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Deism (from the Latin Deus, meaning God) is a religious philosophy and movement that became prominent in England, France, and the United States of America in the 17th and 18th centuries. Deists believe in a God or supreme being who is the creator of the universe, but typically reject the concepts of divine revelation and other supernatural events (prophecy, miracles) that are prominent in organized religion, along with holy books and revealed religions that assert the existence of such things. Instead, Deists hold that religious beliefs must be founded on human reason and observed features of the natural world, and that these sources reveal the existence of a God or supreme being.


The concept of Deism covers a wide variety of positions on a wide variety of religious issues. Deism can also refer to a personal set of beliefs having to do with the role of nature in spirituality.

The words Deism and theism are etymologically cognate, both being derived from ancient forms of the word god, with theism deriving from the Greek theos (θεóς) and Deism from the Latin deus. Both terms contrast with atheism, the lack of a belief in God, but usage has led to theism being used to convey the idea of an active God, as is presented in the most widely observed religions, while deism conveys the absence of that particular type of God:

Prior to the 17th century the terms ["Deism" and "Deist"] were used interchangeably with the terms "theism" and "theist", respectively. ... Theologians and philosophers of the seventeenth century began to give a different signification to the words.... Both [theists and Deists] asserted belief in one supreme God, the Creator.... and agreed that God is personal and distinct from the world. But the theist taught that god remained actively interested in and operative in the world which he had made, whereas the Deist maintained that God endowed the world at creation with self-sustaining and self-acting powers and then abandoned it to the operation of these powers acting as second causes.[1]

Perhaps the first use of the term Deist is in Pierre Viret's Instruction Chrestienne (1564), reprinted in Bayle's Dictionnaire entry Viret. Viret, a Calvinist, regarded Deism as a new form of Italian heresy.[2] Viret wrote:

There are many who confess that while they believe like the Turks and the Jews that there is some sort of God and some sort of deity, yet with regard to Jesus Christ and to all that to which the doctrine of the Evangelists and the Apostles testify, they take all that to be fables and dreams.... I have heard that there are of this band those who call themselves Deists, an entirely new word, which they want to oppose to Atheist. For in that atheist signifies a person who is without God, they want to make it understood that they are not at all without God, since they certainly believe there is some sort of God, whom they even recognize as creator of heaven and earth, as do the Turks; but as for Jesus Christ, they only know that he is and hold nothing concerning him nor his doctrine.

In the United Kingdom, the term Deist first appeared in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621).[3]

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.

Historical background

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. Philosophies that could be characterized as deistic have existed since ancient times in philosophers such as Heraclitus, and in many cultures. However, it is deceptively easy to look to ancient thinkers and characterize certain of their conceptions as Deism. To do so misses a great deal of nuance both in ancient thought and in the more recent conception of Deism. Some writings of the Upanishads, whose date of origin is unknown but certainly ancient, characterize Brahman (the Hindu conception of the creator and sustainer of the universe) as a strictly impersonal force, one that does not respond to humans in any personal way.[4] Several centuries after their creation, the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras envisioned God as a force from which the physical universe emanates without God even having knowledge of it.

In a different vein, but one also related to Deism, theologians like the Christian scholar Augustine of Hippolyta, the Mutazilis of Ninth Century Islam, and Eleventh Century thinker of the Asherite movement in Islam, Abu Bakr al-Baqillani, attempted to fashion rational arguments for the existence of their respective gods. Such arguments, such as the Cosmological argument, were intended to stand independent of the much-debated holy texts upon which their respective faiths were bottomed, buttressing those texts against criticism. Although some of these arguments and inquiries were ultimately contingent upon faiths which asserted the presence and intervention of a personal God, others merely supported the existence of a creator-God without requiring any further intervention by that entity beyond the Creation. Indeed, some of these early thinkers worried over the apparent paradox that a perfect God should not have created a universe containing any imperfection which required his further intervention.

Although these philosophers and theologians were theists rather than deists, their work planted the seeds which would make Deism possible. By setting forth rational arguments for the existence of a creator-God which stood apart from any claim of revelation, the early thinkers made it possible to conceive of a God that exists without the possibility of revelation. Such an idea would appeal to those who generally agreed that a divine creation had occurred, but were unsatisfied with the specific accounts offered by any established religion.

