Skip to content

8.8 Deism

Most deists believe that God does not interfere with the world, or create miracles. Some deists believe that the “Divine Creator” initiated the universe in which evolution occurred, by designing the system and the natural laws. Many deists believe that God also created life itself, before allowing it to be subject to evolution. They find it to be undignified and unwieldy for a deity to make constant adjustments rather than letting evolution elegantly adapt organisms to changing environments. Other deists take the stronger position that God ceased to exist after setting in motion the laws of the universe.

Deism is a philosophical belief in the existence of a God on the basis of reason, and observation of the natural world alone. Deists generally reject the notion of supernatural revelation as a basis of truth and religious dogma.

Deists typically reject most supernatural events (prophecy, miracles) and tend to assert that God (or “The Supreme Architect”) has a plan for the universe which that Architect does not alter either by intervening in the affairs of human life. What organized religions see as divine revelation and holy books, most deists see as interpretations made by other humans, rather than as authoritative sources.

Deism became prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Age of Enlightenment, especially in the United Kingdom, France and the United States. Deists were found 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.

8.8.1 Overview

Deism is a theological position concerning God’s relationship with the natural world. Deism holds that God does not intervene with the functioning of the natural world in any way, allowing it to run according to the laws of nature that he configured when he created all things. God is thus conceived to be wholly transcendent and never immanent. For Deists, human beings can only know God via reason and the observation of nature but not by revelation or supernatural manifestations (such as miracles).

Deism bears a relationship to naturalism. As such, Deism gives credit to the formation of life and the 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:

  • The root of the word deism is the Latin word “deus”, which means “god”.
  • The root of the word theism is the Greek word theos, which also means “god”.

8.8.2 Critical and constructive deism

The concept of deism covers a wide variety of positions on a wide variety of religious issues. Most people agree that two features constituted the core of deism:

  • The rejection of revealed religions –this was the critical aspect of deism.
  • The belief that reason, not faith, leads us to certain basic religious truths –this was the positive or constructive aspect of deism. Critical elements of deist thought included:

  • Rejection of all religions based on books that claim to contain the revealed word of God.
  • Rejection of reports of miracles, prophecies and religious “mysteries”.
  • Rejection of the Genesis account of creation and the doctrine of original sin, along with all similar beliefs.
  • Rejection of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other religious beliefs. Constructive elements of deist thought included:

  • God gave men reason.
  • God exists, created and governs the universe.
  • God wants human beings to behave morally.
  • Human beings have souls that survive death; that is, there is an afterlife.

8.8.3 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 behaviour 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.

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. Other, more radical deists rejected Christianity altogether and expressed hostility toward Christianity, which they regarded as pure superstition.

8.8.4 Concepts of “reason”

“Reason” was the ultimate court of appeal for deists.

8.8.5 Arguments for the existence of God

Thomas Hobbes -an early deist and important influence on subsequent deists- used the cosmological argument for the existence of God in his writings.

8.8.6 History of religion and the deist mission

Most deists saw the religions of their day as corruptions of an original, pure religion that was simple and rational. They felt that this original pure religion had become corrupted by “priests” who had manipulated it for personal gain and for the class interests of the priesthood in general.

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.

8.8.7 Freedom and necessity

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.

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.

8.8.8 Beliefs about immortality of the soul

Deists held a variety of beliefs about the soul. Some held that souls exist, survive death, and in the afterlife are rewarded or punished by God for their behaviour in life. Some believed in reincarnation or resurrection. Others were agnostic about the immortality of the soul.

8.8.9 Deist terminology

Deist authors -and 17th- and 18th-century theologians in general- referred to God using a variety of vivid circumlocutions such as:

  • Supreme Being
  • Divine Watchmaker
  • Grand Architect of the Universe
  • Nature’s God –used in the United States Declaration of Independence
  • Father of Lights –Benjamin Franklin used this terminology when proposing that meetings of the Constitutional Convention begin with prayers

8.8.10 Historical background

Deistic thinking has existed since ancient times (e.g., in philosophers such as Heraclitus and most especially Plato, who envisaged God as the Demiurge or ‘craftsman’) and in many cultures. The word deism is generally used to refer to the movement toward natural theology or freethinking that occurred in 17th-century Europe, and specifically in Britain.

8.8.11 The history of deism Precursors of deism

Early works of biblical criticism, such as Thomas Hobbes’s “Leviathan”, Spinoza’s “Theologico-Political Treatise” and others, paved the way for the development of critical 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 his 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.

  • There is one Supreme God.
  • He ought to be worshipped.
  • Virtue and piety are the chief parts of divine worship.
  • We ought to be sorry for our sins and repent of them
  • Divine goodness doth dispense rewards and punishments both in this life and after it. John Locke

The publication of John Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1689, but dated 1690) marks a major turning point in the history of deism. Locke’s famous attack on innate ideas in the first book of the Essay effectively destroyed that foundation and replaced it with a theory of knowledge based on experience.

