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Scientific Deism Explained Essay Writer

For other uses, see Deism (disambiguation).

Not to be confused with theism.

Deism (DEE-iz-əm[1][2] or DAY-iz-əm; derived from Latin "deus" meaning "god") is a philosophical position that posits that God (or in some cases, gods) does not interfere directly with the world; conversely it can also be stated as a system of belief which posits God's existence as the cause of all things, and admits its perfection (and usually the existence of natural law and Providence) but rejects divine revelation or direct intervention of God in the universe by miracles. It also rejects revelation as a source of religious knowledge and asserts that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of a single creator or absolute principle of the universe.[3][4][5]

Deism gained prominence among intellectuals during the Age of Enlightenment, especially in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. Typically, these had been raised as Christians and believed in one God, but they had become disenchanted with organized religion and orthodox teachings such as the Trinity, Biblical inerrancy, and the supernatural interpretation of events, such as miracles.[6] Included in those influenced by its ideas were leaders of the American and French Revolutions.[7]

Today, deism is considered to exist in the classical and modern forms,[8] where the classical view takes what is called a "cold" approach by asserting the non-intervention of deity in the natural behavior of the created universe, while the modern deist formulation can be either "warm" (citing an involved deity) or "cold" (citing an uninvolved deity). These lead to many subdivisions of modern deism, which tends, therefore, to serve as an overall category of belief.[9]


See also: Theism

Deism is a theological theory concerning the relationship between a Creator and the natural world. Deistic viewpoints emerged during the scientific revolution of 17th-century Europe and came to exert a powerful influence during the 18th century Enlightenment. Deism stood between the narrow dogmatism of the period and skepticism. Though deists rejected atheism,[10] they often were called "atheists" by more traditional theists.[11] There were a number of different forms in the 17th and 18th centuries. In England, deists included a range of people from anti-Christian to non-Christian theists.[12]

For deists, human beings can know God only via reason and the observation of nature, but not by revelation or by supernatural manifestations (such as miracles) – phenomena which deists regard with caution if not skepticism. Deism is related to naturalism because it credits the formation of life and the universe to a higher power, using only natural processes. Deism may also include a spiritual element, involving experiences of God and nature.[13]

The words deism and theism both derive from words for "god": the former from Latin deus, the latter from Greek theós (θεός).

Prior to the 17th Century the terms ["deism" and "deist"] were used interchangeably with the terms "theism" and "theist", respectively. ... Theologians and philosophers of the 17th Century began to give a different signification to the words... Both [theists and deists] asserted belief in one supreme God, the Creator... . But the theist taught that God remained actively interested in and operative in the world which he had made, whereas the Deist maintained that God endowed the world at creation with self-sustaining and self-acting powers and then surrendered it wholly to the operation of these powers acting as second causes.[14]

Perhaps the first recorded use of the term deist (French: déiste) occurs in Pierre Viret's Instruction Chrétienne en la doctrine de la foi et de l'Évangile (Christian teaching on the doctrine of faith and the Gospel, 1564), reprinted in Bayle's Dictionnaire (1697) entry Viret. Viret, a Calvinist, flagged the term as a neologism (un mot tout nouveau),[15] and regarded deism as a new form of Italian heresy.[16] Viret wrote that a group of people believed in "some sort of God" like the Jews and Turks but regarded the doctrine of the evangelists and the apostles as a mere myth.[citation needed] According to him Deists wrongly misinterpreted the liberty given to them during the reform period.

In England, the term deist first appeared in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621).[7]

Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583–1648) is generally considered[by whom?] the "father of English Deism", and his book De Veritate (1624) the first major statement of deism. Deism flourished in England between 1690 and 1740, at which time Matthew Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730), also called "The Deist's Bible", gained much attention. Later deism spread to France (notably through the work of Voltaire), to Germany, and to North America.


The concept of deism covers a wide variety of positions on a wide variety of religious issues. Sir Leslie Stephen's English Thought in the Eighteenth Century describes the core of deism as consisting of "critical" and "constructional" elements.[citation needed]

Critical elements of deist thought included:

  • Rejection of religions that are based on books that claim to contain the revealed word of God.
  • Rejection of religious dogma and demagogy.
  • Skepticism of reports of miracles, prophecies and religious "mysteries".

Constructional elements of deist thought included:

  • God exists and created the universe.
  • God gave humans the ability to reason.

Individual deists varied in the critical and constructive elements they argued for. Some rejected miracles and prophecies, but still considered themselves Christians because they believed in what they felt was the pure, original form of Christianity – that is, Christianity as it supposedly existed before it was corrupted by additions of such superstitions as miracles, prophecies, and the doctrine of the Trinity. Some deists rejected the claim of Jesus' divinity but continued to hold him in high regard as a moral teacher, a position known as Christian deism, exemplified by Thomas Jefferson's famous Jefferson Bible and Matthew Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation. Other, more radical deists rejected Christianity altogether and expressed hostility toward Christianity, which they regarded as pure superstition. In return, Christian writers often charged radical deists with atheism.

Note that the terms constructive and critical are used to refer to aspects of deistic thought, not sects or subtypes of deism – it would be incorrect to classify any particular deist author as "a constructive deist" or "a critical deist". As Peter Gay notes:

All Deists were in fact both critical and constructive Deists. All sought to destroy in order to build, and reasoned either from the absurdity of Christianity to the need for a new philosophy or from their desire for a new philosophy to the absurdity of Christianity. Each Deist, to be sure, had his special competence. While one specialized in abusing priests, another specialized in rhapsodies to nature, and a third specialized in the skeptical reading of sacred documents. Yet whatever strength the movement had—and it was at times formidable—it derived that strength from a peculiar combination of critical and constructive elements.