The discovery of diversity

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.[5] 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, as scholars worked on biblical manuscripts, they began developing the principles of textual criticism and a view of the New Testament as 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, cultural diversity with respect to religious beliefs could no longer be ignored. As Herbert wrote in De Religione Laici (1645),

Many faiths or religions, clearly, exist or once existed in various countries and ages, and certainly there is not one of them that the lawgivers have not pronounced to be as it were divinely ordained, so that the Wayfarer finds one in Europe, another in Africa, and in Asia, still another in the very Indies.

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. Closer to home, 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 toleration.

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.

Features of 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 negative or 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 have 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 have included:

  • God exists and created the universe.
  • God wants human beings to behave morally.
  • Human beings have souls that survive death; there is an afterlife.
  • In the afterlife, God will reward moral behavior and punish immoral behavior.

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. Thomas Jefferson famously drafted the Jefferson Bible, a revision of the Bible that excises all reference to revelation or divine intervention. 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:

All Deists were in fact both critical and constructive Deists. All sought to destroy in order to build, and reasoned either from the absurdity of Christianity to the need for a new philosophy or from their desire for a new philosophy to the absurdity of Christianity. Each Deist, to be sure, had his special competence. While one specialized in abusing priests, another specialized in rhapsodies to nature, and a third specialized in the skeptical reading of sacred documents. Yet whatever strength the movement had— and it was at times formidable— it derived that strength from a peculiar combination of critical and constructive elements. — Peter Gay, Deism: An Anthology, p. 13

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.

Defining the essence of English Deism is a formidable task. Like priestcraft, atheism, and freethinking, Deism was one of the dirty words of the age. Deists were stigmatized — often as atheists — by their Christian opponents. Yet some Deists claimed to be Christian, and as Leslie Stephen argued in retrospect, the Deists shared so many fundamental rational suppositions with their orthodox opponents... that it is practically impossible to distinguish between them. But the term Deism is nevertheless a meaningful one.... Too many men of letters of the time agree about the essential nature of English Deism for modern scholars to ignore the simple fact that what sets the Deists apart from even their most latitudinarian Christian contemporaries is their desire to lay aside scriptural revelation as rationally incomprehensible, and thus useless, or even detrimental, to human society and to religion. While there may possibly be exceptions, ... most Deists, especially as the eighteenth century wears on, agree that revealed Scripture is nothing but a joke or "well-invented flam." About mid-century, John Leland, in his historical and analytical account of the movement [View of the Principal Deistical Writers], squarely states that the rejection of revealed Scripture is the characteristic element of Deism, a view further codified by such authorities as Ephraim Chambers and Samuel Johnson. ... "DEISM," writes Stephens bluntly, "is a denial of all reveal'd Religion." — James E. Force, Introduction (1990) to An Account of the Growth of Deism in England (1696) by William Stephens

One of the remarkable features of Deism is that the critical elements did not overpower the constructive elements. As E. Graham Waring observed,[6] "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[7]

M. Paul Hazard has recently described the Deists of this time 'as rationalists with nostalgia for religion': men, that is, who had allowed the spirit of the age to separate them from orthodoxy, but who liked to believe that the slope they had started upon was not slippery enough to lead them to atheism.

Views 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 the priests' 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:

It can't be imputed to any defect in the light of nature that the pagan world ran into idolatry, but to their being entirely governed by priests, who pretended communication with their gods, and to have thence their revelations, which they imposed on the credulous as divine oracles. Whereas the business of the Christian dispensation was to destroy all those traditional revelations, and restore, free from all idolatry, the true primitive and natural religion implanted in mankind from the creation. — Matthew Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation (XIV)[8]

One implication of this Deist origin 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".

Concepts of "reason"

"Reason" was the ultimate court of appeal for Deists. Tindal's Lockean definitions of reason, self-evident truth, and the light of nature are especially lucid.

By the rational faculties, then, we mean the natural ability a man has to apprehend, judge, and infer:

The immediate objects of which faculties are not the things themselves, but the ideas the mind conceives of them.... Knowledge [is]... nothing but the perception of the agreement or disagreement of our ideas. And any two of these, when joined together so as to be affirmed or denied of each other, make what we call a proposition... Knowledge accrues either immediately on the bare intuition of these two ideas or terms so joined, and is therefore styled intuitive knowledge or self-evident truth, or by the intervention of some other idea or ideas .... this is called demonstrative knowledge...

