What is Deism?

The video below, part of The Atheist Voice series, answers the question: What is Deism?:

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the project — more videos will be posted soon — and we’d also appreciate your suggestions as to which questions we ought to tackle next!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Karun R

    As a teenager, I ‘graduated’ to being a deist – it made much more sense than any of the religions. Later in life, I gradually grew to realize that it didn’t really make any difference whether I believed in the ‘ultimate creator’ or not.

  • atheismFTW

    Thanks for the explanation about deism. It sure beats being Christian and having to clamor over half-assed excuses in an attempt to make sense of tragedies. Though I won’t be handing in my atheist card anytime soon. ;-)

  • C Peterson

    An interesting thing about deism is how it has changed over time. That’s to be expected, since it is related to the “God of the gaps” way of thinking.

    Functionally, most of the deists of the Enlightenment (including many of America’s founding fathers) were atheists. You see this in the writings of Jefferson and others. Deism made sense to these people, because they were lacking two fundamental pillars of scientific understanding: a comprehensive cosmology, and a comprehensive theory of life. As rationalists, they needed to explain the existence of the Universe, and they needed to explain the existence of life. Without any reasonable natural explanations, they proposed a simple supernatural one, and then promptly went about their business as natural scientists, paying no more attention to the idea of gods. That’s why I consider them atheists in the modern sense, rather than deists in the modern sense. Almost any of these people, if living in today’s world, would be atheists, not deists.

    In the 18th century, deism simply replaced the Big Bang cosmology and evolution. When those came along a little later, no creator was required, and rational people gave up that idea. Today, deism is harder to justify, because the gaps are gone. It’s more of a cop-out now.

    • JT Rager

      I guess for whatever reason, people probably have assumed until recently that a God was a given to the universe. So a “hands off” god meets both that assumption and their observations. It’s only been in the past several decades that a good chunk more of people realized that it’s an unnecessary assumption enough to get a movement going.

      • C Peterson

        Exactly. Deism is a reasonably rational, parsimonious “first cause” explanation in the absence of modern scientific knowledge (although the most rational explanation in that case remains “I don’t know”).

    • joey_in_NC

      Almost any of these people, if living in today’s world, would be atheists, not deists.

      If the founding fathers were alive today and still believed that humans “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”, then that can’t be atheists. If you strip the Creator part such they simply believed in man’s “unalienable Rights”, then they can’t be materialists. A materliast can only belive in subjective rights for people, which are definitely “alienable”.

      • C Peterson

        They didn’t believe that. You are confusing rhetoric with actual belief. Read Jefferson, and you’ll understand that he was using a device to redefine human rights in a way that separated them from rights endowed by a monarch.

        Of course, with modern humanism, there is no longer any need to even see rights as somehow endowed by nature. Indeed, that is a rather silly idea, and I doubt that intelligent men like Jefferson would fall for it.

        • joey_in_NC

          They didn’t believe that.

          Didn’t believe what? In unalienable human rights?

          Of course, with modern humanism, there is no longer any need to even see rights as somehow endowed by nature.

          I’ve attempted to research this before, but exactly what are “rights” in modern humanism (combined with materialism), other than mere subjective opinion?

          • C Peterson

            Didn’t believe there was a god involved in defining human rights.

            Personally, I don’t believe rights are anything other than a human invention. Privileges that we assert as somehow more basic or fundamental. Pretty obviously, there is no such thing as a “natural right”. Pretty obviously there is no such thing as an inalienable right.

            • joey_in_NC

              Pretty obviously, there is no such thing as a “natural right”.

              So (materialist) humanism doesn’t believe in the concept of human rights? It’s rather ironic, but that is what I have concluded as well.

              • C Peterson

                You’re the one focused on this ill-defined “materialism”. I have no idea what you are talking about.

                I’m a humanist, and I certainly believe in human rights. I don’t think you’d find many humanists who don’t.

                • joey_in_NC

                  You’re the one focused on this ill-defined “materialism”. I have no idea what you are talking about.

                  Again, I use the ‘materialist’ modifier to distinguish from the atheist who believes in souls, magic, metaphysical realities, and the like.