— Peter Gay, Deism: An Anthology, p. 13

It should be noted, however, that the constructive element of deism was not unique to deism. It was the same as the natural theology that was so prevalent in all English theology in the 17th and 18th centuries. What set deists apart from their more orthodox contemporaries were their critical concerns.

Defining the essence of English deism is a formidable task. Like priestcraft, atheism, and freethinking, deism was one of the dirty words of the age. Deists were stigmatized – often as atheists – by their Christian opponents. Yet some Deists claimed to be Christian, and as Leslie Stephen argued in retrospect, the Deists shared so many fundamental rational suppositions with their orthodox opponents... that it is practically impossible to distinguish between them. But the term deism is nevertheless a meaningful one.... Too many men of letters of the time agree about the essential nature of English deism for modern scholars to ignore the simple fact that what sets the Deists apart from even their most latitudinarian Christian contemporaries is their desire to lay aside scriptural revelation as rationally incomprehensible, and thus useless, or even detrimental, to human society and to religion. While there may possibly be exceptions, ... most Deists, especially as the eighteenth century wears on, agree that revealed Scripture is nothing but a joke or "well-invented flam." About mid-century, John Leland, in his historical and analytical account of the movement [View of the Principal Deistical Writers], squarely states that the rejection of revealed Scripture is the characteristic element of deism, a view further codified by such authorities as Ephraim Chambers and Samuel Johnson. ... "DEISM," writes Stephens bluntly, "is a denial of all reveal'd Religion."

— James E. Force, Introduction (1990) to An Account of the Growth of Deism in England (1696) by William Stephens

One of the remarkable features of deism is that the critical elements did not overpower the constructive elements. As E. Graham Waring observed,[17] "A strange feature of the [Deist] controversy is the apparent acceptance of all parties of the conviction of the existence of God." And Basil Willey observed:[18]

M. Paul Hazard has recently described the Deists of this time 'as rationalists with nostalgia for religion': men, that is, who had allowed the spirit of the age to separate them from orthodoxy, but who liked to believe that the slope they had started upon was not slippery enough to lead them to atheism.

Concepts of "reason"[edit]

According to the deists, our reason gives us all the information we need:

By natural religion, I understand the belief of the existence of a God, and the sense and practice of those duties which result from the knowledge we, by our reason, have of him and his perfections; and of ourselves, and our own imperfections, and of the relationship we stand in to him, and to our fellow-creatures; so that the religion of nature takes in everything that is founded on the reason and nature of things.

— Matthew Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation (II)[19]

Consequently, the deists attempted to use reason as a critical tool for exposing and rejecting what they saw as nonsense:

I hope to make it appear that the use of reason is not so dangerous in religion as it is commonly represented ... There is nothing that men make a greater noise about than the "mysteries of the Christian religion". The divines gravely tell us "we must adore what we cannot comprehend" ... [Some] contend [that] some mysteries may be, or at least seem to be, contrary to reason, and yet received by faith. [Others contend] that no mystery is contrary to reason, but that all are "above" it. On the contrary, we hold that reason is the only foundation of all certitude ... Wherefore, we likewise maintain, according to the title of this discourse, that there is nothing in the Gospel contrary to reason, nor above it; and that no Christian doctrine can be properly called a mystery.

— John Toland, Christianity Not Mysterious: or, a Treatise Shewing That There Is Nothing in the Gospel Contrary to Reason, Nor above It (1696)[20]

Arguments for the existence of God[edit]

Some deists used the cosmological argument for the existence of God - as did Thomas Hobbes in several of his writings:

The effects we acknowledge naturally, do include a power of their producing, before they were produced; and that power presupposeth something existent that hath such power; and the thing so existing with power to produce, if it were not eternal, must needs have been produced by somewhat before it, and that again by something else before that, till we come to an eternal, that is to say, the first power of all powers and first cause of all causes; and this is it which all men conceive by the name of God, implying eternity, incomprehensibility, and omnipotence.

— Thomas Hobbes, Works, vol. 4, pp. 59–60; quoted in John Orr, English Deism, p. 76

History of religion and the deist mission[edit]

Most deists (see for instance Matthew Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation and Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason) saw the religions of their day as corruptions of an original, pure religion that was simple and rational. They felt that this original pure religion had become corrupted by "priests" who had manipulated it for personal gain and for the class interests of the priesthood in general.[21]

According to this world view, over time "priests" had succeeded in encrusting the original simple, rational religion with all kinds of superstitions and "mysteries" – irrational theological doctrines. Laymen were told by the priests that only the priests really knew what was necessary for salvation and that laymen must accept the "mysteries" on faith and on the priests' authority. This kept the laity baffled by the nonsensical "mysteries", confused, and dependent on the priests for information about the requirements for salvation. The priests consequently enjoyed a position of considerable power over the laity, which they strove to maintain and increase. Deists referred to this kind of manipulation of religious doctrine as "priestcraft", a highly derogatory term. As Thomas Paine wrote:

As priestcraft was always the enemy of knowledge, because priestcraft supports itself by keeping people in delusion and ignorance, it was consistent with its policy to make the acquisition of knowledge a real sin.

