Theistic Rationalism

A number of folks have adopted the phrase “theistic rationalists” to describe the religious approach of America’s founding fathers. The word seems to have been coined by Gregg Frazer, who defined it as, “… a hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Protestant Christianity, and rationalism – with rationalism as the decisive factor whenever conflict arose between the elements.” (Quote courtesy of Ed Brayton and Jon Rowe.)

I don’t like bringing in new terms all the time. But the term we use most frequently is “deist,” and that word was used loosely, both then and now. In many cases it was used to describe someone who believed in an absentee God, like the unmoved mover of Aristotle who is eternally locked in self-contemplation and not involved in the world. In other cases “deist” refers to someone who was more of a unitarian, someone who believed in an active God but not that Jesus was his son.

Theistic rationalist refers to the method as much as the results. Theistic rationalists generally did not accept revelation, whether it was from a priest or a holy book. They placed great faith in the human ability to look at the world and reason out the true nature of God and religion. The advantage here is that we can lump together everyone who gets labeled as a deist, accurately or not. That’s helpful, particularly since most of the big names of the founding era don’t fit in to the stricter definition.

Thomas Jefferson was not a deist in the strict sense, and I think he sums it up the theistic rationalist approach in his letter to Peter Carr. Carr was his young nephew, and the letter is basically sage advice from a wiser (or at least older) uncle. On the topic of religion, he had this to say:

Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object. In the first place, divest yourself of all bias in favor of novelty and singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, and the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand, shake off all the fears and servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.

The importance and power of human reason was an extremely popular theme during the founding period, and I think it defined the theistic rationalist style. This selection comes from Elihu Palmer, who was a deist in the stricter sense as someone who did not believe in an God who intervened in the universe.

The strength of human understanding is incalculable, its keenness of discernment would ultimately penetrate into every part of nature, were it permitted to operate with uncontrolled and unqualified freedom. It is because this sublime principle of man has been constantly the object of the most scurrilous abuse, and the most detestable invective from superstition, that his moral existence has been buried in the gulf of ignorance, and his intellectual powers tarnished by the ferocious and impure hand of fanaticism. Although we are made capable of sublime reflections, it has hitherto been deemed a crime to think, and a still greater crime to speak our thoughts after they have been conceived.

Elihu Palmer was one of the big three deists of the period, along with Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen. Allen is usually remembered for leading his Green Mountain Boys on Fort Ticonderoga, and his religion is forgotten. But his book, Reason, The Only Oracle of Man, was probably the first popular work of Deism in America. Here again we see the veneration of reason:

Though “none by searching can find out God, or the Almighty to perfection,” yet I am persuaded, that if mankind would dare to exercise their reason as freely on those divine topics as they do in the common concerns of life, they would, in a great measure, rid themselves of their blindness and superstition, gain more exalted ideas of God and their obligations to him and one another, and be proportionally delighted and blessed with the views of his moral government, make better members of society, and acquire, many powerful incentives to the practice of morality, which is the last and greatest perfection that human nature is capable of.

  • ERinSTL

    So, theistic rationalists adhere to “… a hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Protestant Christianity, and rationalism – with rationalism as the decisive factor whenever conflict arose between the elements.”

    Tell me, then: what’s the difference between a theistic rationalist and an atheist? [Note: that's not intended to be the start of a cheesy riddle.] If they ask any significant question about religion, and answer rationally, wouldn’t the answers be the same?

    • vorjack

      At the time, say the mid 17th century until the early 19th century, it was believed that rational inquiry naturally lead to the conclusion that there was a God that had ordered the universe. No one could understand how the universe could be created and ordered except through the intervention of a divine power.

      In theory, theistic rationalism should have resulted in a new religion, built from the ground up. In practice, it led to a stripped down Protestant Christianity; Christianity with all the miracles and mystery taken out.

      • Ty

        Yeah, they lacked the observational and scientific toolset we have. If they’d had it, they probably would have gone to the next obvious step of atheism.

        • John C

          Actually, one advantage of living in that era was the lack of sensual over-load. Theirs was a slower, quieter, more peaceful and aesthetic lifestyle which portends to increased spiritual sensitivities. Present modernity exacts a heavy toll on the (physical) senses which tends to dull our sensitivity to the beautiful, hidden-from-our-senses realm of the heart.

          • Yoav

            Theirs was a slower, quieter, more peaceful and aesthetic lifestyle

            In which you were lucky if you made it to your 5th birthday and an old man if you made it to your 50th, where a minor injury could turn lethal due to infection and where you were a single crop failure away fro slowly, quietly, peacefully and aesthetically starving to death. I’ll take sensory overload any day.

            • Ty

              It was also able to be slower and more peaceful because all of the real labor was being done by slaves, the way god intended it to be. A truly special time!

            • WMDKitty

              Sensory overload? Not something I’d really wish on anyone. Ever. It’s unpleasant, at best, and at worst… well, I can only speak from my own experiences, but I’ve had nights where the handful of blinking LEDs on the electronics is too damn bright.

            • Custador

              Mos def. Part of the reason I hate lectures as a learning method is that I can’t filter background noise – So if there’s two or three whispered conversations going on in a lecture theatre, I can hear them just as much as I can hear the lecturer, and I concentrate on all of them instead of just one. People think I’m cranky and obnoxious because I frequently tell them to shut up in lectures, but they really have no clue the kind of igraine that crap can cause.

            • WMDKitty

              @Custy — OOooh, yeah. I’m the one that comes out of class ready to pass out for six hours just because it takes that much energy to consciously filter out the things you don’t want/need to pay attention to (like the tag in my shirt), and only retaining half of what was actually said.

          • zach

            In defense of John C’s comment, pre- (or mid-)industrial revolution life was much slower and less exacting on our senses. I don’t think he deserves the backlash he has been dished. I enjoy living life slowly when I can. When I take time out to escape a man-made environment and traverse the back-woods and mountains, I have no better word to describe the experience other than “spiritual.” I think it is an error for the atheist to ridicule such terminology. Instead, we should vindicate terms such as “spirituality” from religious and superstitious implications. I would reconvert to Christianity if being an atheist necessitated embracing both “sensory overload” and medical technology in conjunction. I feel at ease knowing that Yoav is simply being an asshole and spewing poorly conceived sentences in reaction to mystical vocabulary.

            • Yoav

              JohnC get a special treatment due to a very long history of dishing bullsh*t by the truckload.

            • Sunny Day

              I would think that life was even faster back then. Unless you were rich, you didn’t have much free time. All that work keeps you busy.

              People back then weren’t sipping tea on the porch and going for hikes in the backwoods mountains.

            • zach

              I have sixty-hours of manual labor a week. That is in addition to personal work and a couple of independent studies. My days off come from rain usually, like today, so I don’t have an especially large amount of free time.

              However, I still drive a car, use the web, listen to lots of music, see advertisements specially designed to capture my attention, read huge amounts of alternative ideas all the time…the communication age speeds up everything. Rapid cultural (and sub-culture) development is an obvious result. You can’t deny that it is faster. Trains, airplanes, etc do that physically, and information technology does it with communication.

              In Asia, people harvested rice which requires an enormous amount of work every day throughout the year. Westerners grew other crops which required work only during certain seasons (hence a school year complete with summer break). Certainly people worked hard. Not everyone did all the time, though, regardless of their income. I do understand there is work to do for farmers in the off-season, especially back when people made their own necessities. Point is, I don’t think you’re being accurate in your interpretation of my argument.

            • John C

              Its very difficult to appreciate the degree to which we experience sensual over-load because we’ve been mired in it all our lives, have no other reference, know no other way of living.

              Previously I shared how I had once, after the loss of all, spent an entire year sequestered in my apartment alone, no tv, no radio, no job, very little interaction with any other humans, etc, and how much that experience impacted my life for the better. When the sensual over-load is sufficiently diminished one becomes increasingly/acutely aware of his/her previously unknown inward aspect, or the heart life, it begins to ‘come alive’ when not superimposed by the physical stimuli of the senses, it can ‘breathe’ again. What was once dull becomes bright again and its really a beautiful, powerful and enlightening experience.

              All the best.

            • Sunny Day

              The Communication Age also comes with an Off switch. You can choose to use it or not.

              Trap me in a room with the babbling John C for a few days and when released from that confinement I would describe the relief I felt as “spiritual.” too.

            • UrsaMinor

              It is possible to appreciate the degree to which we are subjected to sensory overload. I have been mired in it all my life, as John C puts it, but that life now extends for more than half a century. The changes have not been subtle. I am bombarded by much more stuff today than I was in, say, 1977.

              From my perspective, the distraction curve really took off in the early 1990s. Not surprisingly, this is when the internet became a big thing. I coped fairly with with the increasingly razzle-dazzle of the internet until about two years ago, at which point I installed AdBlocker because I literally could no longer read most news sites because all of the spinning, scrolling advertisements destroyed my concentration.

              I surf the web a lot, but by modern standards, I’m still pretty unplugged. I haven’t watched television in the past week. I don’t own an mp3 player. I think I turned my cell phone on once for about five minutes to check for messages. I value the internet chiefly for the research possibilities (instant access to whatever I need to look up when I’m working on my novel or a short story, for example). But I want to be even less plugged-in than I am even though I’m already a Luddite by the standards of today’s college graduates.

        • vorjack

          Which probably explains why deism and its close cousins disappeared in the mid-19th century … about the same time that atheism really started appearing. Once the toolset was there, most theistic rationalist went all the way.

          Or else rebelled and dove into mysticism like John C here.

          • Ty


    • zach

      It is related to a changing conglomerate culture. I’m starting to notice a pattern of Atheism as a culture—complete with its own presuppositions in terms of the meaning in our language and vocabulary—distinct from atheism as lack of belief in god. I think this partially explains the difficulty in communicating between atheistic ideas and theistic ideas.