If there were not some propositions which need not to be proved, it would be in vain for men to argue with one another [because there would be no basis for demonstrative reasoning] ... Those propositions which need no proof, we call self-evident; because by comparing the ideas signified by the terms of such propositions, we immediately discern their agreement, or disagreement: This is, as I said before, what we call intuitive knowledge.... [Intuitive knowledge] may, I think, be called divine inspiration as being immediately from God, and not acquired by any human deduction or drawing of consequences: This, certainly, is that divine, that uniform light, which shines in the minds of all men...

— Matthew Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation (II)[9]

Deists did appeal to "the light of nature" to support the self-evident nature of their positive religious claims.

By natural religion, I understand the belief of the existence of a God, and the sense and practice of those duties which result from the knowledge we, by our reason, have of him and his perfections; and of ourselves, and our own imperfections, and of the relationship we stand in to him, and to our fellow-creatures; so that the religion of nature takes in everything that is founded on the reason and nature of things.

I suppose you will allow that it is evident by the light of nature that there is a God, or in other words, a being absolutely perfect, and infinitely happy in himself, who is the source of all other beings....

— Matthew Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation (II)[10]

Once a proposition is asserted to be a self-evident truth, there is not much more to say about it. Consequently, Deist authors expended most of their ink using 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.[11]

I hope to make it appear that the use of reason is not so dangerous in religion as it is commonly represented. ...

There is nothing that men make a greater noise about than the "mysteries of the Christian religion." The divines gravely tell us "we must adore what we cannot comprehend." Some of them say the "mysteries of the Gospel" are to be understood only in the sense of the "ancient fathers." ... [Some] contend [that] some mysteries may be, or at least seem to be, contrary to reason, and yet received by faith. [Others contend] that no mystery is contrary to reason, but that all are "above" it.[12]

On the contrary, we hold that reason is the only foundation of all certitude, and that nothing revealed, whether as to its manner or existence, is more exempted from its disquisitions than the ordinary phenomena of nature. Wherefore, we likewise maintain, according to the title of this discourse, that there is nothing in the Gospel contrary to reason, nor above it; and that no Christian doctrine can be properly called a mystery. ...

Now, as we are extremely subject to deception, we may without some infallible rule, often take a questionable proposition for an axiom, old wives' fables for moral certitude, and human impostures for divine revelation....

I take it to be very intelligible from the precedent section that what is evidently repugnant to clear and distinct ideas,[13] or to our common notions,[14] is contrary to reason. ... No Christian that I know of expressly says reason and the Gospel are contrary to one another. But very many affirm that ... according to our conceptions of them [i.e. reason and the Gospel] they seem directly to clash. And that though we cannot reconcile them by reason of our corrupt and limited understandings, yet that from the authority of divine revelation we are bound to believe and acquiesce in them; or, as the fathers taught them to speak, to "adore what we cannot comprehend." This famous and admirable doctrine is the undoubted source of all the absurdities that ever were seriously vented among Christians. Without the pretense of it, we should never hear of transubstantiation, and other ridiculous fables of the Church of Rome. Nor should we be ever bantered with the Lutheran impanation....

The first thing I shall insist upon is that if any doctrine of the New Testament be contrary to reason, we have no manner of idea of it. To say, for instance, that a ball is white and black at once is to say just nothing, for these colors are so incompatible in the same subject as to exclude all possibility of a real positive idea or conception. So to say as the papists that children dying before baptism are damned without pain signifies nothing at all.

