Most people have either never heard of Deism or consider it to be of historical interest only. Its roots can be traced to ancient Greece and it flourished for a while in the eighteenth century in Britain and America, a product of the Enlightenment. Many of America’s founding fathers – Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, James Madison and the British radical Thomas Paine – were Deists.
Deism was regarded by those who espoused it, to be a personal philosophy. Deists were not proselytizers striving to win converts which proved to be its weakness. While evangelical religion brought large numbers into its pews throughout the nineteenth century, Deism dwindled.
Yet despite reports to the contrary it did not disappear. Today, in the USA, Deism is resurgent, growing, it has been claimed, by over 700% between 1991 and 2001. This has largely been due to the internet allowing widespread presentation and discussion of Deist ideas. This at a time when there has been a search for alternatives to evangelical religion and it’s often equally fundamentalist counterpart, militant atheism.
Meanwhile, Deism remains virtually unknown in the UK outside a very small disconnected coterie. Yet there may well be a large number of Deists who simply don’t realise that is what they are. It is not uncommon to hear statements such as, “I’m not religious, but I do believe in God”, “The universe is just too ‘organised’ to be just a series of random accidents”, “I just get the feeling there’s something else, something beyond what we can see” and so on. The following bullet points are an attempt to give some definition to Deism. They are most certainly NOT a creed demanding adherence.
- Observing the order and complexity found in nature (and the nature of the universe), combined with personal experience, reason leads to a belief in God.
- Reason, not sacred texts or divine revelation, bring about a sense of divine being as a personal response.
- Sacred texts and revelation are, at best, second hand, being the experience of some other person needing to be taken on trust.
- God is abstract, ineffable, beyond human comprehension: language is inadequate to produce a definition of God. Yet reason allows for speculation and theorizing.
- God is beyond the personal, while having an unfathomable yet profound relationship with all creation.
- Humanity seems to have an innate sense of right and wrong even though their expression is culturally determined rather than a rigid deontology.
- Every human has the capacity to have a profound experience of nature, a spiritual experience and such, for the Deist, is an experience of divine being.
- Each individual finds a personal way to honour and celebrate God. This may be solitary or in fellowship with others, even some combination of the two.
- As God is transpersonal no individual human has more worth than any other. In creation, all are equal.
- God-given reason enables life to be lived to the full while acting for the mutual fulfilment of all.
- There is no reason to suppose God has assigned a special place in creation for humanity. Microbes are as integral to this world as Man.
- Whatever God is, the anthropomorphic “God-in Man’s-image” will not do for the Deist. Perhaps Divine Being points a little along the way.
Reason is the crucial element in Deism, allowing for the assessment and interpretation of the universe in its complexity and wonder. Intuition and logic harnessed to knowledge allows for inferences to be drawn based on empirical and circumstantial evidence. While many religions are based on prophets, scriptures and revelations, Deism chooses Nature, Experience and Reason. Nature is for Deists the metaphorical word of God, a sacred “book” open to inspiration, contemplation and reverence perpetually.
Science, rather than being a threat, is an ally Deists can learn from. A science denying God goes beyond its remit while a religion or philosophy that cannot cope with scientific advances has surely become moribund. Human knowledge has extended phenomenally over the last few centuries, but it would be misguided to presume that all, or almost all, that is worth knowing is now known.
Deism is not an unchanging and eternal truth. It is recognition of Divine Being within, behind and beyond a universe that surely inspires a spiritual as much as a materialist response. It is perhaps the kernel within all religions, a recognition that it is up to the individual to react in a dynamic way to creation. This is an invitation to all who are aware of a personal religious sensibility that has not found expression through more formal faiths and creeds to contemplate the possibility of being a Deist.
NB: Thanks to J. Hardwick of www.moderndeism.com for “Modern Deism: A Primer” on which this piece is based.