Part of an ongoing series on “The Unpigeonholeables“
Deism lives in the inconvenient middle-ground between traditional theistic belief and atheism. It was first described in the 1620s and for two centuries was the philosopher’s worldview of choice.
Deists generally believe in the existence of a supernatural creator, but that’s as far as the parallels to traditional religion go. They tend to believe that this creator-god set the universe in motion but hasn’t clocked in since. It doesn’t answer prayers, and most believe it doesn’t reward or punish behavior. In fact, given the overwhelming amount of pain, bad manners, and bad luck in the world, many Deists think that it doesn’t even know humans are here at all — or at least doesn’t care.
Deists have no central creed or authoritative scripture, and they tend to believe that human reason and observation of the natural world are the best ways to understand that world, to see evidence of an intelligent creator, and to work out how to behave.
It does make a certain sense. You can criticize Star Wars and still be a movie fan. Likewise, you can criticize Christianity and every other conventional faith and still believe in a creator god – just a very different kind.
Though Deism as a label fell into decline in the early 19th century, it gave rise to a number of liberal religious movements that persist today. According to a 2005 Baylor University study, about a third of U.S. religious believers hold beliefs that are closer to Deism than anything else. That means they have at least as much in common with nonbelievers as with believers in a traditional, prayer-answering, bed-watching, people-smiting, pork-banning God.
Many of the US Founders were Deists. Thomas Jefferson said in his personal correspondence that the Gospels were built on “a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications,” called the Book of Revelation “merely the ravings of a maniac,” and said “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter,” so he is often assumed to have been an atheist. But no — Jefferson was a Deist.
Thomas Paine called the Bible “trash” and “[a] collection of lies and contradictions.” But Paine too was a Deist, not an atheist. And even though Benjamin Franklin said, “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches” and called Christian dogma “unintelligible,” he also said, “I never doubted . . . the existence of the Deity.” He just doubted the conventional one.
Photo by Joshua Earl | Unsplash
Excerpt from Atheism for Dummies by Dale McGowan (Wiley, 2013)
DALE McGOWAN has written and edited 11 books, mostly focused on the nonreligious life. He was Harvard Humanist of the Year in 2008 and founded the humanist charity Foundation Beyond Belief in 2010. Dale is now content development editor and Atheist Channel manager for Patheos. He lives in Atlanta.