Deists typically reject most supernatural events (prophecy, miracles) and tend to assert that God has a plan for the universe, which he does not alter by intervening in the affairs of human life nor by suspending the natural laws of the universe. What organized religions see as divine revelation and holy books, most deists see as interpretations made by other humans, rather than as authoritative sources. Deists believe that God's greatest gift to humanity is not religion, but the ability to reason.
Deism became prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Age of Enlightenment, especially in the United Kingdom, France and the United States, mostly among those raised as Christians who found they could not believe in either a triune God, the divinity of Jesus, miracles, or the inerrancy of scriptures, but who did believe in one god. Initially it did not form any congregations, but in time deism led to the development of other religious groups, such as Unitarianism, which later developed into Unitarian Universalism. It continues to this day in the form of classical deism and modern deism.
Conversely, Deism can be a belief in deity absent any doctrinal governance or precise definition of the nature of such deity. Deism can be similar to naturalism. Therefore, Deism will often give credit to the formation of life and universe to a higher power that by design allows only natural processes to govern creation.
The words deism and theism are both derived from the word god:
A helpful discussion of deism, theism, and other positions on divine beings can be found in the theism article.
Perhaps the first use of the term deist is in Pierre Viret's Instruction Chrétienne en la doctrine de la foi et de l'Évangile (Christian teaching on the doctrine of faith and the Gospel) (1564), reprinted in Bayle's Dictionnaire entry Viret. Viret, a Calvinist, regarded deism as a new form of Italian heresy. Viret wrote: In England, the term deist first appeared in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621).
Lord Herbert of Cherbury (d. 1648) is generally considered the "father of English deism", and his book De Veritate (1624) the first major statement of deism. Deism flourished in England between 1690 and 1740, at which time Matthew Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730), or 'the Deist's Bible', gained much attention. Later deism spread to France, notably via the work of Voltaire, to Germany, and to America.
Deist authors advocated a combination of both critical and constructive elements in proportions and emphases that varied from author to author.
Critical elements of deist thought included:
Constructive elements of deist thought included:
Specific thoughts on aspects of the afterlife will vary. While there are those who maintain that God will punish or reward us according to our behavior on Earth, likewise there are those who assert that any punishment or reward that is due to us is given during our mortal stay on Earth. Some do not believe in an afterlife.
Individual deists varied in the set of critical and constructive elements for which they argued. Some deists rejected miracles and prophecies but still considered themselves Christians because they believed in what they felt to be the pure, original form of Christianity that is, Christianity as it existed before it was corrupted by additions of such superstitions as miracles, prophecies, and the doctrine of the Trinity. Some deists rejected the claim of Jesus' divinity but continued to hold him in high regard as a moral teacher (see, e.g., Thomas Jefferson's famous Jefferson Bible and Matthew Tindal's 'Christianity as Old as the Creation'). Other, more radical deists rejected Christianity altogether and expressed hostility toward Christianity, which they regarded as pure superstition. In return, Christian writers often charged radical deists with atheism.
Note that the terms constructive and critical are used to refer to aspects of deistic thought, not sects or subtypes of deism it would be incorrect to classify any particular deist author as "a constructive deist" or "a critical deist". As Peter Gay notes: It should be noted, however, that the constructive element of deism was not unique to deism. It was the same as the natural theology that was so prevalent in all English theology in the 17th and 18th centuries. What set deists apart from their more orthodox contemporaries was their critical concerns.
One of the remarkable features of deism is that the critical elements did not overpower the constructive elements. As E. Graham Waring observed, "A strange feature of the [Deist] controversy is the apparent acceptance of all parties of the conviction of the existence of God." And Basil Willey observed
Deists did appeal to "the light of nature" to support the self-evident nature of their positive religious claims.
Once a proposition is asserted to be a self-evident truth, there is not much more to say about it. Consequently, deist authors attempted to use reason as a critical tool for exposing and rejecting what they saw as nonsense. Here are two typical examples. The first is from John Toland's Christianity Not Mysterious.
According to this world view, over time "priests" had succeeded in encrusting the original simple, rational religion with all kinds of superstitions and "mysteries" irrational theological doctrines. Laymen were told by the priests that only the priests really knew what was necessary for salvation and that laymen must accept the "mysteries" on faith and on the priests' authority. This kept the laity baffled by the nonsensical "mysteries", confused, and dependent on the priests for information about the requirements for salvation. The priests consequently enjoyed a position of considerable power over the laity, which they strove to maintain and increase. Deists referred to this kind of manipulation of religious doctrine as "priestcraft", a highly derogatory term.