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. Matthew Tindal

Especially noteworthy is Matthew Tindal’s “Christianity as Old as the Creation” (1730), which “became, very soon after its publication, the focal centre 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. In “Christianity as Old as the Creation”, Tindal argued against special revelation. David Hume

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.

Nevertheless, modern scholars find it interesting to study the implications of his thoughts for deism.

  • Hume’s scepticism about miracles makes him a natural ally of deism.
  • His scepticism about the validity of natural religion cuts equally against deism and deism’s opponents, who were also deeply involved in natural theology. But his famous “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” were not published until 1779, by which time deism had almost vanished in England.

In “Natural History of Religion” (1757), 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.

8.8.12 Continental European deism

France had its own tradition of religious scepticism and natural theology in the works of Montaigne, Bayle, and Montesquieu. The most famous of the French deists was Voltaire. 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.

8.8.13 Deism in the United States

In the United States, Enlightenment philosophy played a major role in creating the principle of separation of church and state. American 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. 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[update] 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, deists, or something in between. Particularly heated is the debate over the beliefs of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.

For his part, Thomas Jefferson is perhaps one of the Founding Fathers with the most outspoken of Deist tendencies. In particular, his treatment of the Biblical gospels which he titled “The Life and Moral of Jesus of Nazareth”, but which subsequently became more commonly known as the “Jefferson Bible, exhibits a strong deist tendency of stripping away all supernatural and dogmatic references from the Christ story.

8.8.14 The decline of deism

Deism is generally considered to have declined as an influential school of thought by around 1800. It is probably more accurate, however, to say that deism evolved into, and contributed to, other religious movements. The term deist became used rarely, but deist beliefs, ideas, and influences were. They can be seen in 19th-century liberal British theology and in the rise of Unitarianism, which adopted many of its beliefs and ideas.

Several factors contributed to a general decline in the popularity of deism, including:

  • the rise, growth, and spread of naturalism and materialism, which were atheism
  • the writings of David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Charles Darwin, increased doubt about the first cause argument and the argument from design, turning many deists towards atheism or panendeism
  • 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 world”
  • deism remained a personal philosophy and had not yet become an organized movement (before the advent of organizations such as the World Union of Deists)
  • an anti-deist and anti-reason campaign by some Christian clergymen to vilify deism and equate it with atheism in public opinion
  • Christian revivalist movements which taught that a more personal relationship with a deity was possible

8.8.15 Deism today

Contemporary deism attempts to integrate classical deism with modern philosophy and the current state of scientific knowledge. Classical deism held that a human’s relationship with God was impersonal: God created the world and set it in motion but does not actively intervene in individual human affairs, but rather through Divine Providence.

Some modern deists believe that humanity’s relationship with God is transpersonal, God transcends the personal/impersonal duality. Also, this means that it makes no sense to state that God intervenes or does not intervene as that is a human characteristic which God does not contain. Modern deists believe that they must continue what the classical deists started and continue to use modern human knowledge to come to understand God. This, in turn, is why a human-like God is no longer believed in and has been replaced with a much more abstract conception.

Because deism asserts God without accepting claims of divine revelation, it appeals to people from both ends of the religious spectrum, religious and atheists.

The 2001 “American Religious Identification Survey”, which involved 50,000 participants, reported that the number of participants in the survey identifying themselves as deists grew at the rate of 717 percent between 1990 and 2001. If this is true deism is the fastest-growing religious classification in the US for that period, with the reported total of 49,000 self-identified adherents representing about 0.02% of the US population at the time.

8.8.16 Modern deistic organizations

In 1993, Bob Johnson established the first Deist organization since the days of Thomas Paine and Elihu Palmer with the “World Union of Deists”. In 2009 the “World Union of Deists” published a book on Deism, “Deism: A Revolution in Religion, A Revolution in You” written by its founder and director, Bob Johnson. This book focuses on what Deism has to offer both individuals and society.

8.8.17 Subcategories of deism

Modern deists hold a wide range of views on the nature of God and God’s relationship to the world. The common area of agreement is the desire to use reason, experience, and nature as the basis of belief.

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). Still 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).

8.8.18 Opinions on prayer

Many classical deists were critical of some types of prayer. For example, in “Christianity as Old as the Creation”, Matthew Tindal argues against praying for miracles, but advocates prayer as both a human duty and a human need.

Today, deists hold a variety of opinions about prayer:

  • Some contemporary deists believe that God has created the universe perfectly, so no amount of supplication, request, or begging can change the fundamental nature of the universe.
  • Some deists believe that God is not an entity that can be contacted by human beings through petitions for relief; rather, God can only be experienced through the nature of the universe.
  • Some deists do not believe in divine intervention but still find value in prayer as a form of meditation, self-cleansing, and spiritual renewal. Such prayers are often appreciative (i.e., “Thank you for …”) rather than supplicative (i.e., “Please God grant me …”).

Some deists, usually referred to as “Spiritual Deists”, practice meditation and make frequent use of Affirmative Prayer, a non-supplicative form of prayer which is common in the New Thought movement.