The Deist Defined section contains a Primer and other materials that define Deism. The Primer was written as a basic synopsis of Modern Desim and it is a quick read that should acquaint the reader with the basics of Deism. There is a “definition” section that showcases the many different ways in which Deism has been viewed.
Modern Deism: A Primer
If I were to ask the majority of people to raise their hands if they have heard of Deism, very few hands would go up and puzzled looks would abound. Like most, you have probably never heard of Deism unless you have taken a college philosophy and/or seminary course. Deism is a natural religion that started roughly 400 years ago with roots to ancient Greece and was primarily the belief of the intellectual class. In terms of locality, it was prevalent throughout Europe and North America. In fact, many of the American Founding Fathers were Deists, or incorporated Deistic thought, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Paine and George Washington.
Traditionally, many of the men and women who were Deists viewed it as a personal philosophy, which is also one of the primary reasons for its fall. This fall was further compounded by the fact that it remained small and had no real organization with the final blow occurring around the time of the Second Great Awakening of the 1800’s. However, contrary to reports of its demise, it did not become “extinct” but remained alive albeit small and individualized. Today, Deism is seeing a resurgence in popularity with it growing 717% from 1991 to 2001. Its growth is partly due to the increased availability and communication of the Internet and because this philosophy kept its classical roots while evolving into a more modern and inclusive interpretation.
While there are no “official” tenets of Deism, many of the following “unofficial” tenets might be the best way to introduce generally accepted beliefs within Deism. The unofficial tenets of Deism are:
1. Belief in God based on Reason, Experience and Nature (nature of the universe) rather than on the basis of holy texts and divine revelation. Essentially, through the use of Reason, God’s existence is revealed by the observation of the order and complexity found within nature and our personal experiences.
2. Belief that the nature of God is abstract and generally incomprehensible which puts it beyond definition for humanity at this time. Furthermore, human language is limited and inadequate to define God; however, man can use Reason to theorize and speculate on what this possible nature is.
3. Belief that mans relationship with God is transpersonal. However, this does not create a feeling of a distant and cold deity but of one in which God has a profound and unfathomable relationship with all of creation (nature) rather than just one aspect of it.
4. Belief that humanity has the ability to use Reason to develop ethical/moral principles and through the application of Reason these principles can be used to implement moral behavior, which in turn creates a Utilitarian-Humanist morality. Essentially, humans can be guided by their conscience in matters of morality.
5. Belief that humans have the individual capability of experiencing God, which is defined as spirituality. These spiritual experiences are multi-faceted and can include awe, epiphany, fellowship and even the transcendental. Essentially, each human is capable of having a profound experience of God and nature.
6. Belief that God should be honored in a way that the individual believes is best and most appropriate for them. Individuals must determine for themselves how best to honor God and only they can develop how to accomplish this. For many, it is a multi-faceted and an individualized process.
7. Belief in the principle of Natural Law that states that all men and women are created equal to each other with inherent freedom and liberty so that no human has more worth than another. Essentially, each human is equal in terms of the freedoms that they have and in the eyes of the law.
8. Belief that mankind’s purpose is to use our God-given reason to understand what it means to be alive in every sense of the word (to live life to the fullest) and to act in such a way as to secure human happiness and contentment for all involved.
9. Belief that Reason and Respect are God-given traits to mankind and that we are to utilize them in all aspects of our daily lives thus creating a pragmatic approach to life. This includes respecting other alternative views and opinions of God (other religions) as long as they do not produce harm and/or infringe upon others.
Most Deists will agree with these basic tenets and regard Deism as a personal philosophy (theology) and as a religion. Many may expand on these beliefs and may also add personal touches. This is appropriate and encouraged as Reason tells us that humans are freethinkers that have different beliefs and experiences.
Deists develop a belief in God based on the foundation and the application of our ability to use Reason. Through the use of Reason, the individual is able to develop a belief in God based on the observation of the order and complexity found in the nature coupled with our personal life experiences of the world we inhabit. Interestingly enough, there are many misunderstandings about what Reason actually is. Generally, Deists consider Reason to be a methodology that utilizes intuitive and logical thought processes coupled with knowledge to develop rational inferences based on degrees of evidence (empirical and circumstantial). It is made up of a balance between logic, intuition, knowledge and inference and this balance must be maintained for proper Reason to flourish.
Reason is the foundation with Nature and Experience being the basis for a belief in God. Many religions base their belief in God on prophets, holy books and revelations. Deists are tolerant of these alternative viewpoints but base their beliefs on other factors and have come to different conclusions. Deism views nature as the metaphorical “word of God” and can be seen as the holy book of the Deist. Unlike these other methods, nature is not limited but is a vast expanse of knowledge and discovery for the Deist that can continue for life. God’s fingerprints can be seen in the structure of a leaf, the complexity of DNA, the beauty of life and the elegance of the known universe. All of nature is open to the Deist for contemplation, inspiration and reverence from the mundane to the spectacular.
The application of Reason as the foundation of Deism causes this philosophy to view the world from a different vantage point than most religions. An example is that science is not seen as an enemy but one of many tools that Deists can learn and grow from. In fact, Deism as a belief system thrives on diversity of thought. Modern Deism incorporates the latest interpretations found in the areas of physics/quantum physics, biology, evolution, philosophy, theology, psychology, mathematics and many other fields in the arts and sciences. However, the modern Deist movement is a dynamic concept in that it integrates classical and modern viewpoints with the wisdom of the past and the discoveries of the present.