                  I’m a humanist, and I certainly believe in human rights. I don’t think you’d find many humanists who don’t.

                  I guess it depends on your definition of human rights. The generally understood definition is that a human right right is also a natural right, because this right exists simply because you are human. In other words, the right is natural to your humanity. But you said that there is no such thing as a natural right.

                  Again, human rights to you must merely be subjective opinion.

                • C Peterson

                  I guess it depends on your definition of human rights. The generally understood definition is that a human right right is also a natural right, because this right exists simply because you are human.

                  I don’t think that is the generally understood definition. It is simply one definition that people use.

                  Again, human rights to you must merely be subjective opinion.

                  They are privileges that societies grant to their citizens (or others), or privileges that individuals assert for themselves. What else could they be? Humans are no different from other animals. The Universe cares nothing for us. There are no “natural” rights, there are only those we choose to define. They change with culture.

              • Anat

                I am a materialist, among other things. I am also a humanist. I believe in human rights. i just don’t believe the rights come from a non-human source. I believe humans define human rights, based on their increasing understanding of what people are and how societies work best.

              • Itarion

                As Anat said, there are human rights that exist. Moreover, humanists AGREE that human rights exist.

                In philosophy and social science, humanism refers to a perspective that affirms some notion of a “human nature” (contrasted with anti-humanism).

                You seem to be of the opinion that all human rights must be naturally given rights. Humanism (a label with a variety of meanings depending on who you ask) is all about humans giving human rights. The general consensus of humanity as a whole over what constitutes “rights” is what determines what rights a person might have.

              • Kodie

                You’re just really great at jumping ahead to your preconceived notions, but materialistically, we could go extinct and it wouldn’t matter to the universe. We care about us and we make common social rules so that we get along and feel ok and stuff. We have, apparently, mutually agreed that we as a species deserve a minimum of common human rights, regardless of politics or sex or whatever. “Our Creator” is a suggestive phrase of belief about what we believe and where those beliefs came from, but if you take away “Our Creator” that doesn’t negate that we decided to give ourselves rights. We don’t go, well, nobody gave us these rights, therefore, we don’t have them, or, I have them but you don’t. Nobody gave me the right to do that either. We’re a social species that understands the economics of mutual beneficence.

                Some part of each of us might imagine what it would be like to be a tyrant and make everything the way we want it, and get obedience and service from everyone else, but we also recognize that we wouldn’t like that done to us. Our freedoms come from us agreeing on the hope that no ONE has the right to take away from anyone else, but materialistically speaking, none of that actually matters. The universe doesn’t care how we organize ourselves or who feels pain and oppression, and who gets to cause the pain and oppression for their own glory. We decided everyone can win if we set it up so nobody really loses.

                • C Peterson

                  We don’t go, well, nobody gave us these rights, therefore, we don’t have them, or, I have them but you don’t.

                  “We” as humanists generally don’t, but “we” as humans do, and always have, which is about the best argument I know of against any “natural” rights. What kind of natural rights can they be if 99% of all the humans who ever lived didn’t enjoy any of them?

                • Itarion

                  Well, they were having their rights violated. They had the rights initially, but they got taken away by something or someone.

                • C Peterson

                  Well, if that’s the case, it’s a piss-poor mechanism that created those rights in the first place.

  • zeppfanatic

    I really enjoy your videos and posts. I am a confirmed atheist and love your clarity of thought and erudite reasoning! please continue to give a forum for rationality!

  • L.Long

    Being a deist is the same as atheist but with a nicer political front.
    Saying gawd started the universe and then let it all go its own way, is the same thing as ‘it started and I don’t know how, but at least I’m not pissing off the (insert bigoted belief system).’

  • Kodie

    It makes a lot more sense, given the world and the universe we live in, and scientific knowledge, etc., until you get to the part where why would a god do that? Some theists’ favorite argument seems to be solving the great riddle of how the universe was created, but as hard as they may find it to believe all the ridiculous parts, they become more believable or justifiable if you can’t reconcile the beginning of the universe with a natural, non-intelligent, non-conscious event. I’m not even sure how to explain this: what makes more sense? A god who created the universe so he could go find another hobby, or a god who created the universe so he could manipulate politics and care about who you sleep with and when?

