Useful Notes: Deism

Deism is a theological theory proposing that a god created the Universe but is an All-Powerful Bystander who has since refrained from any activity in it. It was espoused by many European scientific thinkers of the 18th century (the Enlightenment age), some leaders of The French Revolution and some US founding fathers such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.

Essentially, you can view it as God created the Universe, set up all the laws of reality and everything, then either totally lost interest or simply stepped aside to let his creation run its course without interruption. He's still "around", but he doesn't do much, if anything, to interfere with mortal lives (And if He did, we mere mortals probably wouldn't be in the loop; after all, God Works In Mysterious Ways...).

The ideology extols a reasoned evaluation of scientific evidence as supporting a rationally ordered universe, but not revelation, any absolute moral code or any miracles. It was the more acceptable equivalent of modern atheism during the Enlightenment, rejecting any accounts about miracles or revelation until proven (e.g. Jefferson is controversial for creating a revision of the Bible without any miracles), and espouses that science and reason are the most reliable ways to know the Creator.

     History 
The concept could be traced back to Aristotle's unmoved mover, but Lord Herbert of Cherbury is considered the first deist. Although he based his beliefs off of Christianity, being one of many religions claiming to be the one true way, his God was still a personal god who supernaturally interfered in the universe. In particular, deists from this era were tired of the devastation, totalitarianism, charlatans and propaganda caused by religious institutions and ideas fighting against each other, and were looking for a true model of the cosmos that logic and science would dictate everybody had to agree on. It wasn't until John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century that deism took the form of what we now know as Classical Deism.

Classical deism is similar to Modern Deism in that they're both based on reason and naturalism, but Classical Deism's evolution from Christianity is more readily apparent. Classical Deism didn't have the benefit of evolution, the big bang theory, or even an idea of how old the earth and universe were. Newton's theory of gravity and Copernicus's heliocentric model of the universe were the best they had to go on, hence why they believed in Intelligent Design. They viewed God as transcendental from its creation and impersonal, preferring neither the Catholic, nor Protestant nor the extremely anti-sexual and anti-liberty models of morality. However, at the time deism was part of a continuum with Christianity. Christian Deism and unitarianism were situated in the middle, but they were for the most part more individualistic or utilitarian.

When conservatives cite the references about a Creator in their defense of the founding fathers being Christian, liberals in response cite the lack of scientific knowledge at the time as the reason why the founding fathers still referenced a Creator, even though it was obvious for them that religious interference in politics would directly contradict the Bill of Rights (First Amendment has "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", and Hell definitely counts under the prohibited Cruel and Unusual Punishment).

The turn of the century saw the Second Great Awakening in America and Christian revival in other areas of the world. In addition, while Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection theoretically only pushed back the date of God's role in the universe, it gave people confidence that alternative explanations for how we got here could exist. Quantum Mechanics later reinforced this notion. This attack from two sides caused Deism to wane in popularity, but The '90s saw a revival in Deism facilitated by the Internet. This form of Deism is known as Modern Deism. However, Deism is no longer the liberated and enlightened worldview; Atheism displaced it from this position, and currently Deism fills a middle niche, along with Agnosticism, both of which are attacked by religious and atheists as "fence-sitters".