— The Age of Reason, Part 2, p. 129

Deists saw their mission as the stripping away of "priestcraft" and "mysteries" from religion, thereby restoring religion to its original, true condition – simple and rational. In many cases, they considered true, original Christianity to be the same as this original natural religion. As Matthew Tindal put it:

It can't be imputed to any defect in the light of nature that the pagan world ran into idolatry, but to their being entirely governed by priests, who pretended communication with their gods, and to have thence their revelations, which they imposed on the credulous as divine oracles. Whereas the business of the Christian dispensation was to destroy all those traditional revelations, and restore, free from all idolatry, the true primitive and natural religion implanted in mankind from the creation.

— Matthew Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation (XIV)[22]

One implication of this deist creation myth was that primitive societies, or societies that existed in the distant past, should have religious beliefs that are less encrusted with superstitions and closer to those of natural theology. This position gradually became less plausible as thinkers such as David Hume began studying the natural history of religion and suggesting that the origins of religion lay not in reason but in the emotions, specifically the fear of the unknown.

Freedom and necessity[edit]

Enlightenment thinkers, under the influence of Newtonian science, tended to view the universe as a vast machine, created and set in motion by a creator being, that continues to operate according to natural law, without any divine intervention. This view naturally led to what was then usually called necessitarianism[23] (the modern term is determinism): the view that everything in the universe – including human behavior – is completely causally determined by antecedent circumstances and natural law. (See, for example, La Mettrie's L'Homme machine.) As a consequence, debates about freedom versus "necessity" were a regular feature of Enlightenment religious and philosophical discussions.

Because of their high regard for natural law and for the idea of a universe without miracles, deists were especially susceptible to the temptations of determinism. Reflecting the intellectual climate of the time, there were differences among deists about freedom and determinism. Some, such as Anthony Collins, actually were necessitarians.[24]

Immortality of the soul[edit]

Deists hold a variety of beliefs about the soul. Some, such as Lord Herbert of Cherbury and William Wollaston,[25] held that souls exist, survive death, and in the afterlife are rewarded or punished by God for their behavior in life. Some, such as Benjamin Franklin, believed in reincarnation or resurrection. Others, such as Thomas Paine, had definitive beliefs about the immortality of the soul:

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

— Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, Part I

I trouble not myself about the manner of future existence. I content myself with believing, even to positive conviction, that the power that gave me existence is able to continue it, in any form and manner he pleases, either with or without this body; and it appears more probable to me that I shall continue to exist hereafter than that I should have had existence, as I now have, before that existence began.

— Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, Part I, Recapitulation

Still others such as Anthony Collins,[26]Bolingbroke, Thomas Chubb, and Peter Annet were materialists and either denied or doubted the immortality of the soul.[27]


Deist authors – and 17th- and 18th-century theologians in general – referred to God using a variety of vivid circumlocutions such as:[citation needed]

Classical deism[edit]

Historical background[edit]

Deistic thinking has existed since ancient times. Among the Ancient Greeks, Heraclitus conceived of a logos, a supreme rational principle, and said the wisdom "by which all things are steered through all things" was "both willing and unwilling to be called Zeus (God)." Plato envisaged God as a Demiurge or 'craftsman'. Outside ancient Greece many other cultures have expressed views that resemble deism in some respects. However, the word "deism", as it is understood today, is generally used to refer to the movement toward natural theology or freethinking that occurred in 17th-century Europe, and specifically in Britain.

Natural theology is a facet of the revolution in world view that occurred in Europe in the 17th century. To understand the background to that revolution is also to understand the background of deism. Several cultural movements of the time contributed to the movement.[29]

Discovery of diversity[edit]

The humanist tradition of the Renaissance included a revival of interest in Europe's classical past in ancient Greece and Rome. The veneration of that classical past, particularly pre-Christian Rome, the new availability of Greek philosophical works, the successes of humanism and natural science along with the fragmentation of the Christian churches and increased understanding of other faiths, all helped erode the image of the church as the unique source of wisdom, destined to dominate the whole world.

In addition, study of classical documents led to the realization that some historical documents are less reliable than others, which led to the beginnings of biblical criticism. In particular, when scholars worked on biblical manuscripts, they began developing the principles of textual criticism and a view of the New Testament being the product of a particular historical period different from their own.

In addition to discovering diversity in the past, Europeans discovered diversity in the present. The voyages of discovery of the 16th and 17th centuries acquainted Europeans with new and different cultures in the Americas, in Asia, and in the Pacific. They discovered a greater amount of cultural diversity than they had ever imagined, and the question arose of how this vast amount of human cultural diversity could be compatible with the biblical account of Noah's descendants. In particular, the ideas of Confucius, translated into European languages by Jesuit missionaries like Michele Ruggieri, Philippe Couplet, and François Noël, are thought to have had considerable influence on the deists and other philosophical groups of the Enlightenment who were interested by the integration of the system of morality of Confucius into Christianity.[31][32]

In particular, cultural diversity with respect to religious beliefs could no longer be ignored. As Herbert wrote in De Religione Laici (1645):

Many faiths or religions, clearly, exist or once existed in various countries and ages, and certainly there is not one of them that the lawgivers have not pronounced to be as it were divinely ordained, so that the Wayfarer finds one in Europe, another in Africa, and in Asia, still another in the very Indies.

