Deistpedia: The Deist EnCyclopedia

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Historical and modern Deism is defined by the view that reason, rather than revelation or tradition, should be the basis of belief in God. Deists reject both organized and revealed religion and maintain that reason is the essential element in all knowledge. For a "rational basis for religion" they refer to the cosmological argument (first cause argument), the teleological argument (argument from design), and other aspects of what was called natural religion. Deism has become identified with the classical belief that God created but does not intervene in the world, though this is not a necessary component of deism.

Contents1 Overview
1.1 Deism and prayer
2 18th century popularity
3 Appellations for divinity
4 Decline in popularity
5 Current status
6 See also
7 External links
7.1 External informational links
7.2 External organization links


Deism encompasses a range of views on the nature of God, particularly on whether God intervenes in the world. The classical view is that the universe was created by a God who then makes no further intervention in its affairs (the clockmaker hypothesis). In this view, the reason God does not intervene in the world (via miracles) is not that God does not care, but rather that the best of all possible worlds has already been created and any intervention could not improve it. Historically, many deists adhered to this view; others hold a more pantheist or pandeist view that in creating the world, God became the world and does not exist as a separate entity from it; while some hold that God intervenes only as a subtle and persuasive force in the universe.

The classical view of an impersonal and abstract God has caused many to claim that deism is "cold" and amounts to atheism. 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. Deism, like many religions, seeks to reconcile and unify with science and "modern views." However, both deism and other religions have differing views with science on evolution, see Evolutionary Creationism.

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. However, theism can include faith or revelation as a basis for belief, while deism includes only belief which can be substantiated through reason.

Deism can be considered as the form of theism in opposition to fideism, while other schemas separate deism and theism. A helpful comparison of the common positions regarding belief in divine beings can be found in the theism article.

Deism and prayer

Many deists who do not believe in divine intervention still find value in prayer. They think of it as a form of meditation and self-cleansing, which can improve one's life and lead to one's efforts being more effective. However, many deists consider all prayer an attempt to establish a personal relationship with God, something deists do not believe is possible.

18th century popularity

Deist thinking has existed since ancient times and can be inferred from pre-Socratic philosophers such as Heraclitus. However, it was not until the modern era, during the European Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, with their respective emphases on rigorous skepticism, deductive logic, and empiricism (experience/induction), that deism came into its own as a subject of philosophical discourse, particularly in France (Descartes, the Philosophes), Germany (Kant†, Leibniz), Great Britain (Hobbes, Hume‡), and the United States (Paine, Franklin).

Thomas Jefferson, Edgehill Portrait of 1805 by Gilbert Stuart.  National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.
Thomas Jefferson, Edgehill Portrait of 1805 by Gilbert Stuart. National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.

Deism developed from the expanding influence of scientism in Europe 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 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. 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.

The first six and four later presidents of the United States had strong deistic or allied beliefs.

† 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"
‡ 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'.

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 events
  • 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 vilify and equate deism with atheism in public opinion

Current status

Newtonian physics, when linearized and simplified, is considered deterministic, and so deism based on that, for many, left little 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). Some modern revivals of deism resemble pantheism and panentheism.

See also

See also

List of Deists