Deism is the belief that God exists, but not in quite the same way as in traditional Christianity. Deists believe that God’s existence can be seen in nature, using the God-given ability of reason– and should not depend on faith. Deists also do not believe in obedience to a church or a book, or supernatural manifestations. Deists believe in science and natural history and see God as a great cosmic watchmaker, who designed the universe, wound it up, and then let it run.
Deism became recognized during the Enlightenment, and was meant as a rational reform of traditional religious doctrines. According to Deism, the best way to honor God is to appreciate nature and learn about it using science.
II. Deism vs. Theism
Deism is a form of theism, or belief in a God. Many people may tell you that what distinguishes Deism is a belief that God cannot interfere in human affairs, however, this has never been a belief of all Deists; it is more of a false accusation that some Christian thinkers make against Deists. There are a variety of Deists and some believe in an intervening god and others do not.
There are countless different forms of theism, with different ideas about how much God (or gods) is / are involved in our daily lives. Deism doesn’t necessarily say that God never acts in people’s lives, but it does say that nature does not require God’s intervention to work; Deists believe that God created the laws that scientists discover, and that the world follows those laws—which seems to make God less important than in fundamentalist Christianity.
In addition, theists often value faith, or believing in God without evidence or reason. By contrast, deists emphasize reason, evidence, and rationality, and generally do not take anything on faith. If the idea of a creator God were to be contradicted by scientific evidence, deists would probably follow the evidence and stop believing in the creator.
III. Quotes About Deism
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence)
Like many of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson was a Deist and a sharp critic of traditional Christianity (see next section). However, he still believed that there was a creator god who designed the whole universe. It’s important to remember that, for Jefferson, God created the human race but not each individual soul. This conflicts with traditional Christianity, which supports belief in a personal connection between the individual and God.
“It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason.” (Voltaire)
The French philosopher Voltaire was one of the major figures of the Enlightenment, and one of Benjamin Franklin’s most loyal friends. In this quote, he explains the deist attitude towards faith. His belief in the creator is based on reason and evidence, not on faith. However, as we’ll see in the next section, science gradually moved away from the deist hypothesis, finding other more rational explanations for the evidence of the natural world.
IV. The History and Importance of Philosophy
Deism emerged out of the Enlightenment in the late 1700s. It was popular with well-educated thinkers and leaders in Europe and America, who believed that Christianity had valuable moral lessons but that science was a better way to understand reality than revelation. At the time, Deism was considered a cutting-edge scientific hypothesis: it was seen as the best way to explain the scientific evidence, suggesting that the universe was designed as a complete, rational whole.
The American founding fathers didn’t agree on much of anything (that’s why they emphasized disagreement and debate in the Constitution), and religion was no exception. Some, like George Washington and James Madison, were traditional Christians; others, like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, were Deists who rejected traditional Christianity and the church. Thomas Jefferson wrote a book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, in which he laid out which parts of the Bible he found useful and which he believed could be discarded. As a Deist, he kept all the sections about humility, honesty, nonviolence, and compassion, and rejected all the parts that contradicted his understanding of science.
Deism fell into decline after Charles Darwin discovered the mechanism of natural selection, which transformed our understanding of the natural world by showing how the appearance of design could emerge from the interactions of blind (but not random!) natural forces. Darwin made it possible to explain apparent design without resorting to an actual designer. Thus, scientists no longer needed the Deistic hypothesis, and it was generally abandoned.
However, even though Deism is no longer the major religion among scientists and philosophers the way it was in 18th-century America and Britain, Deistic ideas are still found even today. For example, some Christians argue that the Big Bang was an act of God, but that there have never been any miracles or divine interventions. God, they argue, created the universe and then stepped back to watch it unfold. For example, some evolutionary biologists today are deists, believing that God created the first spark that caused life to be born, but that ever since then evolution has been acting without any help or interference from God. Nonetheless, the majority of historical deists would probably be considered atheists today.
V. Deism in Popular Culture
In the comic book-turned-movie Watchmen, Jon Osterman (Dr. Manhattan) grows up as the son of a watchmaker and has a passion for his father’s trade. After the first nuclear tests, however, his father pushes him to abandon watchmaking and become a nuclear physicist. Since Dr. Manhattan is a divine figure in the book (he’s referred to more than once as “God”), this is a kind of historical metaphor for the historical shift away from deistic ideas; after the mid-20th century, the deistic watchmaker God was replaced by a laboratory scientist.
The video game Half-Life has the G-Man, an extremely powerful character who has agreed not to interfere in the events of the world. He’s a bit like a deistic god in that he chooses to let things unfold as they will rather than intervening to affect the outcome. However, G-Man is not a creator, so he lacks the most important characteristic of the deistic God.