Religious conflict in Europe[edit]

Europe had been plagued by sectarian conflicts and religious wars since the beginning of the Reformation. In 1642, when Lord Herbert of Cherbury's De Veritate was published, the Thirty Years War had been raging on continental Europe for nearly 25 years. It was an enormously destructive war that (it is estimated) destroyed 15–20% of the population of Germany. At the same time, the English Civil War pitting King against Parliament was just beginning.

Such massive violence led to a search for natural religious truths – truths that could be universally accepted, because they had been either "written in the book of Nature" or "engraved on the human mind" by God.

Advances in scientific knowledge[edit]

The 17th century saw a remarkable advance in scientific knowledge, the scientific revolution. The work of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo set aside the old notion that the earth was the center of the universe. These discoveries posed a serious challenge to biblical and religious authorities, Galileo's condemnation for heresy being an example. In consequence the Bible came to be seen as authoritative on matters of faith and morals but no longer authoritative (or meant to be) on science.

Isaac Newton's (1642–1727) mathematical explanation of universal gravitation explained the behavior both of objects here on earth and of objects in the heavens in a way that promoted a worldview in which the natural universe is controlled by laws of nature. This, in turn, suggested a theology in which God created the universe, set it in motion controlled by natural law and retired from the scene. The new awareness of the explanatory power of universal natural law also produced a growing skepticism about such religious staples as miracles (violations of natural law) and about religious books that reported them.


Early works of biblical criticism, such as Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan and Spinoza's Theologico-Political Treatise, as well as works by lesser-known authors such as Richard Simon and Isaac La Peyrère, paved the way for the development of critical deism.

An important precursor to deism was the work of Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (d. 1648). He has been called the "father of English deism", and his book De Veritate (On Truth, as It Is Distinguished from Revelation, the Probable, the Possible, and the False) (1624) "the first major statement of deism".[33][34] However, his beliefs in divine intervention, particularly in response to prayer, are at odds with the basic ideas of deism. In Herbert's account of one incident, he prayed "I am not satisfied enough whether I shall publish this Book, De Veritate; if it be for Thy glory, I beseech Thee give me some Sign from Heaven, if not, I shall suppress it" and recounts that the response was "a loud tho' yet gentle Noise came from the Heavens (for it was like nothing on Earth)... I had the Sign I demanded".[35]

Like his contemporary Descartes, Herbert searched for the foundations of knowledge. In fact, the first two thirds of De Veritate are devoted to an exposition of Herbert's theory of knowledge. Herbert distinguished truths obtained through experience, and through reasoning about experience, from innate truths and from revealed truths. Innate truths are imprinted on our minds, and the evidence that they are so imprinted is that they are universally accepted. Herbert's term for universally accepted truths was notitiae communes – common notions.

In the realm of religion, Herbert believed that there were five common notions.[10]

  • There is one Supreme God.
  • He ought to be worshipped.
  • Virtue and piety are the chief parts of divine worship.
  • We ought to be sorry for our sins and repent of them
  • Divine goodness doth dispense rewards and punishments both in this life and after it.

— Lord Herbert of Cherbury, The Antient Religion of the Gentiles, and Causes of Their Errors, pp. 3–4, quoted in John Orr, English Deism, p. 62

The following lengthy quote from Herbert can give the flavor of his writing and demonstrate the sense of the importance that Herbert attributed to innate Common Notions, which can help in understanding the effect of Locke's attack on innate ideas on Herbert's philosophy:

No general agreement exists concerning the Gods, but there is universal recognition of God. Every religion in the past has acknowledged, every religion in the future will acknowledge, some sovereign deity among the Gods. ...

Accordingly that which is everywhere accepted as the supreme manifestation of deity, by whatever name it may be called, I term God.

While there is no general agreement concerning the worship of Gods, sacred beings, saints, and angels, yet the Common Notion or Universal Consent tells us that adoration ought to be reserved for the one God. Hence divine religion— and no race, however savage, has existed without some expression of it— is found established among all nations. ...

The connection of Virtue with Piety, defined in this work as the right conformation of the faculties, is and always has been held to be, the most important part of religious practice. There is no general agreement concerning rites, ceremonies, traditions...; but there is the greatest possible consensus of opinion concerning the right conformation of the faculties. ... Moral virtue... is and always has been esteemed by men in every age and place and respected in every land...

There is no general agreement concerning the various rites or mysteries which the priests have devised for the expiation of sin.... General agreement among religions, the nature of divine goodness, and above all conscience, tell us that our crimes may be washed away by true penitence, and that we can be restored to new union with God. ... I do not wish to consider here whether any other more appropriate means exists by which the divine justice may be appeased, since I have undertaken in this work only to rely on truths which are not open to dispute but are derived from the evidence of immediate perception and admitted by the whole world.

The rewards that are eternal have been variously placed in heaven, in the stars, in the Elysian fields... Punishment has been thought to lie in metempsychosis, in hell,... or in temporary or everlasting death. But all religion, law, philosophy, and ... conscience, teach openly or implicitly that punishment or reward awaits us after this life. ... [T]here is no nation, however barbarous, which has not and will not recognise the existence of punishments and rewards. That reward and punishment exist is, then, a Common Notion, though there is the greatest difference of opinion as to their nature, quality, extent, and mode.

It follows from these considerations that the dogmas which recognize a sovereign Deity, enjoin us to worship Him, command us to live a holy life, lead us to repent our sins, and warn us of future recompense or punishment, proceed from God and are inscribed within us in the form of Common Notions.