Deists saw their mission as the stripping away of "priestcraft" and "mysteries" from religion, thereby restoring religion to its original, true condition simple and rational. In many cases, they considered true, original Christianity to be the same as this original natural religion. As Matthew Tindal put it:
One implication of this deist creation myth was that primitive societies, or societies that existed in the distant past, should have religious beliefs that are less encrusted with superstitions and closer to those of natural theology. This became a point of attack for thinkers such as David Hume as they studied the "natural history of religion".
Because of their high regard for natural law and for the idea of a universe without miracles, deists were especially susceptible to the temptations of necessitarianism. Reflecting the intellectual climate of the time, there were differences among deists about freedom and necessity. Some, such as Anthony Collins, actually were necessitarians.
Natural theology is a facet of the revolution in world view that occurred in Europe in the 17th century. To understand the background to that revolution is also to understand the background of deism. Several cultural movements of the time contributed to the movement.
In addition, study of classical documents led to the realization that some historical documents are less reliable than others, which led to the beginnings of biblical criticism. In particular, when scholars worked on biblical manuscripts, they began developing the principles of textual criticism and a view of the New Testament being the product of a particular historical period different from their own.
In addition to discovering diversity in the past, Europeans discovered diversity in the present. The voyages of discovery of the 16th and 17th centuries acquainted Europeans with new and different cultures in the Americas, in Asia, and in the Pacific. They discovered a greater amount of cultural diversity than they had ever imagined, and the question arose of how this vast amount of human cultural diversity could be compatible with the biblical account of Noah's descendants. In particular, the ideas of Confucius, translated into European languages by the Jesuits stationed in China, are thought to have had considerable influence on the deists and other philosophical groups of the Enlightenment who were interested by the integration of the system of morality of Confucius into Christianity..
In particular, cultural diversity with respect to religious beliefs could no longer be ignored. Like Herbert wrote in De Religione Laici (1645), This new awareness of diversity led to a feeling that Christianity was just one religion among many, with no better claim than any other to correctness.
Such massive sectarian violence inspired a visceral rejection of the sectarianism that had led to the violence. It also led to a search for natural religious truths truths that could be universally accepted, because they had been either "written in the book of Nature" or "engraved on the human mind" by God.
Isaac Newton's discovery of universal gravitation explained the behavior both of objects here on earth and of objects in the heavens. It promoted a world view in which the natural universe is controlled by laws of nature. This, in turn, suggested a theology in which God created the universe, set it in motion controlled by natural law, and retired from the scene. (See the Watchmaker analogy.)
The new awareness of the explanatory power of universal natural law also produced a growing skepticism about such religious staples as miracles (i.e., violations of natural law) and about books, such as the Bible, that reported them.
Whereas the Age of Faith found its truths in religious tradition, the Age of Reason found its truths in observable natural phenomena and individual human reason.
Lord Herbert of Cherbury (d. 1648) is generally considered the "father of English deism", and his book De Veritate (On Truth, as It Is Distinguished from Revelation, the Probable, the Possible, and the False) (1624) the first major statement of deism.
Like his contemporary Descartes, Herbert searched for the foundations of knowledge. In fact, the first two thirds of De Veritate are devoted to an exposition of Herbert's theory of knowledge. Herbert distinguished truths obtained through experience, and through 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.
In the realm of religion, Herbert believed that there were five common notions.
It is worth quoting Herbert at some length, to give the flavor of his writing. A sense of the importance that Herbert attributed to innate Common Notions will help in understanding how devastating Locke's attack on innate ideas was for Herbert's philosophy.
According to Gay, Herbert had relatively few followers, and it was not until the 1680s that Herbert found a true successor in Charles Blount (1654–1693). Blount made one special contribution to the deist debate: "by utilizing his wide classical learning, Blount demonstrated how to use pagan writers, and pagan ideas, against Christianity. ... Other Deists were to follow his lead.
Locke himself was not a deist. He believed in both miracles and revelation, and he regarded miracles as the main proof of revelation.
After Locke, constructive deism could no longer appeal to innate ideas for justification of its basic tenets such as the existence of God. Instead, under the influence of Locke and Newton, deists turned to natural theology and to arguments based on experience and Nature: the cosmological argument and the argument from design.
Other prominent British deists included William Wollastson, Charles Blount, Shaftesbury (who did not think of himself as a deist, but shared so many attitudes with deists that Gay calls him "a Deist in fact, if not in name) and Bolingbroke.
