The “low voltage atheist” George Will defends public prayer, and in doing so offers an interesting definition of Deism, one that might apply to many people who consider themselves Christians. He says that for the Deist, God is just an explanation, on the order of believing in the Big Bang, which is not the same as being truly religious.
Taking offense has become America’s national pastime; being theatrically offended supposedly signifies the exquisitely refined moral delicacy of people who feel entitled to pass through life without encountering ideas or practices that annoy them. As the number of nonbelievers grows — about 20 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, as are one-third of adults under the age of 30 — so does the itch to litigate believers into submission to secular sensibilities.
The United States would be a more congenial place if it had more amiable atheists who say, as one such did, that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Some will say Thomas Jefferson was a deist, not an atheist. Atheism, however, simply involves having no theism, and deism — belief that a celestial Clockmaker wound up the universe and set it ticking — is too watery a theism to count. Any religion worthy of the name explains, enjoins and consoles; undemanding deism merely explains, and does this minimally. Deism purports to explain the universe; so does the big bang theory, which is not a religion.
Still, Jefferson made statesmanlike accommodations of the public’s strong preference for religious observances. As president, he attended Christian services conducted in the House of Representatives. They also were conducted in the Supreme Court chamber and the Treasury building. Jefferson attended a service in the House two days after praising (in an 1802 letter) “a wall of separation between church and state.”
Jefferson was no slouch when it came to asserting rights. But Greece’s prickly plaintiffs, having taken their town to court, might now ponder his example of relaxed, friendly respect for practices cherished by others and harmless to him.
Could something similar be said of some people who consider themselves to be Christians? That they use God simply as an explanation–on the order of the Big Bang Theory–without knowing Him as Incarnate, Crucified, and Redeeming?
This also accounts for how atheists argue against belief in God. They think God is just an explanation. They find that implausible and can offer what they consider better explanations. Then they get frustrated because their arguments have so little traction. What they don’t understand, lacking a religious sensibility, is that, for religious people, that is not really the point of what it means to have faith in God.