Revealed truth exists; and it would be unjust to ignore it. But its nature is quite distinct from the truth [based on Common Notions] ... [T]he truth of revelation depends upon the authority of him who reveals it. We must, then, proceed with great care in discerning what actually is revealed.... [W]e must take great care to avoid deception, for men who are depressed, superstitious, or ignorant of causes are always liable to it.

— Lord Herbert of Cherbury, De Veritate, quoted in Gay, Deism: An Anthology, pp. 29 ff.

According to Gay, Herbert had relatively few followers, and it was not until the 1680s that Herbert found a true successor in Charles Blount (1654–1693). Blount made one special contribution to the deist debate: "by utilizing his wide classical learning, Blount demonstrated how to use pagan writers, and pagan ideas, against Christianity. ... Other Deists were to follow his lead."[36]

Deism in Britain[edit]

John Locke[edit]

The publication of John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689, but dated 1690) marks a major turning point in the history of deism. Since Herbert's De Veritate, innate ideas had been the foundation of deist epistemology. Locke's famous attack on innate ideas in the first book of the Essay effectively destroyed that foundation and replaced it with a theory of knowledge based on experience. Innatist deism was replaced by empiricist deism. Locke himself was not a deist. He believed in both miracles and revelation, and he regarded miracles as the main proof of revelation.[37]

After Locke, constructive deism could no longer appeal to innate ideas for justification of its basic tenets such as the existence of God. Instead, under the influence of Locke and Newton, deists turned to natural theology and to arguments based on experience and nature: the cosmological argument and the argument from design.

Flowering of classical deism, 1690–1740[edit]

Peter Gay places the zenith of deism "from the end of the 1690s, when the vehement response to John Toland's Christianity not Mysterious (1696) started the deist debate, to the end of the 1740s when the tepid response to Conyers Middleton's Free Inquiry signalled its close."[38]

Among the Deists, only Anthony Collins (1676–1729) could claim much philosophical competence; only Conyers Middleton (1683–1750) was a really serious scholar. The best known Deists, notably John Toland (1670–1722) and Matthew Tindal (1656–1733), were talented publicists, clear without being deep, forceful but not subtle. ... Others, like Thomas Chubb (1679–1747), were self-educated freethinkers; a few, like Thomas Woolston (1669–1731), were close to madness.

— Peter Gay, Deism: An Anthology[38]

During this period, prominent British deists included William Wollastson, Charles Blount, and Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke.[39]

The influential author Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury is also usually categorized as a deist. Although he did not think of himself as a deist, he shared so many attitudes with deists that Gay calls him "a Deist in fact, if not in name".[40]

Notable late-classical deists include Peter Annet (1693–1769), Thomas Chubb (1679–1747), Thomas Morgan (?–1743), and Conyers Middleton (1683–1750).

Matthew Tindal[edit]

Especially noteworthy is Matthew Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730), which "became, very soon after its publication, the focal center of the deist controversy. Because almost every argument, quotation, and issue raised for decades can be found here, the work is often termed 'the deist's Bible'."[41] Following Locke's successful attack on innate ideas, Tindal's "Deist Bible" redefined the foundation of deist epistemology as knowledge based on experience or human reason. This effectively widened the gap between traditional Christians and what he called "Christian Deists", since this new foundation required that "revealed" truth be validated through human reason.

David Hume[edit]

The writings of David Hume are sometimes credited with causing or contributing to the decline of deism. English deism, however, was already in decline before Hume's works on religion (1757,1779) were published.[42]

Furthermore, some writers maintain that Hume's writings on religion were not very influential at the time that they were published.[43]

Nevertheless, modern scholars find it interesting to study the implications of his thoughts for deism.

  • Hume's skepticism about miracles makes him a natural ally of deism.
  • His skepticism about the validity of natural religion cuts equally against deism and deism's opponents, who were also deeply involved in natural theology. But his famous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion were not published until 1779, by which time deism had almost vanished in England.

In the Natural History of Religion (1757), Hume contends that polytheism, not monotheism, was "the first and most ancient religion of mankind". In addition, contends Hume, the psychological basis of religion is not reason, but fear of the unknown.

The primary religion of mankind arises chiefly from an anxious fear of future events; and what ideas will naturally be entertained of invisible, unknown powers, while men lie under dismal apprehensions of any kind, may easily be conceived. Every image of vengeance, severity, cruelty, and malice must occur, and must augment the ghastliness and horror which oppresses the amazed religionist. ... And no idea of perverse wickedness can be framed, which those terrified devotees do not readily, without scruple, apply to their deity.

— David Hume, The Natural History of Religion, section XIII

As E. Graham Waring saw it;[17]

The clear reasonableness of natural religion disappeared before a semi-historical look at what can be known about uncivilized man— "a barbarous, necessitous animal," as Hume termed him. Natural religion, if by that term one means the actual religious beliefs and practices of uncivilized peoples, was seen to be a fabric of superstitions. Primitive man was no unspoiled philosopher, clearly seeing the truth of one God. And the history of religion was not, as the deists had implied, retrograde; the widespread phenomenon of superstition was caused less by priestly malice than by man's unreason as he confronted his experience.

