AskDefine | Define deist

Dictionary Definition

deist n : a person who believes that God created the universe and then abandoned it [syn: freethinker]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Deist



  • /deɪ'ĭst/, /diː'ĭst/


  1. A person who believes in deism.



  1. Of or relating to deism.



Extensive Definition

Deism is the belief that there is a God that created the physical universe but does not interfere with it. It is related to a religious philosophy and movement that derives the existence and nature of God from reason. (The mention of God in this article is meant more as a Creator than as the Abrahamic God.) It takes no position on what God may do outside the universe. That is in contrast to fideism which is found in many forms of Christianity. Islamic and Judaic teachings hold that religion relies on revelation in sacred scriptures or the testimony of other people as well as reasoning. Deists often use the analogy of God as clockmaker.
Deists typically reject supernatural events (prophecy, miracles) and tend to assert that God does not intervene with the affairs of human life and the natural laws of the universe. What organized religions see as divine revelation and holy books, most deists see as interpretations made by other humans, rather than as authoritative sources. Deists believe that God's greatest gift to humanity is not religion, but the ability to reason.
Deism became prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Age of Enlightenment, especially in the United Kingdom, France and the United States, mostly among those raised as Christians who found they could not believe in either a triune God, the divinity of Jesus, miracles, or the inerrancy of scriptures, but who did believe in one God. Initially it did not form any congregations, but in time deism led to the development of other religious groups, such as Unitarianism, which later developed into Unitarian Universalism. It continues to this day in the form of classical deism and modern deism.


Deism is a sub-category of theism, in that both entail belief in a deity. Like theism, deism is a basic belief upon which religions can be built. In contrast to theism, there are currently no established deistic religions, with the possible exception of Unitarian Universalism and Confucianism. The concept of deism covers a wide variety of positions on a wide variety of religious issues. See the section Features of deism, below. Deism can also refer to a personal set of beliefs having to do with the role of nature in spirituality.
Conversely, Deism can be a belief in deity absent any doctrinal governance or precise definition of the nature of such deity. Deism can be similar to naturalism. Therefore, Deism will often give credit to the formation of life and universe to a higher power that by design allows only natural processes to govern creation.
The words deism and theism are both derived from the word god:
  • The root of the word deism is the Latin word deus, which means "god".
  • The root of the word theism is the Greek word theos (θεός), which also means "god".
A helpful discussion of deism, theism, and other positions on divine beings can be found in the theism article.
Perhaps the first use of the term deist is in Pierre Viret's Instruction Chrétienne en la doctrine de la foy et de l'Évangile (Christian teaching on the doctrine of faith and the Gospel) (1564), reprinted in Bayle's Dictionnaire entry Viret. Viret, a Calvinist, regarded deism as a new form of Italian heresy. Viret wrote: In England, the term deist first appeared in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621).
Lord Herbert of Cherbury (d. 1648) is generally considered the "father of English deism", and his book De Veritate (1624) the first major statement of deism. Deism flourished in England between 1690 and 1740, at which time Matthew Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730), or 'the Deist's Bible', gained much attention. Later deism spread to France, notably via the work of Voltaire, to Germany, and to America.

Features of deism

Critical and constructive deism

The concept of deism covers a wide variety of positions on a wide variety of religious issues. Following Sir Leslie Stephen's English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, most commentators agree that two features constituted the core of deism:
  • The rejection of revealed religion — this was the critical aspect of deism.
  • The belief that reason, not faith, leads us to certain basic religious truths — this was the positive or constructive aspect of deism.
Deist authors advocated a combination of both critical and constructive elements in proportions and emphases that varied from author to author.
Critical elements of deist thought included:
  • Rejection of all religions based on books that claim to contain the revealed word of God.
  • Rejection of reports of miracles, prophecies and religious "mysteries".
  • Rejection of the Genesis account of creation and the doctrine of original sin, along with all similar beliefs.
  • Rejection of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other religious beliefs.
Constructive elements of deist thought included:
  • God exists, created and governs the universe.
  • God wants human beings to behave morally.
  • Human beings have souls that survive death; that is, there is an afterlife.
Specific thoughts on aspects of the afterlife will vary. While there are those who maintain that a God will punish or reward us according to our behavior on Earth, likewise there are those who assert that any punishment or reward that is due to us is given during our mortal stay on Earth. Some do not believe in an afterlife.
Individual deists varied in the set of critical and constructive elements for which they argued. Some deists rejected miracles and prophecies but still considered themselves Christians because they believed in what they felt to be the pure, original form of Christianity — that is, Christianity as it existed before it was corrupted by additions of such superstitions as miracles, prophecies, and the doctrine of the Trinity. Some deists rejected the claim of Jesus' divinity but continued to hold him in high regard as a moral teacher (see, e.g., Thomas Jefferson's famous Jefferson Bible and Matthew Tindal's 'Christianity as Old as the Creation'). Other, more radical deists rejected Christianity altogether and expressed hostility toward Christianity, which they regarded as pure superstition. In return, Christian writers often charged radical deists with atheism.
Note that the terms constructive and critical are used to refer to aspects of deistic thought, not sects or subtypes of deism — it would be incorrect to classify any particular deist author as "a constructive deist" or "a critical deist". As Peter Gay notes: It should be noted, however, that the constructive element of deism was not unique to deism. It was the same as the natural theology that was so prevalent in all English theology in the 17th and 18th centuries. What set deists apart from their more orthodox contemporaries was their critical concerns. One of the remarkable features of deism is that the critical elements did not overpower the constructive elements. As E. Graham Waring observed, "A strange feature of the [Deist] controversy is the apparent acceptance of all parties of the conviction of the existence of God." And Basil Willey observed