— John Toland, Christianity Not Mysterious: or, a Treatise Shewing That There Is Nothing in the Gospel Contrary to Reason,

Nor above It (1696)

I have known some, who have alleged as a reason why they have forsaken the Christian faith, the impossibility of believing. Many doctrines (say these) are made necessary to salvation, which 'tis impossible to believe, because they are in their nature absurdities. I replied, that these things were mysteries, and so above our understanding. But he asked me to what end could an unintelligible doctrine be revealed? not to instruct, but to puzzle and amuse. What can be the effect of an unintelligible mystery upon our minds, but only an amusement? That which is only above reason must be above a rational belief, and must I be saved by an irrational belief? ... You all agree that the belief of your Trinity is absolutely necessary to salvation, and yet widely differ in what we must believe concerning it; whether three Minds or Modes, or Properties, or internal Relations, or Oeconomies, or Manifestations, or external Denominations; or else no more than a Holy Three, or Three Somewhats... If I should be persuaded that an explanation of the Trinity were necessary to save my soul, and see the Learned so widely differing and hotly disputing what it is I must believe concerning it, I should certainly run mad through despair of finding out the Truth... — William Stephens, An Account of the Growth of Deism in England (1696), pp. 19-20

Deism did not dispute the utility of various arguments for the existence of God that had previously been developed by Christian scholars. 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.

The effects we acknowledge naturally, do include a power of their producing, before they were produced; and

that power presupposeth something existent that hath such power; and the thing so existing with power to produce, if it were not eternal, must needs have been produced by somewhat before it, and that again by something else before that, till we come to an eternal, that is to say, the first power of all powers and first cause of all causes; and this is it which all men conceive by the name of God, implying eternity, incomprehensibility, and omnipotence.

— Thomas Hobbes, Works, vol. 4, pp. 59-60; quoted in John Orr, English Deism, p. 76

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,[15] held that souls exist, survive death, and in the afterlife are rewarded or punished by God for their behavior in life. Others such as Thomas Paine were agnostic about the immortality of the soul:

I trouble not myself about the manner of future existence. I content myself with believing, even to positive conviction, that the power that gave me existence is able to continue it, in any form and manner he pleases, either with or without this body; and it appears more probable to me that I shall continue to exist hereafter than that I should have had existence, as I now have, before that existence began. Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, Part I, Recapitulation

Still others such as Anthony Collins,[16] Bolingbroke, Thomas Chubb, and Peter Annet were materialists and either denied or doubted the immortality of the soul.[17]

Deist terminology

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

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.[18][19]

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.

  • There is one Supreme God.
  • He ought to be worshipped.
  • Virtue and piety are the chief parts of divine worship.
  • We ought to be sorry for our sins and repent of them
  • Divine goodness doth dispense rewards and punishments both in this life and after it.

— Lord Herbert of Cherbury, The Antient Religion of the Gentiles, and Causes of Their Errors, pp. 3–4, quoted in John Orr, English Deism, p. 62

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.

No general agreement exists concerning the Gods, but there is universal recognition of God. Every religion in the past has acknowledged, every religion in the future will acknowledge, some sovereign deity among the Gods. ... Accordingly that which is everywhere accepted as the supreme manifestation of deity, by whatever name it may be called, I term God.

While there is no general agreement concerning the worship of Gods, sacred beings, saints, and angels, yet the Common Notion or Universal Consent tells us that adoration ought to be reserved for the one God. Hence divine religion— and no race, however savage, has existed without some expression of it— is found established among all nations. ...

The connection of Virtue with Piety, defined in this work as the right conformation of the faculties, is and always has been held to be, the most important part of religious practice. There is no general agreement concerning rites, ceremonies, traditions...; but there is the greatest possible consensus of opinion concerning the right conformation of the faculties. ... Moral virtue... is and always has been esteemed by men in every age and place and respected in every land...

There is no general agreement concerning the various rites or mysteries which the priests have devised for the expiation of sin.... General agreement among religions, the nature of divine goodness, and above all conscience, tell us that our crimes may be washed away by true penitence, and that we can be restored to new union with God. ... I do not wish to consider here whether any other more appropriate means exists by which the divine justice may be appeased, since I have undertaken in this work only to rely on truths which are not open to dispute but are derived from the evidence of immediate perception and admitted by the whole world. ...

The rewards that are eternal have been variously placed in heaven, in the stars, in the Elysian fields... Punishment has been thought to lie in metempsychosis, in hell,... or in temporary or everlasting death. But all religion, law, philosophy, and ... conscience, teach openly or implicitly that punishment or reward awaits us after this life. ... [T]here is no nation, however barbarous, which has not and will not recognise the existence of punishments and rewards. That reward and punishment exist is, then, a Common Notion, though there is the greatest difference of opinion as to their nature, quality, extent, and mode. ...