Experts dispute whether Hume was a deist, an atheist, or something else. Hume himself was uncomfortable with the terms deist and atheist, and Hume scholar Paul Russell has argued that the best and safest term for Hume's views is irreligion.[44]

Deism in Continental Europe[edit]

English deism, in the words of Peter Gay, "travelled well. ... As Deism waned in England, it waxed in France and the German states."[45]

France had its own tradition of religious skepticism and natural theology in the works of Montaigne, Bayle, and Montesquieu. The most famous of the French deists was Voltaire, who acquired a taste for Newtonian science, and reinforcement of deistic inclinations, during a two-year visit to England starting in 1726.

French deists also included Maximilien Robespierre and Rousseau. For a short period of time during the French Revolution the Cult of the Supreme Being was the state religion of France.

Kant's identification with deism is controversial. An argument in favor of Kant as deist is Alan Wood's "Kant's Deism," in P. Rossi and M. Wreen (eds.), Kant's Philosophy of Religion Re-examined (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991); an argument against Kant as deist is Stephen Palmquist's "Kant's Theistic Solution".

Deism in the United States[edit]

In the United States, Enlightenment philosophy (which itself was heavily inspired by deist ideals) played a major role in creating the principle of religious freedom, expressed in Thomas Jefferson's letters and included in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. American Founding Fathers, or Framers of the Constitution, who were especially noted for being influenced by such philosophy include Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Cornelius Harnett, Gouverneur Morris, and Hugh Williamson. Their political speeches show distinct deistic influence.[citation needed]

Other notable Founding Fathers may have been more directly deist. These include James Madison, possibly Alexander Hamilton, Ethan Allen,[46] and Thomas Paine (who published The Age of Reason, a treatise that helped to popularize deism throughout the United States and Europe).

Unlike the many deist tracts aimed at an educated elite, Paine's treatise explicitly appealed to ordinary people, using direct language familiar to the laboring classes. How widespread deism was among ordinary people in the United States is a matter of continued debate.[47]

A major contributor was Elihu Palmer (1764–1806), who wrote the "Bible" of American deism in his Principles of Nature (1801) and attempted to organize deism by forming the "Deistical Society of New York" and other deistic societies from Maine to Georgia.[48]

In the United States there is controversy over whether the Founding Fathers were Christians, deists, or something in between.[49][50] Particularly heated is the debate over the beliefs of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.[51][52][53]

Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography, "Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle's lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist. My arguments perverted some others, particularly Collins and Ralph; but each of them having afterwards wrong'd me greatly without the least compunction, and recollecting Keith's conduct towards me (who was another freethinker) and my own towards Vernon and Miss Read, which at times gave me great trouble, I began to suspect that this doctrine, tho' it might be true, was not very useful."[54][55] Franklin also wrote that, "The Deity sometimes interferes by his particular Providence, and sets aside the Events which would otherwise have been produc'd in the Course of Nature, or by the Free Agency of Man."[56] He later stated, in the Constitutional Convention, that "the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth -- that God governs in the affairs of men."[57]

For his part, Thomas Jefferson is perhaps one of the Founding Fathers with the most outspoken of deist tendencies, though he is not known to have called himself a deist, generally referring to himself as a Unitarian. In particular, his treatment of the Biblical gospels, which he titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, but subsequently became more commonly known as the Jefferson Bible, exhibits a strong deist tendency of stripping away all supernatural and dogmatic references from the Christ story. However, Frazer, following the lead of Sydney Ahlstrom, characterizes Jefferson as not a Deist but a "theistic rationalist", because Jefferson believed in God's continuing activity in human affairs.[58][59] Frazer cites Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, where he wrote, "I tremble" at the thought that "God is just," and he warned of eventual "supernatural influence" to abolish the scourge of slavery.[60][61]

Decline and rebirth of deism[edit]

Deism is generally considered to have declined as an influential school of thought by around 1800, but has since experienced an extraordinary resurgence as its simple science- and reason-based philosophy has been rediscovered in the internet Age.

The 2001 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), which involved 50,000 participants, reported that the number of participants in the survey identifying themselves as deists grew at the rate of 717 percent between 1990 and 2001. If this were generalized to the US population as a whole, it would make deism the fastest-growing religious classification in the US for that period, with the reported total of 49,000 self-identified adherents representing about 0.02% of the US population in 2001.[62][63]

As of the time of the 2008 ARIS survey, 12 percent (38 million) of the American population were classified as Deists.[64]

After the writings of Woolston and Tindal, English deism went into slow decline. ... By the 1730s, nearly all the arguments in behalf of Deism ... had been offered and refined; the intellectual caliber of leading Deists was none too impressive; and the opponents of deism finally mustered some formidable spokesmen. The Deists of these decades, Peter Annet (1693–1769), Thomas Chubb (1679–1747), and Thomas Morgan (?–1743), are of significance to the specialist alone. ... It had all been said before, and better. .

— Peter Gay, Deism: An Anthology[42]

It is probably more accurate, however, to say that deism evolved into, and contributed to, other religious movements. The term deist became rarely used, but deist beliefs, ideas, and influences remained. They can be seen in 19th-century liberal British theology and in the rise of Unitarianism, which adopted many of deism's beliefs and ideas.

Although this decline has entirely reversed during the early 21st century, some commentators have suggested a variety of reasons for the former decline of "classical" deism (or perhaps actually simply a decline in the use of the term "Deism", rather than in the more universality Deist philosophy).