    Not that either of them make any sense, but deism makes no sense.

    • C Peterson

      Not that either of them make any sense, but deism makes no sense.

      I think it does make some sense, depending on how it’s framed.

      There are some interesting ideas about cosmology that have been suggested by reputable scientists. At this point, they can’t really be called theories, since most come with no suggestion of how they might be tested, but they are mathematically consistent. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that we might be able to create universes, and by extension, that our own universe was a deliberate, conscious creation of some intelligent being existing outside it. And that’s all you need for deism.

      Another reasonable form of deism comes from the idea of a simulated universe. For the inhabitants of such a universe, there is no way to distinguish between what is real and what is not. Indeed, there may be no difference. We have already created simulated universes, and our ability to create more sophisticated ones increases all the time. There’s nothing irrational about the suggestion that we are inside such a universe ourselves, created by some external intelligence. Indeed, such a universe would even allow for a “god” that got directly involved in human affairs, although it’s clear that if we live in such a universe, its creator doesn’t interfere. Again, that’s consistent with deism.

      • Kodie

        I think that kind of inference is as implausible as theism. “Just look at the world around you” and that’s evidence of a god with motivations and wants and preferences, etc. Just because we can be in a simulation doesn’t really mean anything to me. We can simulate a universe in which we do interfere and have preferences and jerk all the beings around out of spite or whimsy. This doesn’t make the theist versions of god plausible.

        It’s all in the mind of humans to imagine a variety of set-ups, so they live in the imagination. My imaginary god put some stuff together haphazardly and it exploded, not because he’s knowledgeable about things, not because he’s curious, or a talented artist. He grabbed some-a dis and some-a dat and it didn’t go together, and now his kitchen’s a mess, so he decided to go fuck off and watch tv and dick around on the internet. He says he’s going to clean it soon, but maybe he died of filth and germs. Maybe he died in the explosion. Maybe he is going to come by one day with a mop and a bucket of Lysol and wipe out the universe in the course of an afternoon. Not because we’re sinners, but because his mother called and says she wants to visit.

        I don’t have any reason to believe in deism. I think “simulation” is something a human would think of. I have no reason to consider it any more strongly than a deliberate bastard who hates us and loves us at the same time. The “fear of god” is a self-centered idea that there is a conscious figure targeting people or populations for its own pleasure, taking natural coincidences as something you can prevent via worship – no supernatural presence required. If deism, then it’s plausible for a theist version of a conscious figure who does have motivations, wants, and preferences, who remains hidden by choice, and fucks with us so we do his little dance when he wants.

        If you can open your mind and imagine that deism is plausible, then all these theists’ imaginary universes are plausible too, up to a point. We can and have simulated a God, it’s called a domestic violence situation, it’s called North Korea. How do we know he’s not actually like that? Or he just made a universe and walked away, or is watching us, or anything. An external conscious creator makes zero sense. It might be logically possible, philosophically interesting, but it’s still an imaginary idea that I find makes little sense. His motivations are still what we imagine our own motivations would be.

        • C Peterson

          Deism is possible (maybe even plausible) because an intelligently created universe is not contradicted by our scientific understanding, and by the reasonable assumption that we ourselves might soon create universes.

          Theism isn’t remotely plausible because theism is defined by gods that leave fingerprints on the Universe, by gods that interfere and change rules as they please. Those are things that must leave physical evidence, and no such physical evidence exists.

          • Kodie

            I can imagine but not adequately describe a world in which a god interferes but no traces are left that are out of the ordinary. Theists try to explain this also. If it is of this world, then it is not supernatural, and it need not be in the fantastical, contrary to nature or rules of nature already observed and accounted for. Theists try to explain a lot of mumbo-jumbo outside of our personal experience. How they manage to tap into it and create such a vivid pile of crap is the same brain we use to understand complex things that are actually real. Technological progress and research are largely fields where the imagination is used. Information is input, and the creative mind sees a way out. It’s not just processing the numbers, it’s seeing something that was overlooked by someone else. We deem ourselves most intelligent, but we know of animals with amazingly different forms of intelligence, and not just animals – plants and mold. And we know that cold reading is a thing, but some people are actually good at it and some people don’t know what the heck is going on and they think they are contacting a ghost. That’s a form of intelligence that even many humans don’t tap into, just like some have an ear for music and some don’t.

