Why I Am Not a Deist (No Offense to Deists)
In a recent blog post I talked about idols and how some are better than others—for promoting personal and civic virtue. (I used “virtue” there in a very broad sense of, for example, respect for human rights.) Some idols reflect “true myth” (C. S. Lewis’ phrase for non-Christian ideas of god) better than others.
One that I mentioned was deism. Whenever I mention deism I draw fire from someone claiming to speak for deism. The usual response is something to the effect that deism is rational whereas Christianity is irrational.
I think there’s some truth in the claim that deism is (or can be) more rational than full, robust Christianity. So why am I not then a deist? I’ll come back to that.
Whenever I teach a course on Reformation and post-Reformation Christian theology (which I do about once a year) I end the course by having students read one of the great classics of “Christian deism”—John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious (1696). It was heavily influenced by John Locke who wrote The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), but it goes beyond Locke in terms of attempting to make “real Christianity” rational. (The students will go on to study modern Christian theology much of which was influenced by Locke, Toland, Tindal, et al. And they will read hear and read critiques of deism and Enlightenment “rational religion.” So Toland’s book isn’t the capstone, so to speak, of their encounter with historical theology.)
Deism of some type is alive and well in America—both on an intellectual level and on a popular “folk religion” level. Sociologists of American religion have invented a term for the prevailing theology of church youth in America: “moralistic therapeutic deism.” I personally know of professors at Christian universities who say they are deists and others who are but don’t say it.
So what is deism? Well, that’s not easy to answer—at least in a way with which everyone, including self-identified deists, will agree. My “portrait” of deism is based on the works of Toland and Matthew Tindal (Christianity as Old as the Creation )—the two giants of deism during its heyday. Both considered themselves Christians in some sense, but their Christianity was “free thinking” Christianity as opposed to “dogmatic Christianity.” Many deists quote the French deist Voltaire admiringly, but his deism (which he called “theism”) is not encapsulated in a single volume but scattered throughout his writings.
First, deism is allegedly a religion of pure reason—what all rational people can believe about God without faith.
Second, deism is a religion without anything supernatural except God himself. But God, who is the creator of nature, does not intervene in it. Miracles are not necessary to real, rational religion. Deism believes in “general providence” without “special providence.”
Third, deism considers God personal, powerful and just, the creator and moral governor of the universe.
Fourth, deism regards Jesus Christ as an example of good humanity but not God incarnate.
Fifth, deism is non-trinitarian. It is what early Christians would call “monarchian”—radical monotheist.
Now I’ll return to the claim that deism might be more rational than classical Christianity and why I’m nevertheless not a deist.
When I say that deism might be more rational than traditional, orthodox Christianity I mean it does not go beyond what reason alone can discover and reveal about God. I believe deism (as described above) is much more reasonable than, say, atheism or even agnosticism.
If someone says they prefer to stop (in religion) with what natural reason, unaided by special revelation or faith, can know I have no argument with them unless they go on to include in their deism what is not supportable by natural reason alone. And that is a big problem. Most deists I know do believe in more (about God) than what natural, unaided reason can discover.
Of course, if a deist wants to go beyond deism, then I have much to say to him or her. And, if a deist claims his or her deism is “Christian” I will argue that it is not. And, I will say to any deist who pits deism against orthodox Christianity that deism that, compared with Christianity, deism is insipid, tasteless, bland, and offers no hope.
Blaise Pascal asked of the deists (really precursors of deism) “Do you love by reason?” In other words, is unaided, natural reason really the only guide to the good life? If not, then why would it be considered the only guide in religion?
This introduces my main problem with deism. The majority of deists believe God is good, even loving, or at least that, because of Jesus, we should be loving. But love transcends reason. Reason alone cannot arrive at a good, loving God or at a life lived according to self-sacrificing love as the good life.
There is no evidence from nature and reason alone that God is good. Nor is there any evidence from nature or reason alone that the good life includes care for others unless it benefits oneself.
I agree with deists that religion should not be irrational, but we will disagree about what constitutes “irrational” belief. But I disagree with deism that religion should not go beyond reason. A religion that doesn’t go beyond reason has no place for love or sin or care for the weak or hope for an ultimate triumph of good over evil. And its god would seem to me to be bad insofar as he is omnipotent but never intervenes in history or persons’ lives.
Having said all that, I would prefer to have a president, for example, who is a deist over one who is an agnostic or atheist. At least deism provides a moral basis for justice, however incompletely and inconsistently (from a Christian perspective). I truly believe that if there is no god nihilism is the only rational option. (See Hans Küng’s excellent book Does God Exist? for a sustained argument for this belief.)
Take away the incarnation of God in Jesus and Jesus’ resurrection and I would stop being a Christian. I might be a deist instead. But I would not love God; I would only fear him.