  • the rise, growth, and spread of naturalism[65] and materialism, which were atheistic
  • the writings of David Hume[65][66] and Immanuel Kant[66] (and later, Charles Darwin), which increased doubt about the first cause argument and the argument from design, turning many (though not all) potential deists towards atheism instead
  • criticisms (by writers such as Joseph-Marie de Maistre and Edmund Burke) of excesses of the French Revolution, and consequent rising doubts that reason and rationalism could solve all problems[66]
  • deism became associated with pantheism, freethought, and atheism, all of which became associated with one another, and were so criticized by Christian apologists[65]
Confucius, Philosopher of the Chinese, or, Chinese Knowledge Explained in Latin, published by a team of Jesuit missionaries at Paris in 1687.[30]

This fall, PBS will broadcast ''Faith and Reason,'' a documentary written and narrated by Margaret Wertheim and partly financed with $190,000 from the Templeton Foundation, featuring interviews with scientists about God. In the last two years, a steady stream of books has appeared with titles like ''Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World'' and ''God & the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony Between Science & Spirituality.''

The Conference

A Universe With Purpose

The Templeton Foundation also gave the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences $1.4 million for a heavily promoted conference called ''Science and the Spiritual Quest,'' held this month in Berkeley, Calif. For four days scientists, most of them Christians, Jews or Muslims, testified about their efforts to resolve their own conflicts over science and religion. All seemed to share the conviction that this is a purposeful universe, that there is a reason to be here.

''Theology is not some airy-fairy form of metaphysical speculation,'' said John C. Polkinghorne, a Cambridge University particle physicist turned Anglican priest whose books include ''Quarks, Chaos & Christianity'' and the newly published ''Belief in God in an Age of Science.'' Like science, he said, religion is rooted in encounters with reality -- though in the latter case these include spiritual revelations whose truths lie in the unreachable realm of the subjective. The pervading question was whether this kind of experience could ever be studied scientifically.

For most of the century people have espoused the view that science and religion should be kept apart to avoid the inevitable combustions. But to logical minds it has always been troubling that two opposing ways could exist to explain the same universe. Science and religion spring from the human obsession to find order in the world. But surely there can be only one true explanation for reality. Life was either created or it evolved. Prayer is either communication with God or a psychological salve. The universe is either pervaded by spiritual forces or ruled by nothing but physical laws.

One way out of the dilemma has been to embrace a kind of deism: The Almighty created the universe according to certain specifications and then left it to run on its own. ''God'' becomes a metaphor for the laws that science tries to uncover.

Or religion can be explained away scientifically. ''There is a hereditary selective advantage to membership in a powerful group united by devout belief and purpose,'' Dr. Wilson wrote in ''Consilience.'' He warned against letting this genetically ingrained drive overpower the intellect. ''If history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth. The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology.'' It is important not to confuse the universe as it is with the universe as we wish it would be.

The Theories

Limits of Science Can Lead to Religion

For many researchers, the whole point of science is to replace religious teachings with verifiable theories, and to pretend otherwise is self-delusion. ''We're working on building up a complete picture of the universe, which, if we succeed, will be a complete understanding of the universe and everything that's in it,'' Richard Dawkins, a University of Oxford biologist, said in a preview copy of ''Faith and Reason.'' He found it baffling that some of his colleagues struggle to keep God in the picture. ''I don't understand why they waste their time going into this other stuff, which never has added anything to the storehouse of human wisdom,'' he said, ''and I don't see that it ever will.''

But others, like the cosmologist Allan Sandage, have found that their search for objective truth has led them to questions that science cannot answer. ''The most amazing thing to me is existence itself,'' Dr. Sandage said at the Berkeley conference. ''Why is there something instead of nothing?'' This impenetrable mystery, he said, drove him to become a believer. ''How is it that inanimate matter can organize itself to contemplate itself? That's outside of any science I know.''

Science, like religion, is ultimately built on a platform of beliefs and assumptions. No one can prove that the universe is mathematical or that the same laws that seem to hold in the here and now can be applied to the distant quasars or to the first moments of time. These are among the tenets of the faith, marking the point at which reasoning can begin. ''Science is not able to question these issues,'' George Ellis, a professor of applied mathematics at the University of Capetown and a Quaker, said at the conference. ''It takes them for granted as its bedrock.''

It is not just the coincidence of the approaching millennium that is inspiring hopes for what would be the grandest of unified theories. Faced with science's success in modeling the world, people find it harder to accept religious teachings that cannot be verified. Many Christians were disturbed when radiocarbon dating suggested that the Shroud of Turin was not Jesus's burial cloth but a medieval forgery, and they hope that new scientific data, not religious fiat, will overturn the old research. Even the creationists realized long ago that they can't sway the opposition simply by asserting that their beliefs are true because they are written in the Bible. They proffer scientific proof -- pseudoscientific, those outside the faith would say -- that life and the universe were created as described in Genesis.

But science, too, is feeling its limits, leaving a vacuum that religion is happy to rush into. Neuroscientists can explain the brain, on a rough level, as networks of communicating cells called neurons. But it is hard to imagine a satisfying theory of the conscious experience -- what it is like to be alive. And no amount of theorizing is apt to converge on a persuasive explanation of where the mathematical laws are written or what happened before the Big Bang. For all its powers to observe and reason, the mind ultimately encounters chasms. Then the only choice is to retreat or take the great leap and choose what to believe.