Concepts of "reason"

"Reason" was the ultimate court of appeal for deists. Tindal presents a Lockean definition of reason, self-evident truth, and the light of nature: Deists did appeal to "the light of nature" to support the self-evident nature of their positive religious claims. Once a proposition is asserted to be a self-evident truth, there is not much more to say about it. Consequently, deist authors attempted to use reason as a critical tool for exposing and rejecting what they saw as nonsense. Here are two typical examples. The first is from John Toland's Christianity Not Mysterious.

Arguments for the existence of God

Thomas Hobbes - an early deist and important influence on subsequent deists - used the cosmological argument for the existence of God at several places in his writings.

History of religion and the deist mission

Most deists saw the religions of their day as corruptions of an original, pure religion that was simple and rational. They felt that this original pure religion had become corrupted by "priests" who had manipulated it for personal gain and for the class interests of the priesthood in general.
According to this world view, over time "priests" had succeeded in encrusting the original simple, rational religion with all kinds of superstitions and "mysteries" — irrational theological doctrines. Laymen were told by the priests that only the priests really knew what was necessary for salvation and that laymen must accept the "mysteries" on faith and on the priests' authority. This kept the laity baffled by the nonsensical "mysteries", confused, and dependent on the priests for information about the requirements for salvation. The priests consequently enjoyed a position of considerable power over the laity, which they strove to maintain and increase. Deists referred to this kind of manipulation of religious doctrine as "priestcraft", a highly derogatory term.
Deists saw their mission as the stripping away of "priestcraft" and "mysteries" from religion, thereby restoring religion to its original, true condition — simple and rational. In many cases, they considered true, original Christianity to be the same as this original natural religion. As Matthew Tindal put it:
One implication of this deist creation myth was that primitive societies, or societies that existed in the distant past, should have religious beliefs that are less encrusted with superstitions and closer to those of natural theology. This became a point of attack for thinkers such as David Hume as they studied the "natural history of religion".

Freedom and necessity

Enlightenment thinkers, under the influence of Newtonian science, tended to view the universe as a vast machine, created and set in motion by a creator being, that continues to operate according to natural law, without any divine intervention. This view naturally led to what was then usually called necessitarianism: the view that everything in the universe - including human behavior - is completely causally determined by antecedent circumstances and natural law. (See, e.g., La Mettrie's L'Homme machine.) As a consequence, debates about freedom versus determinism were a regular feature of Enlightenment religious and philosophical discussions.
Because of their high regard for natural law and for the idea of a universe without miracles, deists were especially susceptible to the temptations of necessitarianism. Reflecting the intellectual climate of the time, there were differences among deists about freedom and necessity. Some, such as Anthony Collins, actually were necessitarians.

Beliefs about immortality of the soul

Deists held a variety of beliefs about the soul. Some, such as Lord Herbert of Cherbury and William Wollastson, held that souls exist, survive death, and in the afterlife are rewarded or punished by God for their behavior in life. Some, such as Benjamin Franklin, believed in reincarnation or resurrection. Others such as Thomas Paine were agnostic about the immortality of the soul: Still others such as Anthony Collins, Bolingbroke, Thomas Chubb, and Peter Annet were materialists and either denied or doubted the immortality of the soul.

Deist terminology

Deist authors - and 17th- and 18th-century theologians in general - referred to God using a variety of vivid circumlocutions such as:

Historical background

Deistic thinking has existed since ancient times (e.g., in philosophers such as Heraclitus and most especially Plato, who envisaged God as the Demiurge or 'craftsman') and in many cultures. The word deism is generally used to refer to the movement toward natural theology or freethinking that occurred in 17th-century Europe, and specifically in Britain.
Natural theology is a facet of the revolution in world view that occurred in Europe in the 17th century. To understand the background to that revolution is also to understand the background of deism. Several cultural movements of the time contributed to the movement.