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 "Deist 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. In Christianity as Old as the Creation, Tindal articulated a number of the basic tenets of deism:
The writings of David Hume are sometimes credited with causing or contributing to the decline of deism. English deism, however, was already in decline before Hume's works on religion (1757,1779) were published. Furthermore, Hume's writings on religion were not very influential at the time that they were published. Nevertheless, modern scholars find it interesting to study the implications of his thoughts for deism.
In its implications for deism, the Natural History of Religion (1757) may be Hume's most interesting work. In it, Hume contends that polytheism, not monotheism, was "the first and most ancient religion of mankind". In addition, contends Hume, the psychological basis of religion is not reason, but fear of the unknown. As E. Graham Waring observed: 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.
English deism, in the words of Peter Gay, "travelled well. ... As Deism waned in England, it waxed in France and the German states. 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 acquired a taste for Newtonian science, and reinforcement of deistic inclinations, during a two-year visit to England starting in 1726. French deists also included Maximilien Robespierre and Rousseau. For a short period of time during the French Revolution the Cult of the Supreme Being was the state religion of France. 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"
In the United States, Enlightenment philosophy (which itself was heavily inspired by deist ideals) played a major role in creating the principle of separation of church and state, expressed in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Founding Fathers who were especially noted for being influenced by such philosophy include Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Cornelius Harnett, Gouverneur Morris, and Hugh Williamson. Their political speeches show distinct deistic influence. Other notable Founding Fathers may have been more directly deist. These include James Madison, John Adams, possibly Alexander Hamilton, Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine (who published The Age of Reason, a treatise that helped to popularize deism throughout America and Europe). Elihu Palmer (1764-1806) wrote the "Bible" of American deism in his Principles of Nature (1801) and attempted to organize deism by forming the "Deistical Society of New York."
Currently (as of ) there is an ongoing controversy in the United States over whether or not the country was founded as a "Christian nation" based on Judeo-Christian ideals. This has spawned a subsidiary controversy over whether the Founding Fathers were Christians or deists or something in between. Particularly heated is the debate over the beliefs of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. As to whether George Washington was a deist or not, see this Washington Post book review of two books on the subject. For Jefferson's deism, see the article Was Thomas Jeffereson a Deist? by Gene Garman (2001). For Franklin, see Kerry S. Walters, Benjamin Franklin and His Gods (University of Illinois Press, 1999) and also an excerpt from the article Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson.
However, Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography, "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. My arguments perverted some others, particularly Collins and Ralph; but each of them having afterwards wrong'd me greatly without the least compunction, and recollecting Keith's conduct towards me (who was another freethinker) and my own towards Vernon and Miss Read, which at times gave me great trouble, I began to suspect that this doctrine, tho' it might be true, was not very useful.
1996 saw the first Web site dedicated to deism with the WUD site www.deism.com . In 1998 www.sullivan-county.com was the Virginia/Tennessee affiliate of www.deism.com and the second oldest Deism site on the web. Instead of engaging in constant attacks on Christianity and Judaism, split from Deism.com to promote more traditional and historical deist' beliefs and history. From this effort, many other deist sites and discussion groups have appeared on the Internet such as Positive Deism, Deist Info, Modern Deism and many others. In the last few years, the Deist Alliance was created so that many of the sites on the internet could come together to support each other and advocate deism. The Deist Alliance has its own quarterly newsletter that is written by members and readers.
There are a number of subcategories of modern deism, including monodeism, polydeism, pandeism, panendeism, spiritual deism, process deism, Christian deism, scientific deism, and humanistic deism. Some deists see design in nature and purpose in the universe and in their lives (Prime Designer). Others see God and the universe in a co-creative process (Prime Motivator). Some deists view God in classical terms and see God as observing humanity but not directly intervening in our lives (Prime Observer), while others see God as a subtle and persuasive spirit (Prime Mover).
This is translated as:
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".
Copling coinage came while developing a more deistic interpretation of the panentheistic approach to understanding the Divine. The term was first published on Copling's website, in early 2001. A more complete description of the concept was later made available via an article published on Copling's personal website in 2004. The original ideology known as "PanenDeism", as outlined by the writings of Larry Copling, continues in its present development.
Today, deists hold a variety of opinions about prayer:
Alexander Pope, generally considered to have deistic sympathies, composed a poem he called "The Universal Prayer.
Important discussions of deism can be found in:
Other studies of deism include:
Anthologies of deist writings include: