The Emergence of Deism
Deism originated as a religious ideology in the 18th and 19th centuries and still exerts its influence in the modern age. It posits that anyone can comprehend and have faith in the Supreme Being, the primary force behind everything, solely through reason. Throughout history, followers of deism often embraced adapted versions of Christianity, eliminating supernatural elements from their faith while preserving its moral teachings. Although more akin to a collection of philosophical and religious principles than a structured religion, deism presents an anti-supernatural worldview as an alternative to Christian theism.
Although the core tenets of deism mainly stem from the philosophical musings of early thinkers, it was not until the time of Edward Herbert, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583–1648), recognized as the founding figure of English deism, that these principles were formulated as a departure from the biblical doctrines of Christianity. Medieval scholastic writings on natural religion profoundly influenced Herbert. In his influential work, De Religione Gentilium (The Religion of the Gentiles), Herbert contended that deeming pagan nations, which lacked access to the Holy Scriptures, deserving of punishment from God was an ethically questionable stance. Herbert developed deistic principles driven by the desire to spare those who had never received biblical revelation from eternal damnation.
Rejection of Divine Revelation
Deism, often called “natural religion,” emerged in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries as a form of rational theology. Deists believed that religious truths should be grounded in human reason rather than divine revelation, and they rejected supernatural elements within Christianity and the Bible as sources of religious doctrine. They believed God was a distant but benevolent creator whose revelation could be found in the natural world and human reasoning. Deists also believed that God governed the world to promote human happiness, with the primary religious duty being the promotion of morality. The origins of English Deism can be traced back to the early 17th century when Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury laid the groundwork for deistic beliefs in his writings. Deism stirred significant controversy and debate in English religious and speculative circles between 1690 and 1740, leading to theological disputes that extended across various platforms and the Atlantic.
Enlightened deists took advantage of two pivotal developments in the late 17th century: a shift in the understanding of nature and John Locke’s theory of empirical knowledge. Locke asserted that sensory experience, aided by reason, was the sole judge of truth. At the same time, Anthony Collins argued that the Bible was a human document, and its teachings should be evaluated through reason. Deists were attracted to their optimistic cosmic perspective, positing that a rational and benevolent God would create the best possible world, and any injustices and suffering in the world would be revealed or rectified in the afterlife. English deists downplayed the conflict between their rational theology and traditional Christianity, with some asserting that free thought was a natural and scriptural entitlement. Matthew Tindal, the author of Christianity as Old as the Creation, contended that natural religion was mirrored in Christianity, and the purpose of Christian revelation was to free humanity from superstition. Deism was subject to legal restrictions, and openly declaring one’s heterodox beliefs could be risky.
Diverse Beliefs Among Deists
Some deists embraced a materialistic determinism tinged with atheism, while others questioned the idea of the soul’s immortality. The Dudleian Lectures, first presented by Paul Dudley in 1750, stand as Harvard University’s oldest endowed lectures and are ongoing. Colonial deism sought to downplay its differences with orthodox beliefs, maintaining a primarily private nature and striving to remain inconspicuous. Benjamin Franklin, drawn to deistic doctrines during his youth, kept his religious convictions private, sharing them only with his close associates or drinking companions and avoiding overt theological displays.
Following the American Revolution, deism began to evolve, with figures like Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, and Elihu Palmer contributing to the deistic cause. Allen rejected notions of revelation, prophecy, miracles, divine providence, and Christian doctrines, while Paine condemned the superstitions within the Christian religion and the deceit practiced by supporting priests. Elihu Palmer, a former Baptist minister, traveled along the Atlantic coast, delivering lectures that emphasized the truths of natural religion and exposed the irrationalities of revealed Christianity and the duplicity of its clergy. By 1806, Palmer had established deist societies in various cities, including New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
Organized deism did not persist beyond Palmer’s lifetime, as the country underwent a religious revival. Nevertheless, ministers in New England criticized godless deism, French-inspired atheism, and revolutionary “illuminism,” which became campaign issues in the 1800 presidential election, framing it as a choice between Federalist patriot John Adams and the anti-Christian Thomas Jefferson.
The role of religion in the founding of the United States is often a subject of debate, but the secular arguments in favor of deism need to provide a complete picture. Most prominent Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, George Mason, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin, were not deists. Freemasonry, an institution with religious elements like morality, charity, and adherence to the law, did not have sufficient evidence to suggest that these Founding Fathers were anything other than liberal Christians.
Franklin and Jefferson present the only reasonably compelling cases for deism, as they were influenced by deistic doctrines during their youth and integrated these beliefs into their mature religious convictions. Nevertheless, their beliefs deviated significantly from traditional religion, and their perspectives did not align entirely with those of natural religion. The “real whig” ideology, which inspired the colonial protest movement of the 1760s, drew primarily from early classical and modern sources rather than relying on Christian sources. The principles of mixed and balanced government, separation of powers, and cautious political doctrines associated with the Federal Constitution were extracted from the writings of European philosophers rather than from prophetic or biblical interpretations.
Deism’s Appeal in the Enlightenment Era
In the Enlightenment era, deism held significant appeal for Western civilization. It offered a rational alternative to historically biblical Christianity. Furthermore, deism presented modern individuals with a religion that focused more on ethical conduct than traditional Christianity. Therapeutic moralistic deism provided humans with a God who did not excessively intervene in their lives and encouraged them to be good, just, and kind to one another. It assured salvation for those who pursued a virtuous and benevolent life.
Enlightenment deism, a movement that emerged in the 1730s, experienced a gradual decline due to naturalism, Kant’s writings, the violence of the French Revolution, the Christian revivalist movement, and anti-rationalist philosophy. Despite its decline, deism still significantly influenced modern society, with its biblical criticism and rejection of revealed religion contributing to 19th-century English Unitarianism and liberal theology.
Contemporary deism combines classical deism with modern philosophy and scientific knowledge, leading to various personal beliefs. Subcategories include monotheism, pandeism, panendeism, spiritual deism, process deism, Christian deism, polytheism, scientific deism, and humanistic deism. Certain adherents of deism perceive God as an observer of humanity without direct involvement in our affairs, whereas others regard God as a gentle and influential spirit. Charles Hartshorne rejected deism and pandeism in the 1960s, favoring a conception of God with absolute and relative perfection. Charles Taylor’s 2007 book, A Secular Age, explains the historical role of deism in shaping the emergence of “exclusive humanism,” which emphasizes moral order within humans.
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- Staloff, D. Deism and the Founding of the United States. Divining America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center.