The discovery of diversity

The humanist tradition of the Renaissance included a revival of interest in Europe's classical past in Greece and Rome. With study of the past came a growing awareness that the world in which the classical authors lived was quite different from the present.
In addition, study of classical documents led to the realization that some historical documents are less reliable than others, which led to the beginnings of biblical criticism. In particular, when scholars worked on biblical manuscripts, they began developing the principles of textual criticism and a view of the New Testament being the product of a particular historical period different from their own.
In addition to discovering diversity in the past, Europeans discovered diversity in the present. The voyages of discovery of the 16th and 17th centuries acquainted Europeans with new and different cultures in the Americas, in Asia, and in the Pacific. They discovered a greater amount of cultural diversity than they had ever imagined, and the question arose of how this vast amount of human cultural diversity could be compatible with the biblical account of Noah's descendants. In particular, the ideas of Confucius, translated into European languages by the Jesuits stationed in China, are thought to have had considerable influence on the deists and other philosophical groups of the Enlightenment who were interested by the integration of the system of morality of Confucius into Christianity..
In particular, cultural diversity with respect to religious beliefs could no longer be ignored. Like Herbert wrote in De Religione Laici (1645), This new awareness of diversity led to a feeling that Christianity was just one religion among many, with no better claim than any other to correctness.

Religious conflict

Europe had been plagued by vicious sectarian conflicts and religious wars since the beginning of the Reformation. In 1642, when Lord Herbert of Cherbury's De Veritate was published, the Thirty Years War had been raging on continental Europe for nearly 25 years. It was an enormously destructive religious war that (it is estimated) destroyed 15–20% of the population of Germany. At the same time, the English Civil War pitting King against Parliament was just beginning.
Such massive sectarian violence inspired a visceral rejection of the sectarianism that had led to the violence. It also led to a search for natural religious truths — truths that could be universally accepted, because they had been either "written in the book of Nature" or "engraved on the human mind" by God.
Deism also had a great connection to religious tolerance.

Advances in scientific knowledge

The 17th century saw a remarkable advance in scientific knowledge: the scientific revolution. The work of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo destroyed the old notion that the earth was the center of the universe and showed that the universe was incredibly larger than ever imagined. These discoveries posed a serious challenge to biblical authority and to the religious authorities, Galileo's condemnation for heresy being an especially visible example. In consequence, the Bible came to be seen as authoritative on matters of faith and morals but no longer authoritative (or meant to be) on matters of science.
Isaac Newton's discovery of universal gravitation explained the behavior both of objects here on earth and of objects in the heavens. It promoted a world view in which the natural universe is controlled by laws of nature. This, in turn, suggested a theology in which God created the universe, set it in motion controlled by natural law, and retired from the scene. (See the Watchmaker analogy.)
The new awareness of the explanatory power of universal natural law also produced a growing skepticism about such religious staples as miracles (i.e., violations of natural law) and about books, such as the Bible, that reported them.
Whereas the Age of Faith found its truths in religious tradition, the Age of Reason found its truths in observable natural phenomena and individual human reason.

The history of deism

Precursors of deism

Early works of biblical criticism, such as Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan and Spinoza's Theologico-Political Treatise, as well as works by lesser-known authors such as Richard Simon and Isaac La Peyrère, paved the way for the development of critical deism.

Early deism

Lord Herbert of Cherbury (d. 1648) is generally considered the "father of English deism", and his book De Veritate (On Truth, as It Is Distinguished from Revelation, the Probable, the Possible, and the False) (1624) the first major statement of deism.
Like his contemporary Descartes, Herbert searched for the foundations of knowledge. In fact, the first two thirds of De Veritate are devoted to an exposition of Herbert's theory of knowledge. Herbert distinguished truths obtained through experience, and through reasoning about experience, from innate truths and from revealed truths. Innate truths are imprinted on our minds, and the evidence that they are so imprinted is that they are universally accepted. Herbert's term for universally accepted truths was notitiae communes — common notions.
In the realm of religion, Herbert believed that there were five common notions. It is worth quoting Herbert at some length, to give the flavor of his writing. A sense of the importance that Herbert attributed to innate Common Notions will help in understanding how devastating Locke's attack on innate ideas was for Herbert's philosophy.
According to Gay, Herbert had relatively few followers, and it was not until the 1680s that Herbert found a true successor in Charles Blount (1654–1693). Blount made one special contribution to the deist debate: "by utilizing his wide classical learning, Blount demonstrated how to use pagan writers, and pagan ideas, against Christianity. ... Other Deists were to follow his lead."

John Locke

The publication of John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689, but dated 1690) marks a major turning point in the history of deism. Since Herbert's De Veritate, innate ideas had been the foundation of deist epistemology. Locke's famous attack on innate ideas in the first book of the Essay effectively destroyed that foundation and replaced it with a theory of knowledge based on experience. Innatist deism was replaced by empiricist deism.
Locke himself was not a deist. He believed in both miracles and revelation, and he regarded miracles as the main proof of revelation.
After Locke, constructive deism could no longer appeal to innate ideas for justification of its basic tenets such as the existence of God. Instead, under the influence of Locke and Newton, deists turned to natural theology and to arguments based on experience and Nature: the cosmological argument and the argument from design.

The rise of British deism (1690–1740)

Peter Gay places the zenith of deism "from the end of the 1690s, when the vehement response to John Toland's Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) started the deist debate, to the end of the 1740s when the tepid response to Middleton's Free Inquiry signalized its close."

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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