            I believe there is a natural cause for everything, and I don’t believe in a natural god any more than a supernatural one. I find deism not that satisfying at all. It leaves more questions than it answers, and invents something from the perspective of a human just like all the other gods you could name, as if we’re the subject of the experiment. We’re not privy to all the answers because we’re isolated and it might take our kind of intelligence hundreds or thousands more years and we still won’t find a god anywhere, but we’ll be more technologically advanced and know more things about everything in general. I just think we’re animals on a planet that supports life in a universe that is mostly lifeless that wasn’t consciously or intentionally created by anyone or anything. It wasn’t a hand shaking the dice and rolling whatever this is.

            I wonder if the gunk under my bathroom sink imagines that it is a simulation. If I were more articulate, I’m sure this post would be a lot shorter and you’d actually know what I’m trying to get across. But I don’t believe there’s any impediment to theism if deism is on the table.

            • C Peterson

              Please don’t think that I am the sort of deist I’m describing. I’m just arguing that such a deist isn’t being irrational, as long as they admit that their belief represents only one possibility. Unlike virtually all theistic beliefs, nothing we observe contradicts the beliefs of some types of deists. Believing something without evidence may be intellectually weak, but it sure doesn’t compare to the outright idiocy of believing something that is contradicted by evidence.

              While I agree we can imagine a god that manipulates things in an invisible way, I’d have to see that god as irrelevant. If there’s no way to distinguish its existence by its actions (from natural occurrences), there’s no point in giving it any thought.

              • Itarion

                While I agree we can imagine a god that manipulates things in an invisible way, I’d have to see that god as irrelevant. If there’s no way to distinguish its existence by its actions (from natural occurrences), there’s no point in giving it any thought.

                That depends upon the method of influence, and the extent of the invisibility. If the omnipotent manipulator manipulates chance, then it would be hard to notice, but incredibly powerful, and possible to track, rendering such a god not only relevant, but potentially rather critical.

      • Itarion

        simulated “universes”. The universe simulations that have been run are on the order of a handful of quarks.

        So even using the world’s most powerful supercomputers, physicists have only managed to simulate tiny corners of the cosmos just a few femtometers across. (A femtometer is 10^-15 metres.) http://www.technologyreview.com/view/429561/the-measurement-that-would-reveal-the-universe-as-a-computer-simulation/

        So while it’s really just a matter of increasing the computing power, the difference in computing power is on an enormous scale. Not to mention that, as you go down the hierarchy of simulated universes, the simulations would become less and less precise, and the more layers you have, the more immense the drain on the initial computer would become. Simulations are hard, but running a simulation of a computer running a simulation is ridiculous.

        • C Peterson

          The simulated universes I’m talking about aren’t simulations of our universe, but simulations of completely artificial living systems. Some are very complex, although there’s nothing to suggest that the “beings” we create have any self awareness.

          Of course, you are correct that the computing power required to maintain a simulation of our entire universe appears to be immense (although we may be limited in our thinking by an inadequate understanding of what kind of computational systems are possible). That’s not the point. All I was suggesting is that a universe created by an external intelligence isn’t at odds with our scientific understanding, and therefore a certain type of deism isn’t completely crazy (unlike theism, which is).

          • Itarion

            “Completely artificial living systems.” What does this even mean?

            “therefore a certain type of deism isn’t completely crazy”, just mostly silly. Just because something is mathematically sound doesn’t make it worth looking into experimentally. Does this theory of universal simulation have potential applications? Quantum mechanics is thoroughly ridiculous, and the complexity of it is the butt of jokes among people who think that they understand it (as per this quote attributed to Feynman: “if you think you understand quantum mechanics you don’t understand quantum mechanics”). But it has applications and implications that expand up to the large scale. Like magnetism, which is dependent, in its roots, upon quantum effects.

