Deism is belief in a God or first cause based on reason and experience rather than on faith or revelation, and thus a form of theism in opposition to fideism. Deism is usually synonymous with natural religion in 18th century Enlightenment writings, but a modern but small movement exists that is steadily growing in size. Deism originated in 17th century Europe, gaining popularity in the 18th century Enlightenment especially in France, England, and America as a modernist movement inspired by the success of the scientific method. Deists emphasize the exclusive application of reason and personal experience to religious questions. Deism is concerned with those truths which humans can discover through a process of reasoning, independent of any claimed divine revelation through scripture or prophets.
Many Deists hold different views into what they believe the nature of God to be but this does not define Deism but rather is the speculative process of the individual. One common such view is the classical view that the universe was created by a God who then makes no further intervention in its affairs. In this view, the reason God does not intervene in the world (via miracles) is not simply that he does not care, but rather that he has already created the best of all possible worlds and any intervention could not improve it. Historically, many Deists adhered to this view but other views into the nature of God were prominent as well. Another non-defining view is that God intervenes only as a subtle and persuasive force in the universe.
Historical and modern Deism are defined by the view that reason should be the basis of belief and that the nature of God is generally incomprehensible as reason is limited in its ability to understand the qualities of God. Deists reject organized religion and promote reason as the essential element in making moral decisions.
The view of an impersonal and abstract God has caused many to claim that Deism is "cold" and amounts to atheism. However, Deists maintain that the opposite is true and 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. While many religions have an adversarial opposition to modern views such as those found in science, this is not an issue for Deism -- as reconcilation and unification are desired.
There are other religions such as Roman Catholicism that believe that the existence of God can be known via reason; however, they also believe that miracles and revelations occur and are required for man to truly understand God at the expense of reason (rather than exclusive application). Furthermore, these religions specifically define the nature of God with a belief that man's relationship is personal.
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, both meaning god in English. In practice there are a range of beliefs encompassed by both theism and Deism; however, theism can include faith or revelation as a basis for belief while Deism includes only belief which can be substantiated through reason.
18th century popularity
Deism developed from the expanding influence of scientism in European 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, 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 of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Thomas Paine wrote that Deism represented the application of reason to religion, finally settling problems that formerly were thought to be permanently controversial. Deists hoped to also settle religious questions permanently and scientifically by reason alone, without revelation.
Newtonian physics is rather deterministic, and so Deism based on that might not seem like it has much room for hope. Of some relevance in response to this are 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).
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are among the most well-known of the American founding Deists. Thomas Paine published The Age of Reason, a treatise that popularized Deism throughout America and Europe.
Appellations for divinity
The names used for the divinity by Deists include the following:
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 history
- 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 Christian clergymen to villify and equate deism with atheism in public opinion
Pandeism and Panendeism
More recently, pandeism has combined Deism with major elements of naturalistic pantheism (the concept that God and the universe are combined, but that God is inactive in human lives). One conception of pandeism is that an omnipotent deity preceded the existence of the universe, that this deity first envisioned or designed the universe with all of its physical attributes, and that this deity then created the physical world by completely incorporating itself into the material universe. In short, there was a "Divine Watchmaker" who ceased to be an independent and sentient God, and instead became the non-sentient and non-responsive universe. Other conceptions of pandeism require no such "Divine Watchmaker", but simply regard the evolving universe as a divine, but nonintrusive, being. Panendeism is a similar combination of Deism with Panentheism.
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Last updated: 06-01-2005 20:15:44