was the proper original role of the Christian Church.
One implication of this premise was that current-day primitive societies, or societies that existed in the distant past, should have religious beliefs less encrusted with superstitions and closer to those of natural theology. This position became less and less plausible as thinkers such as David Hume began studying the natural history of religion and suggested that the origins of religion lay not in reason but in emotions such as the fear of the unknown.
Different deists had different beliefs about the immortality of the soul, about the existence of Hell and damnation to punish the wicked, and the existence of Heaven to reward the virtuous. Anthony Collins, Bolingbroke, Thomas Chubb, and Peter Annet were materialists and either denied or doubted the immortality of the soul. Benjamin Franklin believed in reincarnation or resurrection. Lord Herbert of Cherbury and William Wollaston, held that souls exist, survive death, and in the afterlife are rewarded or punished by God for their behavior in life. Thomas Paine believed in the "probability" of immortality of the soul.
Influenced by Newton's cosmology, many deists regarded God as a distant Creator who wound up the universe, set it in motion, and then stepped away. These deists naturally considered it to be pointless to pray to or worship a God who surely was not listening. Others, however, felt a closer connection to God and believed that God heard and responded to their prayers.
The most natural position for deists was to reject all forms of supernaturalism, including the miracle stories in the Bible. The problem was that the rejection of miracles also seemed to entail the rejection of divine providence (of God taking a hand in human affairs), something that many deists were inclined to accept. Those who believed in a watch-maker God rejected the possibility of miracles and divine providence. They believed that God, after establishing natural laws and setting the cosmos in motion, stepped away. He didn't need to keep tinkering with his creation, and the suggestion that he did was insulting. Others, however, firmly believed in divine providence and so were reluctantly forced to accept at least the possibility of miracle. God was, after all, all-powerful, and He could do whatever he wanted, including temporarily suspending his own natural laws.
Enlightenment thinkers, under the influence of Newtonian science, tended to view the universe as a vast machine, created and set in motion by a creator being, that continues to operate according to natural law, without any divine intervention. This view naturally led to what was then called necessitarianism (the modern term is determinism): the view that everything in the universe – including human behavior – is completely causally determined by antecedent circumstances and natural law. (See, for example, La Mettrie's L'Homme machine.) As a consequence, debates about freedom versus "necessity" were a regular feature of Enlightenment religious and philosophical discussions. Reflecting the intellectual climate of the time, there were differences among deists about freedom and determinism. Some, such as Anthony Collins, actually were necessitarians.
Views differ on whether David Hume was a deist, an atheist, or something else. Like the deists, he rejected revelation, and his famous essay "On Miracles" provided a powerful argument against belief in miracles. On the other hand, he did not believe that an appeal to Reason could provide any justification for religion. In Natural History of Religion (1757) he contends that polytheism, not monotheism, was "the first and most ancient religion of mankind" and that the psychological basis of religion is not reason, but fear of the unknown. Hume's account of ignorance and fear as the motivations for primitive religious belief was a severe blow to the deist's rosy picture of prelapsarian humanity basking in priestcraft-free innocence. In Waring's words
The clear reasonableness of natural religion disappeared before a semi-historical look at what can be known about uncivilized man— "a barbarous, necessitous animal," as Hume termed him. Natural religion, if by that term one means the actual religious beliefs and practices of uncivilized peoples, was seen to be a fabric of superstitions. Primitive man was no unspoiled philosopher, clearly seeing the truth of one God. And the history of religion was not, as the deists had implied, retrograde; the widespread phenomenon of superstition was caused less by priestly malice than by man's unreason as he confronted his experience.
Until 1776 the (now) United States were colonies of the British empire and Americans, as British subjects, were influenced by and participated in the intellectual life of England and Great Britain. English deism was an important influence on the thinking of Thomas Jefferson and the principles of religious freedom asserted in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Other "Founding Fathers" who were influenced to various degrees by deism were Ethan Allen, Benjamin Franklin, Cornelius Harnett, Gouverneur Morris, Hugh Williamson, James Madison, and possibly Alexander Hamilton.
In the United States, there is a great deal of controversy over whether the Founding Fathers were Christians, deists, or something in between. Particularly heated is the debate over the beliefs of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.
In his "Autobiography" Franklin wrote that as a young man "Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle's lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist." Like some other deists, Franklin believed that, "The Deity sometimes interferes by his particular Providence, and sets aside the Events which would otherwise have been produc'd in the Course of Nature, or by the Free Agency of Man," and stated at the Constitutional Convention that "the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth— that God governs in the affairs of men."
Thomas Jefferson is perhaps the Founding Father who most clearly exhibits deist tendencies, although he generally referred to himself as a Unitarian rather than a deist. His excerpts of the Biblical gospels, for example, now commonly known as the Jefferson Bible, strips away all supernatural and dogmatic references from the Christ story. Like Franklin, Jefferson believed in God's continuing activity in human affairs.
Thomas Paine is especially noteworthy both for his contributions to the cause of the American revolution and to the cause of deism. His The Age of Reason (Parts I and II in 1794 and 1795) was short, readable, and is probably the only deist tract that continues to be read, and to be influential, today.
The last contributor to American deism was Elihu Palmer (1764–1806), who wrote the "Bible of American deism", Principles of Nature, in 1801. Palmer is noteworthy for attempting to bring some organization to deism by founding the "Deistical Society of New York" and other deistic societies from Maine to Georgia.