The Money

Dollars Fuel Effort To Put God in Science

For all the genuine philosophical longings, the recent drive to put God back in science would not be nearly so intense without the millions of Templeton dollars looking for places to land. ''We are searching for a serious rapprochement between science and religion,'' Charles Harper, the executive director and vice president of the Templeton Foundation, said at the beginning of the Berkeley conference.

The money and the inspiration come from the investor John Marks Templeton, founder of the Templeton Growth Fund and other ventures, who retired in 1992 to work full time on his philanthropy. The most prominent of Sir John's endeavors (he was knighted in 1987) is the annual Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, guaranteed to exceed the Nobel Prizes in monetary value. (Mr. Templeton thought Alfred Nobel snubbed spirituality.) Early winners of the Templeton award, first given in 1973, were usually religious leaders like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. More recently the prizes, now more than $1 million, have gone to the political scientist Michael Novak and the physicist and science writer Paul Davies.

The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley is receiving $12.6 million from Templeton to help develop science and religion programs at universities worldwide. The American Association for the Advancement of Science received $1.3 million ''to help establish a science and religion dialogue.''

Last year the foundation's announcement that it would award grants of $100,000 to $200,000 for a program in ''forgiveness studies'' sent behavioral scientists scrambling to write proposals. Among the work being funded are ''Forgiveness and Community: A Game-Theoretic Analysis,'' ''Assessment of Forgiveness: Psychometric, Interpersonal, and Psychophysiological Correlates'' and ''Does Forgiveness Enhance Brain Activation Associated With Empathy in Victims of Assault?''

Those who submitted proposals were asked to include a section about how their research would address the issues clarified in Mr. Templeton's books ''Discovering the Laws of Life'' and ''Worldwide Laws of Life: 200 Eternal Spiritual Principles.'' A major focus of the foundation is publishing some 20 works by and about Mr. Templeton and encouraging scientific research on what its literature describes as ''optimism, hope and personal control.''

The Discourse

Polite Talk, But No Passion

Judging from the conference, no amount of money is likely to succeed in blending science and religion into a common pursuit. A kind of Sunday school politeness pervaded the meeting, with none of the impassioned confrontations expected from such an emotionally charged subject. ''Many of the speakers have been preaching to the choir,'' Dr. Sandage complained. ''There are no atheists on the program, only strict believers.''

Many of the speakers avoided grappling with religion directly, content to ponder mysteries that have disturbed scientists for decades. The Stanford University cosmologist Andrei Linde speculated on the tantalizing possibility that consciousness, the very hallmark of humanity, could be an intrinsic part of the universe -- as fundamental to the warp and woof of creation as space and time. After all, he said, our subjective experience is the only thing each of us is really sure of. All else is speculation.

''Our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions,'' Dr. Linde argued. ''I know for sure that my pain exists, my 'green' exists, and my 'sweet' exists. I do not need any proof of their existence, because these events are a part of me; everything else is a theory.'' It is to explain the source of these perceptions that we posit the existence of an outside reality, forgetting that this is just a supposition.

The existence of a real world is another of the tenets of the scientific faith. It is impossible to proceed without it. But many scientists would find the view that consciousness is the root of everything to be hopelessly anthropomorphic and even solipsistic. The conference might also have booked prominent scientists, like Stephen Jay Gould, who argue that consciousness, as powerful as it necessarily seems to its holders, may be just an accident of evolution. Behind the face of consciousness, one can choose to find God. Or not. Without a decisive experiment, it is a matter of personal belief, not of science.

The astrophysicist John Barrow of the University of Sussex spoke of another longstanding mystery: the dazzling cosmological coincidences that make life possible. If certain physical constants had slightly different values, stars would not have formed to cook up the atoms that made the biological molecules. Since early in the century, some truth seekers have taken this sort of argument as a reason to believe that the universe was created with people in mind.

But one is also free to choose the opposite belief: that the coincidences simply show that life is indeed an incredible fluke.

It was hard to know what to make of some of the presentations. Mitchell Marcus, chairman of the computer science department at the University of Pennsylvania, speculated that the craft of artificial intelligence -- designing thinking computers -- is a modern realization of the school of Jewish mysticism based on the Kabala. According to this ancient teaching, it is not quarks and leptons but the first 10 numbers and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet that are the true fundamental particles: the elements of the divine utterance that gave rise to creation. ''Computer scientists,'' he declared, ''are the Kabalists of today.'' The ancient rabbis are said to have used magical incantations to create beings called golems. The programmers create their simulated creatures with incantations of computer code.

The audience politely applauded after each presentation. But there was little sense of intellectual excitement, that people were coming to grips with the disturbing issue of whether there really is a God.

Most of the presentations consisted more simply of heartfelt testimonials about the difficulties of constantly being pulled by two powerfully conflicting attractions, the material and the spiritual, the known and the unknowable. And some of the speakers seemed to believe that, for all the efforts to bring them together, science and religion must inevitably go their separate ways. ''Would I do science differently if I weren't a Quaker?'' asked Jocelyn Bell Burnell, chairwoman of the physics department of the Open University in England and a Quaker. ''I don't think so.''

Dr. Sandage, the cosmologist, matter of factly put it like this: ''I don't go to a biology book to learn how to live. I don't go to the Bible to learn about science.''

As science continues to draw its picture of the physical world, each question it answers will inevitably raise more. So there will always be mysteries, the voids in human knowledge where religious awe can grow.

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