Classical Deism has tended to define God as separate from his creation (only transcendent); however, Modern Deism does not define God. This is because Reason is limited in its ability to fully comprehend and define God, which produces different views on what individuals believe the nature of God to be. Some Deists see design in nature and through this design they also see purpose in the universe (and in their lives). Others see God and the universe in a co-creative process. While others see God as a subtle and persuasive spirit. Of course, there are many other views as well. However, the overall view of Deism is to use Reason as the foundation and Experience and Nature as the basis of belief. As can be seen, some Deists are classical while others are not but each is respected and finds a home in Modern Deism.
The area that most separates Deism from other belief systems is a belief that man’s relationship with God is transpersonal. For many religions, the relationship with God is viewed as one that is personal in that God wants to know each of us as individuals and communicates directly with mankind. Many Theists view an transpersonal God as one that is pointless but for the Deist the opposite is true. This relationship transcends notion of personal and impersonal and is not pointless because God does not just have a relationship with humanity but with all of nature (creation) and man is a part of it. This means that God is not like a parent but is much grander in scope than can possibly be imagined which creates a sense of awe and reverence. This is evidenced by how Deists have a calling to nature and study of the universe.
One of the most frequent questions asked of Deists is, without a God that creates absolute moral law, how can man be a moral being? Essentially, Deists answer this in two parts. The first is that humans have the ability to use Reason to develop and create ethical and moral principles. The second is that through the application of Reason, these principles can be used to implement and institute moral behavior. This creates a Utilitarian/Humanist morality that respects the dignity and self-worth of the individual but maintains that this must be reciprocal in nature so that moral behavior is instituted. However, the main reason is that being a moral person creates a better world for ourselves, our family and others. This is a common sense view of morality that uses Reason as its basis. In fact, many Deists live by one of the most ancient moral principles that has existed since man began to record his beliefs, the Golden Rule.
Since Deism is specifically correlated with rationalism, there is the erroneous belief among many that spirituality does not exist among adherents. However, this is untrue, as spirituality is a major component of Deism. There are many religions that believe that spirituality is attained simply by believing in the proper doctrines. The opposite is true in Deism. Spirituality is about the ability to experience God and it is a multi-faceted experience that can be accomplished in numerous ways by the individual with the primary ways being awe, epiphany, fellowship, communion and the transcendental. These spiritual experiences are beyond description and allow the individual to have unique and profound experiences of God and nature.
Individualism and independence are of primary concern to Deists. This is especially true as evidenced by the many ways that God is honored. Deists do not worship God as much as they honor God. They may do this many different ways. Some like to meet and discuss philosophy, science and religion. Others may pray to thank God for the life they have had while others may meditate. The goal is to honor the God for which the Deist feels a connection with. It is important to understand this aspect, as it is an area that truly separates Deism from other belief systems. Essentially, honoring God is done in many different ways and is up to the individual to decide what works best for them.
Deists view humans as equal to each other with inherent rights which is a philosophy called Natural Law. This idea was best exemplified in the opening of the Declaration of Independence when it was stated, “all men are created equal with certain inalienable rights.” It states that all men and women are equal with certain rights and that these rights make each human equal in the eyes of the law. This includes ideas such as the freedom of religion, speech, congregation and independent thought. It is important to understand that this philosophy does not mean that all have the same potential. Not everyone can be a professional basketball player just as not everyone will be a world-class mathematician. However, when it comes to freedom, everyone is equal.
Since Deism is based on Reason, the idea of direct (special) revelation by God to mankind is seen as secondary information at best and is therefore hear-say, which includes prophets and holy books. Instead, Deists believe that nature is the only “word of God” (so to speak) we have access to and we experience inspiration rather than revelation. This being so, Deists believe that God may or may not have a purpose for man and this is left up the individual to determine. However, this does not mean that man cannot have a purpose, it simply means that we as humans must determine what that purpose is. For the Deist, mankind’s purpose is to use our Reason to determine what it means to be alive in every sense of the word so that life is lived to the fullest and that we act in a way as to secure human happiness and contentment for all involved.
As has been evidenced, Reason is the foundation of Deism. However, Reason is not just a concept that is used for developing a belief in God but is used throughout our daily lives as well. Deists believe in a pragmatic approach of Reason and Respect in all aspects of life so that it is used in all that we think, say and do. This includes the ability to learn from other viewpoints whether they are religious, political and social as long as human harm is not advocated. This is nowhere more true than in regards to alternative religious viewpoints. In fact, many Deists study these alternative viewpoints for greater knowledge and understanding. Therefore, we must respect other viewpoints and ideas regarding God. This includes other religions that Deists may disagree with but respect the realization that each person has the right and requirement to find their own path to God.
Deism has evolved into this modern form because it uses Reason as its primary tool. The tool of Reason allows the Deist to grow and mature in his/her belief over time and thus strengthens the belief. Deism challenges the individual because it does not tell one how to believe but is instead a minimalist approach. Deists tend to be independent freethinkers that utilize critical thinking skills and then apply these skills to their beliefs and lives. For many religions, doubt is looked down upon but this is reversed in Deism. For the Deist, doubt is an enjoyable by-product of belief as it keeps them on their toes. Doubt causes questions to be asked and an open mind to be cultivated. It must be realized that human knowledge is limited and this means that different views must be allowed to exist under the umbrella of Deism so that it remains inclusive and dynamic. Ultimately, it is the Deist who, centering his belief within Reason, develops a profound and unique belief in God,
Copyright © 2004 - 2010 J Hardwick