It follows from these considerations that the dogmas which recognize a sovereign Deity, enjoin us to worship Him, command us to live a holy life, lead us to repent our sins, and warn us of future recompense or punishment, proceed from God and are inscribed within us in the form of Common Notions. ...

Revealed truth exists; and it would be unjust to ignore it. But its nature is quite distinct from the truth [based on Common Notions] ... [T]he truth of revelation depends upon the authority of him who reveals it. We must, then, proceed with great care in discerning what actually is revealed.... [W]e must take great care to avoid deception, for men who are depressed, superstitious, or ignorant of causes are always liable to it. ...

— Lord Herbert of Cherbury , De Veritate

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."[20]

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 accepted both miracles and revelation, and he regarded miracles as the main proof of revelation.[21]

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 flowering 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."[22]

Among the Deists, only Anthony Collins (1676–1729) could claim much philosophical competence; only Conyers Middleton (1683–1750) was a really serious scholar. The best known Deists, notably John Toland (1670–1722) and Matthew Tindal (1656–1733), were talented publicists, clear without being deep, forceful but not subtle. ... Others, like Thomas Chubb (1679–1747), were self-educated freethinkers; a few, like Thomas Woolston (1669–1731), were close to madness.

— Peter Gay, Deism: An Anthology[23]

Other prominent British Deists included William Wollastson, Charles Blount, Shaftesbury (who did not think of himself as a Deist, but shared so many attitudes with Deists that Gay calls him "a Deist in fact, if not in name"[24]) and Bolingbroke.

After the writings of Woolston and Tindal, English Deism went into slow decline. ... By the 1730s, nearly all the arguments in behalf of Deism ... had been offered and refined; the intellectual caliber of leading Deists was none too impressive; and the opponents of Deism finally mustered some formidable spokesmen. The Deists of these decades, Peter Annet (1693–1769), Thomas Chubb (1679–1747), and Thomas Morgan (?–1743), are of significance to the specialist alone. ... It had all been said before, and better. . — Peter Gay, Deism: An Anthology[25]

Matthew Tindal

Especially noteworthy is Matthew Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730), which "became, very soon after its publication, the focal center of the Deist controversy. Because almost every argument, quotation, and issue raised for decades can be found here, the work is often termed 'the Deist's Bible'."[26] Following Locke's successful attack on innate ideas, Tindal's "Deist Bible" redefined the foundation of Deist epistemology as knowledge based on experience or human reason. This effectively widened the gap between traditional Christians and what he called "Christian Deists", since this new foundation required that "revealed" truth be validated through human reason. In Christianity as Old as the Creation, Tindal articulated a number of the basic tenets of Deism:

  • He argued against special revelation: "God designed all Mankind should at all times know, what he wills them to know, believe, profess, and practice; and has given them no other Means for this, but the Use of Reason."

David Hume

The writings of David Hume are sometimes credited with causing or contributing to the decline of Deism. However, some people debate this for various reasons. For one thing, English Deism was already in rapid decline before Hume's works were published. Furthermore, Hume's writings on religion were not very influential at the time that they were published.[27]

Nevertheless, modern scholars find it interesting to study the implications of his thoughts for Deism.

  • Hume's skepticism about miracles makes him a natural ally of Deism.
  • His skepticism about the validity of natural religion cuts equally against Deism and Deism's opponents, who were also deeply involved in natural theology. But his famous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion were not published until 1779, by which time Deism had almost vanished in England.

In its implications for Deism, the Natural History of Religion (1757) may be Hume's most interesting work. In it, Hume contends that polytheism, not monotheism, was "the first and most ancient religion of mankind". In addition, contends Hume, the psychological basis of religion is not reason, but fear of the unknown.

The primary religion of mankind arises chiefly from an anxious fear of future events; and what ideas will naturally be entertained of invisible, unknown powers, while men lie under dismal apprehensions of any kind, may easily be conceived. Every image of vengeance, severity, cruelty, and malice must occur, and must augment the ghastliness and horror which oppresses the amazed religionist. ... And no idea of perverse wickedness can be framed, which those terrified devotees do not readily, without scruple, apply to their deity.

