A number of America’s Founding Fathers were Deists. It begs the question of what a Deist is.
So what is Deism? Deism is the belief in an impersonal Supreme Being -a God that is unknown and unknowable. Deism is regarded by some as one of the great monotheistic beliefs along with Judaism, Christianity and Islam, because Deists believe in one God.
Deists postulate that God doesn’t answer prayers and takes no interest in his creation. He doesn’t judge anybody, doesn’t require worship, and there are no consequences for believing or disbelieving in him.
Deism generally rejects any revealed knowledge found in a holy book like the Bible or taught in a church. Deists call such knowledge superstition.
Since Deists don’t accept revelation from a holy book, and they won’t take instruction from anyone who does, the only knowledge generally accepted by Deists is knowledge that is naturally available.
If you encounter a person who has a general belief in God but doesn’t read a holy book or attend a church, there’s a good chance they’re a deist.
Deism vs Theism
Deism is similar to Theism in the belief that there is one monotheistic God, yet it also differs significantly.
Theism runs counter to Deism. Unlike Deists, Theists believe in a God who answers prayers, who judges people, is personal, and expects worship.
The Theistic God is active and may intervene in humanity’s affairs. Christianity is Theistic rather than Deistic.
Some of the most famous deists are said to be Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Thomas Edison, Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine
Jefferson and Franklin -and probably the others- were complex people whose beliefs weren’t so easy to pin down. While they’ve been listed as deists by a few historians, they were also quoted as saying some very Theistic things:
Ben Franklin was quoted as saying; ” I’ve lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing Proofs I see of this Truth — That God governs in the Affairs of Men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his Notice, is it probable that an Empire can rise without his Aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that except the Lord build the House they labor in vain who build it. I firmly believe this, — and I also believe that without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political Building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our Projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a Reproach and Bye word down to future Ages.
Deism had quite a run during the Enlightenment movement of the 17th and 18th centuries (the 1600’s and 1700’s) in Great Britain. Just as it was dying out there it spread to other nations where it lasted another 50-100 years.
The Deist founding fathers of America were extolling Deism after the sun had already set on Deism in Great Britain, and Germany took its turn a little bit later.
A latecomer to Deism was former atheist Anthony Flew, who was one of very few atheists who organized a coherent system of atheist thought. Flew’s system was so robust that it was the subject of PhD-level studies at Philosophy departments of major universities.
Flew’s devout atheism came to an end in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence of Intelligent Design. Flew said advances in biology and DNA studies convinced him that these intricate designs demanded a designer, and he then described himself as a Deist and wrote the book “There is a God.”
So -some 200 years after its heyday- Deism still gets a few adherents -even in the 21st century.
As Flew says in this interview with former atheist Lee Strobel, his lifelong atheism left him quite confused about the nature of God. In spite of Flew’s labeling as a Deist, he couldn’t completely decide about the nature of God.
Deism and The Enlightenment
Deism sprouted up hand-in-hand with the Enlightenment in the early 1600’s. The Enlightenment was brought on by the great scientific advances of the day, and a mood began to grow that man’s increasing technical knowledge could replace God.
The irony of it is that man’s increasing technical knowledge was concentrated in Europe in the very place where Christianity had brought these very scientific advances.
The Bible had created a scientific thought framework for centuries that caused scientific minds to expect order in the universe. Other world religions -especially in the East- created an opposing thought framework. Easterners did not expect an orderly universe and therefore did not find one when they looked for it.
The foundations of confirmation bias had already been set even back then.
How is Deism Different from Christianity?
Deists -while believing in One God like Christians, believe that God to be impersonal. This is in stark contrast to the God of the Bible, who personally created the Universe in Genesis 1:1, personally spoke with Adam and Eve in the Garden (see Genesis 2), personally appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and personally came to earth as Jesus Christ the second person of the Trinity.
He also died at Calvary, rose again and ascended into heaven as reported in the Gospels of the New Testament -and many other sources outside the Bible. The Bible has recorded many prophecies that proclaimed future events which came to pass just as the prophets said.
The God of Christianity is a very personal God throughout the entire Bible. Many Deists avoid the Bible and regard it as superstitious.
The superstition label is a handy way to avoid evidence that refutes their bias. Labeling the Bible as superstition gives them a great excuse to ignore it and feed their own confirmation bias.
So Deists claim God is distant and aloof and un-engaged in his creation. Yet, the evidence clearly shows that God is indeed very involved in his creation:
God declares in Isaiah 46:10 “I make known the end from the beginning.” In saying this, God encourages us to test him and see if he does indeed know the end from the beginning. It’s a very personal declaration, and a very personal challenge to the reader.
So, can God back up his claim to know the end from the beginning? Let’s see…
Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
In spite of the declaration of Genesis, the official position of the scientific community since the time of the great Greek philosophers in the 4th century BC was that the universe was eternal. So for 2300 years, the scientific community was at odds with Genesis 1:1.
But in the 20th century AD, along came Einstein and his theory of relativity. Then came Hubble with his discovery of the red shift which led to the conclusion the universe is expanding.
This led to the Big Bang Theory that proved Genesis 1:1 was right all along. So, is the God of the Bible a personal God? Yes. Very personal.
Do Deists Believe in Salvation?
Based on the many different beliefs of Deists, their own beliefs appear very superstitious. Since their beliefs in an afterlife are so individualistic, they are not based on any single idea- these beliefs seem to be based on whatever the particular Deist feels.
Deists hold a variety of beliefs about the soul. The noted deist authors declare a range of beliefs. Anthony Collins, Bolingbroke, Thomas Chubb, and Peter Annet were materialists and either denied or doubted the immortality of the soul. Benjamin Franklin believed in reincarnation or resurrection. Lord Herbert of Cherbury and William Wollaston, held that souls exist, survive death, and in the afterlife are rewarded or punished by God for their behavior in life. Thomas Paine declared very specific beliefs about the immortality of the soul.
History of Deism
Robert Price of Biola University gives us a great perspective in this lecture about the heresy of Pantheism and Deism. He explains that Deism is not as monotheistic as we were all led to believe. When you really study Deism, you find that the logical conclusion it turns out to be Pantheistic.
Dr. Price shows that Deism -since God is viewed as distant and aloof- leaves man with the responsibility of saving himself.
If you must save yourself, then you must be God. The Deist relegates Jesus Christ to some gray area. He’s neither God nor Man -but just a cool story like a unicorn.
There are three main conclusions: Deism interprets God deistically, Man moralistically and Christ mythologically. These are all distortions of reality.
Is Deism Still Practiced?
Freemasons are widely thought to continue to practice Deism. Their belief in a Great Architect of the Universe (GAOTU) -though this term originally came from Christian theologian John Calvin- is regarded today as a creed of Deism.
GAOTU seems to be a detached, indifferent being without a stake in the affairs of humans.
New Age practitioners like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle practice a collage of Deism mixed with Eastern and spiritist beliefs.
Quotes about Deism
Some quotes by famous thinkers put the subject in perspective. Here’s a quote by C.S. Lewis about Deism, using the term “Creative Evolution” which was the preferred term of the day instead of “Deism”:
“One reason why many people find Creative Evolution (Deism) so attractive is that it gives one much of the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences. When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest.
If, on the other hand, you want to do something rather shabby, the Life-Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children. The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?”
This New Age Deism concept of God clearly has no foundation in reality.