            Or maybe I just don’t like the implications that I’m a simulation. Maybe once I fully internalize the literal “no free will” argument. (It boils down to, you are just a complex combination of chemical processes. You’ll do what you want, but you have no control over what it is that you want. Fascinating stuff, really.)

            • C Peterson

              You seem to be under the misapprehension that I’m proposing some sort of theory. I’m not.

              I see nothing “silly” about the proposition that the Universe could be an intelligent creation. The only thing I think is silly is the notion that any possible creator still has its hand in things, or is necessarily even aware of us. And why should we think that we have no free will if we are part of a simulation?

              Of course, if you consider quantum mechanics “ridiculous”, I’m not sure I can really understand what many of your adjectives mean.

              • Itarion

                Ridiculous: able to be ridiculed. You can make fun of it. The fact that everything is random is kinda funny, i think. That’s not to say it isn’t useful.

                Perhaps pointless is more the intent I was going for. What does it matter that there is an intelligent creator, if we are unable to access and make requests of said creator. The classical god is to humans as humans are to animals, but the deistic god is more to humans as humans are to bacteria. We rarely notice them, but create – for a given value of create – a place for them to stay.

                There is no free will – in the classic sense – in a simulation because everything proceeds from the initial conditions, foregoing uncertainty required by quantum mechanics. You have no influence over the initial conditions, so you have no influence over your choices. You still make them, for a given value of “you”, but you don’t have direct control over the factors that influence you.

                • C Peterson

                  Actually, I see the deistic god not as more advanced than humans, but as very similar. Just some guy, or guys, in a lab. Accelerating particles, making universes with different rules, trying to understand more about nature.

                  Most high quality physical simulations will not produce identical results given identical initial conditions, precisely because they introduce elements of uncertainty just like we see in the natural world. Most complex systems do not produce completely predictable results, no matter how accurately the initial conditions are known.

                  Of course, I think the concept of “free will” is a philosophical one, not grounded in any actual reality. So I think it is meaningless to ask whether we have such a thing or not.

                • Itarion

                  That’s actually entirely reasonable, accepting that they are “normal” entities from a higher plane of existence.

                  That’s true enough, but what you will observe, after long enough, is a pattern. X simulation has X probabilistic end results, and the end results will keep showing up in the same ratios unto infinity trials.

                  Like so: “Is free will a thing?” “It doesn’t matter, and anyone who says otherwise is lying to you.” Is that your perspective?

                  Also, I like that you think philosophy isn’t grounded in reality [It's implied by your statements].

                • C Peterson

                  I don’t think that most people who tell me free will matters are lying to me. I just don’t agree with their world view.

                  There is a good deal of philosophy that is grounded in reality- the sort of philosophy that deals with human behavior, social systems, ethics, political systems, ways to live well. The stuff that doesn’t hold up so well seeks to answer (or ask) questions about the natural world that are either scientific questions with scientific answers, or are simply meaningless or unanswerable.

    • Anat

      Before we had a naturalistic theory of evolution, I could see people accepting deism because the living world has an appearance of design, yet there is no appearance of their being a compassionate intelligence in charge with the events in the world. But nowadays there is no justification for deism. It’s just a God of the Gaps claim.

    • 3lemenope

      If the function of a universe for a deity were entirely aesthetic, then a fire-and-forget universe that the deity can admire from afar would make perfect sense, and indeed would be superior to any universe that required keeping the deity’s hands busy and dirty.

      For all we know, the universe was created by a being or beings who did fine-tuning simply because they really, really like stable atomic nucleii. Or they think stars would be a really cool feature for an otherwise featureless expanse. It might just so happen that the design made these features conscious, directed goals, and stuff that we find valuable and interesting (like life, etc.) are accidental byproducts; the ultimate spandrels.

  • Elddim Eman

    Well, there are what we might call “moderate” deists, and then there’s this guy:

    http://youtu.be/Kw_SJ9Hxzko


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