— David Hume, The Natural History of Religion, section XIII'

As E. Graham Waring observed:[28]

The clear reasonableness of natural religion disappeared before a semi-historical look at what can be known about uncivilized man— "a barbarous, necessitous animal," as Hume termed him. Natural religion, if by that term one means the actual religious beliefs and practices of uncivilized peoples, was seen to be a fabric of superstitions. Primitive man was no unspoiled philosopher, clearly seeing the truth of one God. And the history of religion was not, as the Deists had implied, retrograde; the widespread phenomenon of superstition was caused less by priestly malice than by man's unreason as he confronted his experience.

Experts dispute whether Hume was a Deist, an atheist, or something else. Hume himself was uncomfortable with the terms Deist and atheist, and Hume scholar Paul Russell has argued that the best and safest term for Hume's views is irreligion.

Continental Deism

English Deism, in the words of Peter Gay, "travelled well. ... As Deism waned in England, it waxed in France and the German states."[29]

France had its own tradition of religious skepticism and natural theology in the works of Montaigne, Bayle, and Montesquieu. The most famous of the French Deists was Voltaire, who acquired a taste for Newtonian science, and reinforcement of Deistic inclinations, during a two-year visit to England starting in 1726.

French Deists also included Maximilien Robespierre and Rousseau. For a short period of time during the French Revolution the Cult of the Supreme Being was the state religion of France.

Kant's identification with Deism is controversial. An argument in favor of Kant as Deist is Alan Wood's "Kant's Deism," in P. Rossi and M. Wreen (eds.), Kant's Philosophy of Religion Re-examined (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991); an argument against Kant as Deist is Stephen Palmquist's "Kant's Theistic Solution".

Deism in America

In America, Enlightenment philosophy (which itself was heavily inspired by Deist ideals) played a major role in creating the principle of separation of church and state, expressed in the religious freedom clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Founding Fathers who were especially noted for being influenced by such philosophy include Cornelius Harnett, Gouverneur Morris, Hugh Williamson, James Wilson,[30] and James Madison.[31] Although these men were members of traditional Christian denominations (Hugh Williamson was a Presbyterian and the rest were Episcopalians), their political speeches show distinct Deistic influence. Other notable Founding Fathers may have been more directly Deist. These include Ethan Allen[32] and Thomas Paine (who published The Age of Reason, a treatise that helped to popularize Deism throughout America and Europe). Elihu Palmer (1764-1806) wrote the "Bible" of American Deism in his Principles of Nature (1801) and attempted to organize Deism by forming the "Deistical Society of New York."

Currently (as of 2007) there is an ongoing controversy in the United States over whether or not America was founded as a "Christian nation" based on Judeo-Christian ideals. This has spawned a subsidiary controversy over whether the Founding Fathers were Christians or Deists or something in between.[33] Particularly heated is the debate over the beliefs of Richard Hedrick, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, for some of whom the evidence is mixed.[34] However, Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography, "Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle's lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist."[35]

The waning of Deism

Deism is generally considered to have declined as an influential school of thought by around 1800. It is probably more accurate, however, to say that Deism evolved into, and contributed to, other religious movements. The term Deist fell into disuse, but Deist ideas and influences did not. They can be seen in 19th-century liberal British theology and in the rise of Unitarianism, which adopted many of its ideas. Even today, there are a significant number of Deist Web sites.

Several factors contributed to a general decline in the popularity of Deism, including:

  • the writings of David Hume and Immanuel Kant (and later, Charles Darwin), which increased doubt about the first cause argument and the argument from design, turning potential Deists towards atheism
  • loss of confidence that reason and rationalism could solve all problems
  • criticisms of excesses of the French Revolution
  • criticisms that Deism was not significantly distinct from pantheism and then that pantheism was not significantly different from atheism
  • criticisms that freethought would lead inevitably to atheism
  • frustration with the determinism implicit in "This is the best of all possible worlds"
  • the fact that Deism remained a personal philosophy and never became an organized movement (was, in fact, inconsistent with having an organized movement, compared with organized religions)
  • an anti-Deist and anti-reason campaign by some Christian clergymen to vilify Deism and equate it with atheism in public opinion
  • Christian revivalist movements which taught that a more personal relationship with a deity was possible

Deism and its variations today

Contemporary Deism attempts to integrate classical Deism with modern philosophy and the current state of scientific knowledge. This attempt has produced a wide variety of personal beliefs under the broad classification/category of belief of "Deism". The Modern Deism Web site includes one list of the unofficial tenets of modern deism.