  • Hamish Milne

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, a religion is first and foremost a political organisation, a philosophical point is often used to bind them together or to control it’s adherents, but not always. Buddhism is an atheistic religion. One can be irreligious without being atheist, and vice-versa. There is a correlation, but that is mostly because they are grouped together, and their communities are linked.

    I am primarily irreligious. I also happen to be atheist, but I’m not absolutely certain about it. IMO people can argue about philosophy ’til the cows come home and get nowhere, I just want to make sure no-one is forced into a political organisation. My Dad takes it a step further: he says that the only true irreligious position is one of agnosticism, thus avoiding what he sees as unnecessary dedication to a philosophical point and thus, religion.

    • Fred Yurman

      Have you declared yourself an Agnostic or Atheist because you chose it as a lifelong goal.? Perhaps you may think it makes you look really cool? More than likely you arrived at this state of mind because you’ve become frustrated with the same unrealistic choices which have been available for thousands of years that attempt to answer the questions concerning the real meaning of your life

      Being an Agnostic means you are searching for the truth about your life on this earth. It means that you are attempting to find real answers which explain your appearance in this complex turbulent world

      If you have a serious desire to explore the questions of your dilemma, there is a great deal of realistic evidence available if you know where to look.

      We may never learn how the physical world was created nor why it was created. We do have evidence of the evolution of living creatures on our planet and a discernible record of their progress thus far.

      The book ‘No Faith Required’ is a fascinating story about an ordinary man who through an extraordinary experience finds logical answers to the real meaning of his life. He learns that he is an integral part of a system that is operating in our world. He is able to connect the dots which explain answers for the true purpose of all life from birth through death. If you are seriously seeking new realistic approaches, ‘No Faith Required’ is available at Amazon and Kindle..

      Here’s to a happy, more enlightened rest of your life.

      • Hamish Milne

        Thanks for your advice. I actually became an atheist because of my experience with the world. A lot of bad things have happened to me over the years, stuff that didn’t need to happen. I started to watch the news, I learned history: I heard of unspeakable suffering caused by only the slightest chance, a small event which could easily be prevented by an omnipotent deity without revealing himself. I became somewhat disillusioned from that point on. I also became a lot more logical at that point, and I got fed up with defending god to other people and to myself in the face of all the scientific evidence. Life on earth could be explained, as could the beginning of time itself. It is entirely possible, but still unlikely, that some deity created the singularity that existed before the big bang, and set everything in motion, but this deity either has no power or no interest in mankind whatsoever. That’s why I call myself atheist, I say ‘there’s probably no god’. I try to keep my mind open, but “not so open your brain falls out!”

        I should point out that, at the time, being irreligious/atheistic was not ‘cool’ at all! I remember at a family dinner, someone said something to the tune of “God’s always watching you” to which I replied “I don’t believe in omniscience”. I was 11. Everyone looked at me, and I got that guilty, sinking feeling you get when you realise you just offended someone or swore inadvertently. Dad was probably fine about it, Auntie Jen probably just laughed it off, but Mum was probably quite worried.

        I love my parents to bits, but sometimes they had no qualms about lying to me to scare me into being like them. I remember, around that time, my parents found some ‘inappropriate’ websites on the internet history and pinned it on me. It wasn’t like that, I was much too young, I was simply curious. They had a long discussion with me, saying that it was illegal for me to see it, and the police could get involved, potentially arresting me and them. Of course I now know that was complete and utter bullsh*t. Mum said it would “destroy my soul”. I was never punished conventionally, I was never ‘grounded’ or anything, apart from this incident, when they banned me from the computer for a few days. As I advanced in age, I became more curious, but I hated myself because of my thoughts of sexuality. I thought I was evil for even contemplating it, and that was one of the contributing factors of my spiral of depression during those years. Looking back, this partly led me to freedom of expression, then freedom of thought, and then atheism.

        Sorry if I digressed, I just had to get that out there. I’ve had it bottled up for 5 years.

  • Igor

    Jefferson’s phrase “…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” is pretty much the only official mention of a deity in our founding. And Jefferson threw it in as a nod to his Deism. But it begs the atheist’s question: if there is no deity, then who grants these rights? I submit that we grant them to each other, hearkening back to the only real precept, the Golden Rule. It’s quite simple really.

    Unfortunately, Jefferson’s phrase has been seized and appropriated by all sorts of zealots to justify claims that we are a Christian nation, etc; Nothing could be further from the truth, and Jefferson would be appalled.

  • Jordan

    “The strength of human understanding is incalculable, its keenness of discernment would ultimately penetrate into every part of nature, were it permitted to operate with uncontrolled and unqualified freedom.”

    I can’t wait for the day when the idea of the supremacy of human rationality is seen as equally ridiculous as religious belief!

  • Read Full Article

    How to make a select category on wordpress use a different domain?