France had its own tradition of religious skepticism and natural theology in the works of Montaigne, Bayle, and Montesquieu. The most famous of the French deists was Voltaire, who was exposed to Newtonian science and English deism during his two-year period of exile in England (1726-8). When he returned to France he brought both back with him, and exposed the French reading public (i.e. the aristocracy) to them in a number of books.
French deists also included Maximilien Robespierre and Rousseau. During the French Revolution the deistic Cult of the Supreme Being, a direct expression of Robespierre's theological views, was established briefly - just under three months - as the new state religion of France, replacing the deposed Catholic Church and rival atheistic Cult of Reason.
Deism in Germany is not well documented. We know from his correspondence with Voltaire that Frederick the Great was a deist. Immanuel Kant's identification with deism is controversial.
Gay describes Enlightenment deism as entering slow decline, as a recognisable movement, in the 1730s. A number of reasons have been suggested for this decline.
Although deism has declined in popularity over time, philosophers believe that these ideas still have lingering influence on society. One of the major activities of the deists, biblical criticism, evolved into its own highly technical discipline. Deist rejection of revealed religion evolved into, and contributed to, 19th-century liberal British theology and the rise of Unitarianism.
Contemporary deism attempts to integrate classical deism with modern philosophy and the current state of scientific knowledge. This attempt has produced a wide variety of personal beliefs under the broad classification of belief of "deism."
There are a number of subcategories of modern deism, including monodeism (this being the default standard concept of deism), pandeism, spiritual deism, process deism, Christian deism, polydeism, scientific deism, and humanistic deism. Some deists see design in nature and purpose in the universe and in their lives. Others see God and the universe in a co-creative process. Some deists view God in classical terms and see God as observing humanity but not directly intervening in our lives, while others see God as a subtle and persuasive spirit who created the world and then stepped back to observe. Most contemporary deists do not believe in divine intervention, but some[who?] still find value in prayer as a form of meditation, self-cleansing, and spiritual renewal.
In the 1960s, theologian Charles Hartshorne scrupulously examined and rejected both deism and pandeism (as well as pantheism) in favor of a conception of God whose characteristics included "absolute perfection in some respects, relative perfection in all others" or "AR", writing that this theory "is able consistently to embrace all that is positive in either deism or pandeism", concluding that "panentheistic doctrine contains all of deism and pandeism except their arbitrary negations".
Charles Taylor, in his 2007 book A Secular Age, showed the historical role of deism, leading to what he calls an exclusive humanism. This humanism invokes a moral order, whose ontic commitment is wholly intra-human, with no reference to transcendence. One of the special achievements of such deism-based humanism is that it discloses new, anthropocentric moral sources by which human beings are motivated and empowered to accomplish acts of mutual benefit. This is the province of a buffered, disengaged self, which is the locus of dignity, freedom and discipline, and is endowed with a sense of human capability. According to Taylor, by the early 19th century this deism-mediated exclusive humanism developed as an alternative to Christian faith in a personal God and an order of miracles and mystery. Some critics of deism have accused adherents of facilitating the rise of nihilism.
The 2001 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) survey estimated that between 1990 and 2001 the number of self-identifying deists grew from 6,000 to 49,000, representing about 0.02% of the US population at the time. The 2008 ARIS survey found, based on their stated beliefs rather than their religious identification, that 70% of Americans believe in a personal God, roughly 12% are atheist or agnostic, and 12% believe in "a deist or paganistic concept of the Divine as a higher power" rather than a personal God.
The term "ceremonial deism" was coined in 1962 and has been used since 1984 by the Supreme Court of the United States to assess exemptions from the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, thought to be expressions of cultural tradition and not earnest invocations of a deity. It has been noted that the term does not describe any school of thought within deism itself.
There are a number of web sites and web pages devoted to advocating and discussing deism and making information about deism available to the general public.
There is a deism subreddit.
In 1993 Bob Johnson founded the World Union of Deists (WUD), the first Deist organization since the days of Thomas Paine and Elihu Palmer. In 1996 he created deism.com, the first website devoted to Deism. WUD produces two monthly online publications called THINKonline! and Deistic Thought & Action! as well as Bruno & Ripoll's Bulletin which is published two to four times per month.
In 1998 the WUD affiliate for Virginia/Tennessee split with WUD and created its own web site called Sullivan-County.com to promote more traditional deist views.
In 2012 Jack Spirko set up a site called Church of the Modern Deist, designed to provide information about deism.
Chuck Clendenen, contributing author and editor of the book Deist: So That's What I Am!, has a web site devoted to positive deism.
In general, deism refers to what can be called natural religion, the acceptance of a certain body of religious knowledge that is inborn in every person or that can be acquired by the use of reason and the rejection of religious knowledge when it is acquired through either revelation or the teaching of any church.
DEISM: A system of belief which posits God's existence as the cause of all things, and admits its perfection, but rejects Divine revelation and government, proclaiming the all-sufficiency of natural laws.
Deism is a rationalistic, critical approach to theism with an emphasis on natural theology. The deists attempted to reduce religion to what they regarded as its most foundational, rationally justifiable elements. Deism is not, strictly speaking, the teaching that God wound up the world like a watch and let it run on its own, though that teaching was embraced by some within the movement.
I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.
and (in the Recapitulation)
I trouble not myself about the manner of future existence. I content myself with believing, even to positive conviction, that the power that gave me existence is able to continue it, in any form and manner he pleases, either with or without this body; and it appears more probable to me that I shall continue to exist hereafter than that I should have had existence, as I now have, before that existence began.