Classical Deism held that a human's relationship with God was impersonal: God created the world and set it in motion but does not actively intervene in individual human affairs but rather through Divine Providence. Some modern Deists have modified this classical view and believe that humanity's relationship with God is transpersonal and that God intervenes in the world in ways that are subtle and beyond human understanding (Which would appear to conflict with the basic principal of stripping away the "mysteries" of religion).

Because Deism accepts God without accepting claims of divine revelation, it appeals to people from both ends of the religious spectrum. Antony Flew, for example, is a convert from atheism, and Raymond Fontaine[2] was a Roman Catholic priest for over 20 years. William Veader is another well-known Deist.

Opinions about the nature of God

Modern Deists hold a wide range of views on the nature of God and God's relationship to the world. The common area of agreement is the desire to use reason, experience, and nature as the basis of belief.

There are a number of subcategories of modern Deist, including Monodeism, Pandeism, Panendeism, Process Deism, Polydeism, Christian Deism, Scientific Deism, Humanistic Deism. Some Deists see design in nature and purpose in the universe and in their lives (Prime Designer). Others see God and the universe in a co-creative process (Prime Motivator). Some Deists view God in classical terms and see God as observing humanity but not directly intervening in our lives (Prime Observer), while others see God as a subtle and persuasive spirit (Prime Mover).

Many classical Deists were critical of some types of prayer. For example, in Christianity as Old as the Creation, Matthew Tindal argues against praying for miracles, but advocates prayer as both a human duty and a human need.External link to portion of text

Today, Deists hold a variety of opinions about prayer:

  • Some contemporary Deists believe (with the classical Deists) that God has created the universe perfectly, so no amount of supplication, request, or begging can change the fundamental nature of the universe.
  • Some Deists believe that God is not an entity that can be contacted by human beings through petitions for relief; rather, God can only be experienced through the nature of the universe.
  • Some Deists do not believe in divine intervention but still find value in prayer as a form of meditation, self-cleansing, and spiritual renewal. Such prayers are often appreciative (i.e., "Thank you for ...") rather than supplicative (i.e., "Please God grant me ...").[3]

Alexander Pope, generally considered to have Deistic sympathies, composed a poem he called "The Universal Prayer".[4]

Modern Deism on the Web

In 1993 Robert L. Johnson established the first Deist organization since the days of Thomas Paine and Elihu Palmer with the World Union of Deists. The WUD offered the monthly hardcopy publication THINK!. Currently the WUD offers two online Deist publications, THINKonline! and Deistic Thought & Action! As well as using the Internet for spreading the Deist message, the WUD is also conducting a direct mail campaign.

1996 saw the first Web site dedicated to Deism with the WUD site . From this effort, many other Deist sites and discussion groups have appeared on the Internet.


Pandeism combines Deism with the pantheism, the belief that the universe is identical to God. Pandeism adopts the deistic belief that God was a conscious and sentient force or entity that designed and created the universe, which operates by mechanisms set forth in the creation. By becoming the universe, God became an unconscious and nonresponsive being. The term was coined in 1859 by German philosophers and frequent collaborators Moritz Lazarus and Heymann Steinthal in Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Sprachwissenschaft. They wrote that "Man stelle es also den Denkern frei, ob sie Theisten, Pan-theisten, Atheisten, Deisten (und warum nicht auch Pandeisten?)[36] ("Man leaves it to the philosophers, whether they are Theists, Pan-theists, Atheists, Deists (and why not also Pandeists?"). Charles Hartshorne, a student of Arthur Whitehead, examined this concept along with Deism, and ultimately preferred Panentheism, stating that "panentheistic doctrine contains all of deism and pandeism except their arbitrary negations".[37]


Panendeism combines Deism with panentheism, the belief that the universe is part of God, but not all of God. Although purportedly coined in late 2000 by Larry Copling in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, earlier uses have been spotted. A 1995 news article quotes this use of the term by Jim Garvin a Vietnam vet who became a Trappist monk in the Holy Cross Abbey[5] of Berryville, Virginia, and went on to lead the economic development of Phoenix, Arizona. Garvin described his spiritual position as "'pandeism' or 'pan-en-deism,' something very close to the Native American concept of the all- pervading Great Spirit..."[38]

Copling's coinage came while developing a more Deistic interpretation of the panentheistic approach to understanding the Divine. The term was first published on Copling's website, in early 2001. A more complete description of the concept was later made available via an article published on Copling's personal website ( in 2004.


