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Historical and modern Deism are defined by the view that reason, rather than revelation or tradition, should be the basis of belief in God. Deists reject organized religion and promote reason as the essential element in making moral decisions. This "rational" basis was usually founded upon the cosmological argument (first cause argument), the teleological argument (argument from design), and other aspects of what was called natural religion. Deism has become identified with the classical belief that God created but does not intervene in the world, though this is not a necessary component of deism.



Many deists hold different views on the nature of God, particularly on whether or not God intervenes in the world. The classical view is that the universe was created by a God who then makes no further intervention in its affairs. In this view, the reason God does not intervene in the world (via miracles) is not that he does not care, but rather that the best of all possible worlds has already been created and any intervention could not improve it. Historically, many deists adhered to this view; others hold a more pantheistic view that in creating the world, God became the world and does not exist as a separate entity from it; while some hold that God intervenes only as a subtle and persuasive force in the universe.

The classical view of an impersonal and abstract God has caused many to claim that deism is "cold" and amounts to atheism. Deists maintain that the opposite is true and that this view leads to a feeling of awe and reverence based on the fact that personal growth and a constant search for knowledge is required. This knowledge can be acquired from many sources including historical and modern interpretations found in the many varied fields of science (biology, physics, etc.) and philosophy. While many religions have an adversarial opposition to modern views such as those found in science, this is not an issue for deism -- as reconcilation and unification are desired.

There are other religions such as Roman Catholicism that believe that the existence of God can be known via reason; they also believe that miracles and revelations occur and are required for man to truly understand God at the expense of reason (rather than exclusive application). Furthermore, these religions specifically define the nature of God with a belief that man's relationship is personal.

The words deism and theism are closely related and this sometimes leads to controversy. The root of the word "deism" is from the Latin deus, while the root of the word theism comes from the Greek theos, both meaning god in English. However, theism can include faith or revelation as a basis for belief, while deism includes only belief which can be substantiated through reason. Deism is thus a form of theism in opposition to fideism.

18th century popularity

Deistic thinking has existed since ancient times and can be inferred from pre-Socratic philosophers such as Heraclitus. However, it was not until the modern era, during the European Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, with their respective emphases on rigorous skepticism (logic/deduction) and empiricism (experience/induction), that deism came into its own as a subject of philosophical discourse, particularly in France (Descartes, the Philosophes), Germany (Kant, Leibniz), Great Britain (Hobbes, Hume), and the United States (Paine, Franklin).

Thomas Jefferson, Edgehill Portrait of 1805 by .  , .
Thomas Jefferson, Edgehill Portrait of 1805 by Gilbert Stuart. National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.

Deism developed from the expanding influence of scientism in European and European colonial intellectual life. Newtonian physics, the intellectual basis and the aesthetic model for Enlightenment scientism spread the idea that matter behaves in a mathematically predictable manner that can be understood by postulating laws of nature. Objectivity, natural equality, the prescription to treat like cases similarly are central principles of the Enlightenment mentality, ideas borrowed from Newton's observational/experimental method and put to use in all domains the Enlightenment mind scrutinized; these principles informed the development of the philosophy of deism. Exasperation with the costs of centuries of European religious warfare was a powerful recommendation for the new, objective frame for spiritual matters, a perspective the most notable minds of the time found appealing.

Deism was championed by Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and some of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are among the most well-known of the American founding deists. Thomas Paine published The Age of Reason, a treatise that popularized deism throughout America and Europe. Paine wrote that deism represented the application of reason to religion, finally settling problems that formerly were thought to be permanently controversial. Deists hoped to also settle religious questions permanently and scientifically by reason alone, without revelation.

The first six and four later Presidents of the United States had strong deistic or allied beliefs.

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" (

Appellations for divinity

The names used for the divinity by deists include the following:

Decline in popularity

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

  • the writings of David Hume (and later, Charles Darwin) increased doubt about the first cause argument and the argument from design
  • several Christian Great Awakenings in the USA, especially those that taught a more personal relationship with a deity, and that prayer could alter history
  • 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."
  • rise of Unitarianism, which adopted many of its ideas
  • it remained a personal philosophy and never became an organized movement
  • an anti-deist and anti-reason campaign by Christian clergymen to villify and equate deism with atheism in public opinion

Current status

Newtonian physics is rather deterministic, and so deism based on that, for many, left little room for hope. Of some relevance in response to this are newer theories in physics, most notably quantum mechanics, which has both a non-deterministic interpretation (the Copenhagen interpretation), and deterministic interpretations (the transactional interpretation and many-worlds interpretation). Some modern revivals of deism resemble pantheism and panentheism.

See also

External informational links

External organization links

de:Deismus es:Desmo eo:Diismo fr:Disme he:דאיזם nl:Desme nn:Deisme no:Deisme pl:Deizm pt:Desmo sk:Deizmus sv:Deism zh:自然神论


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