Deism offers a God concept in which God is transcendent but not immanent. Although it has been around since the time of Ancient Greece, deism flourished in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a result of the emergence of science.
Several well-known figures embraced deism, including Voltaire (1694-1778) and several among the founding fathers of the American revolution including Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.
The earliest known use of the word deist was by Pierre Viret (1511-1571). In Viret’s view, the deist affirms belief in God as the creator of heaven and earth but rejects Jesus Christ and his doctrines, and he was antagonistic often labeling deists atheists and monsters. The British clergyman Richard Bentley (1662-1742), in his 1692 Boyle lecture, The Folly of Atheism and (What Is Now Called) Deism, conflated deism with atheism. The deist Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) had to offset accusations of atheism by reminding his friends that he was a Christian.
Deism is the belief in one God who created but does not intervene in the universe (1). All deists agreed that there is a creator God who produced a rational, orderly universe governed by laws that can be understood by reasoning human beings (2). God created the world machine and left the universe to run and operate according to natural laws. The laws of motion posited by Isaac Newton (1642-1727) suggested the reality of a universe that operated in a predictable, mechanical fashion, much like a clock. Thus, deism flourished in the wake of the rise of Newtonian science in the seventeenth century,
“…the idea of God intervening in the course of nature has been widely thought to be inconsistent with the scientific outlook. Miraculous divine acts have been understood as breaking the normal laws of nature (as we saw with Spinoza). Deism, in reaction, retains belief in a creator God who started everything off, but it holds that he does not act within the world thereafter. Some deists may retain belief in the continuous sustaining activity of God, they just deny that he makes any special interventions in certain events rather than others” (3).
Deism, of course, differs significantly from traditional forms of theism that present a God that talks to people, provides direct revelation, influences human beings, and is intimately acquainted with them. Although on deism God sustains the universe in existence he is not in the world in any way. God has not, for instance, provided humanity with direct revelation. Further, God’s lack of immanence in the world means that there are no miracles and since miracles do not occur, any belief in them is superstition. Further, petitionary prayers are pointless despite God being aware of everything that goes on in the world.
Human beings also derived a sense of moral right and wrong from God by which to guide behavior (4). Institutional religion is not considered important, except for it aid in promoting moral behavior. There is life after death and God will judge persons according to God’s moral law that he gave humanity.
1. Garner, Bryan. 2016. Garner’s Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 904; Stevenson, Leslie. 2019. “Deism”. In Eighteen Takes on God: A Short Guide for Those Who Are Still Perplexed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 54.
2. Shuffelton, Frank. “Deism.” Encyclopedia of the New American Nation 1:369-371. p. 369.
3. Stevenson, Leslie. 2019. Ibid. p. 53-54.
4. Creel, Richard. 2013. Philosophy of Religion: The Basics. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.