  1. Orr, John (1934). English Deism: Its Roots and Its Fruits. Eerdmans, p. 13. 
  2. See the article on the history of Deism in the online Dictionary of the History of Ideas.
  3. Reill, Peter Hanns; Ellen Judy Wilson title = Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment (1996). {{{title}}}. Facts On File, article: Deism. 
  4. Karen Armstrong, A History of God, (1993) p. 29-30.
  5. The discussion of the background of Deism is based on the excellent summary in "The Challenge of the Seventeenth Century" in The Historical Jesus Question by Gregory W. Dawes (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2001). Good discussions of individual Deist writers can be found in The Seventeenth Century Background and The Eighteenth Century Background by Basil Willey.
  6. Waring, E. Graham (1967). Deism and Natural Religion: A Source Book, Introduction, p. xv. 
  7. Willey, Basil (1940). The Eighteenth Century Background, p. 11. 
  8. Waring, E. Graham (1967). Deism and Natural Religion: A Source Book, p. 163. 
  9. Gay, Peter (1968). Deism: An Anthology. Van Nostrand, pp. 114 ff.. 
  10. Waring, E. Graham (1967). Deism and Natural Religion: A Source Book, p. 113. 
  11. Quoted in Deism and Natural Religion: A Source Book, pp. 1–12
  12. Some mysteries are "above" reason rather than "contrary" to it. This was Locke's position.
  13. Note the reference to Descartes' "clear and distinct ideas"
  14. Note the reference to Lord Herbert of Cherbury's "common notions"
  15. Orr, John (1934). English Deism: Its Roots and Its Fruits. Eerdmans, p. 137. 
  16. Orr, John (1934). English Deism: Its Roots and Its Fruits. Eerdmans, p. 134. 
  17. Orr, John (1934). English Deism: Its Roots and Its Fruits. Eerdmans, p. 78. 
  18. Willey, Basil (1934). The Seventeenth Century Background. 
  19. Orr, John (1934). English Deism: Its Roots and Its Fruits, p.59 ff.. 
  20. Gay, Peter (1968). Deism: An Anthology. Van Nostrand, pp. 47-48. 
  21. Orr, John (1934). English Deism: Its Roots and Its Fruits. Eerdmans, pp. 96-99. 
  22. Gay, Peter (1968). Deism: An Anthology. Van Nostrand, pp. 9-10. 
  23. Gay, Peter (1968). Deism: An Anthology. Van Nostrand, pp. 9-10. 
  24. Gay, Peter (1968). Deism: An Anthology. Van Nostrand, pp. 78-79. 
  25. Gay, Peter (1968). Deism: An Anthology. Van Nostrand, p. 140. 
  26. Waring, E. Graham (1967). Deism and Natural Religion: A Source Book, p. 107. 
  27. Orr, John (1934). English Deism: Its Roots and Its Fruits. Eerdmans, p. 173. 
  28. Waring, E. Graham (1967). Deism and Natural Religion: A Source Book, Introduction, p. xv. 
  29. Gay, Peter (1968). Deism: An Anthology. Van Nostrand, p. 143. 
  30. As discussed in this essay
  31. As discussed here
  32. See: this
  33. This andThis demonstrate this controversy well. David L. Holmes's The Faiths of the Founding Fathers is a recent study of the subject.
  34. Founding Fathers Religion page at
  35. As to whether George Washington was a Deist or not, see this Washington Post book review of two books on the subject. For Jefferson's Deism, see this article; and for Franklin, see Kerry S. Walters, Benjamin Franklin and His Gods (University of Illinois Press, 1999) and also this except from Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson.
  36. Moritz Lazarus and Heymann Steinthal, Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Sprachwissenschaft (1859), p. 262
  37. Charles Hartshorne, Man's Vision of God and the Logic of Theism (1964) p. 347 ISBN 0-208-00498-X
  38. Albuquerque Journal, Saturday, November 11, 1995, B-10.