Ironically, during The Enlightenment, the most anti-clerical and critical views of organized religion and Christianity came from authors of a deist perspective. While atheist authors did exist, for the most part their arguments of Religion Is Wrong did not catch a wide audience or be treated as anything more than a "shock" or "scandal" among the educated elite, they were seen even by non-believers as pranksters rather than someone posing a real challenge to the Church. Deist authors by arguing for a natural religion based on then-scientific knowledge, by being "for" something provided a more coherent argument at the time to live a non-Christian, secular life. During the French Revolution, deists had wide support from liberal aristocrats and middle and lower-middle class people as well as working class agitators, while atheist radicals were quite famous for attacking and destroying Church property and even threatening pro-revolutionary priests such as Henri Gregoire (who wanted a liberal Catholic Church, clamped down on anti-semitism and campaigned for abolitionism) during the dechristianizing campaign. Robespierre, a famous Deist, managed to clamp down on excesses of dechristianization, by stating that "atheism is aristocratic" seeing it as a viewpoint that essentially states that common people are idiotic for having religious sentiment. He used Deism to erode the role of the Church and clampdown on dechristianizing excess, by wedding it to revolutionary doctrine to create a new nationalist Cult of the Supreme Being which bore fruit in the most popular, elaborate and widely attended Revolutionary Festival of the era. Nationalism during the Revolution often had a quasi-religious fervor where people saw democracy and The Enlightenment as new doctrines for a non-denominational Church. Though, the French ultimately erred in using state power to decide religious matters. The American Founders, having more time, distance and a less hostile partisan climate than in France, used Deist ideas of a Distant God guiding human endeavors in Science and Politics to create a comprehensive, precisely written separation of Church and State in the First Amendment that kept the State as non-intervening and non-hostile to religious belief. They were helped by the fact that the Catholic Church wasn't omnipresent as it was in France (it was the largest landowner pre-Revolution) and many of the Protestant sects had a strong liberal dissenting tradition since they were persecuted by the Anglican Church in England.

Some like Voltaire was highly critical of Church superstitions and his writings in Candide, Zadig, The Ingenu enjoyed a wider audience than the author of the atheist pamphlet, "The Three Imposters". Likewise, it was Thomas Paine who wrote the widely read and popular The Age of Reason, which provided Biblical criticism from a Deist perspective that was widely read by most readers. While Deists such as Voltaire was critical of atheism as well note , a lot of his arguments and ideas, as well as that of Paine's inspired later atheist writers and authors, who took the advantages of later scientific developments such as Darwin's evolutionary theory as well as leftist, anarchist and Marxist critique (who managed to make atheism accessible and viable to the common man by describing it as a means of control that acknowledges discontent but pacifies it to prevent real agitation) to provide a more comprehensive and thorough secular worldview than Deism.

Modern Deism incorporates what science has discovered since the enlightenment and holds the nature of God is unknowable other than that God exists. In fact, Modern Deists are encouraged to use reason to determine God's nature for themselves.

Modern variations include:

  • Pandeism: which incorporates Pantheism, the archetype for Pieces of God
  • Christian Deism: a hybrid between Christian and Deist beliefs. It rejects Jesus's divinity and other supernatural claims of the bible but stands by Jesus's moral teachings, holding him up as Christian Deism's central philosopher
  • Polydeism: the universe is a creation of more than one god, but all have since left the building.

Examples

Literature

  • Used by Arthur C. Clarke as the prevailing religion in the last installment of his 2001: A Space Odyssey novels. Sort of. Everyone in 3001 believes "as little as possible", and the big split is between Theists, who believe "in at least one god", and Deists, who believe "in at most one god".
    • Whether Clarke intended this or not, it's actually a pretty good definition. Deists believe in one god or none, depending on whether an inactive god "counts" as such — but not more than one, because if God is outside space and time and doesn't do anything, if there were two of Him, what would make them distinct?
    • Also used in the Rama Series, although again it's not really present until the last installment, Rama Revealed (and a little bit in The Garden of Rama). The creatures who built Rama did so as part of a project to collect life from all over the universe, to learn about God's plan for it, and are committed Deists.
  • British statesman Lord Chesterfield tended to this position, as shown in the Letters to His Son: "The object of all the public worships in the world is the same; it is that great eternal Being who created everything." (letter 29)
    • He writes that Lord Bolingbroke also was this: "He professes himself a deist; believing in a general Providence, but doubting of, though by no means rejecting (as is commonly supposed) the immortality of the soul and a future state." (letter 95)
  • The god of Star Maker could be this, though that one is so callous to the suffering going on in the Universe as to seem downright malevolent.

Tropes