Seven Questions that Define Your World, Part 3: Deism

The first step away from Christian theism was the belief system we call Deism. This was motivated largely by the change in authority for knowledge about the divine from Scripture to reason and intuition. Platonic theories of knowledge that had held sway during the middle ages argued that a person becomes what they study. Because God is good and holy and the material world was considered irrational and less than good, scholars rejected the study of the natural world in favor of God. However, biblically minded scholars started to recognize that everything is part of God’s creation and though corrupted, is of value. They also recognized that because God is a rational being his creation must be orderly. Armed with these assumptions, scientists subsequently found that the world operated like a giant machine where all the parts work together. Scholars, however, began believing that God’s nature could be discovered through studying nature. They rejected the notion that God could reveal himself through Divine Revelation and special acts in history. God could only be known through Nature which, because it functioned as a giant clock, made God the clockmaker. This also elevated the place of reason from a necessary condition to a sufficient condition for knowing God. As we begin to answer the worldview questions, we will also see how Deism served as a natural transition to naturalism, and learn some helpful approaches to those who might not realize they are Deists.

 

1. What is prime reality – the really real?

God, under Deism, is reduced to an impersonal, distant, uninvolved creator who created the universe and then left it to run on its own. He does not care for what he made and does not involve himself in any way in the affairs of humanity. He is simply reduced to being the first cause, the explanation for why things exist and work the way they do. Mankind is left floating through an indifferent universe. A God who is distant and uncaring is practically the same as one who is not there at all! Not only is God distant, but according to Deism is ultimately unknowable. Because the Deists denied God could reveal himself through divine revelation, the only information they could gather about him was from creation. This meant that they were unable to form prior expectations about what he was like or what he would do. Not knowing what he would do, however, makes it impossible to draw conclusions from what he actually did. God could have created the universe because he was lonely, or because he enjoys seeing people suffer. Either way, it is impossible to decide what is true.

 

2. What is the nature of external reality?

The cosmos is a closed system where everything is determined and no miracles are possible. God is not interested in what happens to his creation and even if he was would never interfere with it. If he did, it would suggest he had not set up the clockwork-like universe correctly in the first place. If the universe is like a determined clock, events within it are a part of a network of causes and effects. To introduce real change one would have to transcend this network, an act which is impossible for finite humans. Is it still possible to have freedom if everything around us is determined?

 

3. What is a human being? What does it mean to be human?

Humans are personal beings locked into the clockwork of the universe. They do not have any special relationship with God and are not made in his image. Hence, humans have no free will. If God had created mankind with the capacity for meaningful self-determination then they would also be able to choose to sin and deviate from the perfect plan. Humans, under Deism, are puppets, dancing to their DNA and environment, incapable of making meaningful choices and lacking anything that can be meaningfully called personality.

 

4. What happens to a person at death?

Deism, by denying the possibility of Divine revelation, precludes the knowledge of anything that happens after death since the supernatural by definition is beyond the natural. Besides, why would a God who does not care at all about what happens inside his universe concern himself with the eternal destiny of those living in it? Humans have no special relationship to God but are merely parts of a giant mechanical system ticking away. The logical conclusion of this is despair; if I am going to die and have no reason to believe in an afterlife, then anything I do now does not matter. The result is the same.

 

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?

Because the universe operates according to how it was designed, we can learn what God is like by studying it. However, as mentioned previously, any other source of knowledge that is not based on our study of the external world is rejected. Here we see beginning hints of the “scientism” of our modern era. So many people today, especially those who study empirical subjects, believe that unless something can be demonstrated by science or logic, it cannot exist. Take the Deist David Hume’s famous quote:

    If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Unfortunately for Hume, this statement is not based on conclusions made using logic or experience and thus, by its own definition, ought to be committed unto the flames. According to their reasoning, the Deists ought to have rejected the notion that only knowledge obtained through the natural world is legitimate. However, to do so would have been to destroy the very foundation upon which their entire system was based.

 

6. How do we know what is right and wrong?

Not only does the Deistic worldview pose problems for the idea of knowledge, but also morality. If God as the creator is revealed through the external world, then his creation must reflect what he is like. This leads to the destruction of ethics since the universe itself says nothing about what is right and wrong. Whatever exists is right and there is no difference between good and evil. Though one may make subjective distinctions between good and bad, there is no real difference. Because deism denies that man was special (neither created in the image of God nor loved by him) the original deists had no reason to trust any of their moral beliefs. In spite of this, many of them still affirmed Judeo-Christian values, directly contradicting their belief in a distant indifferent God. Their failure to live consistently with what they espoused also demonstrates the difficulty of living out a belief system that directly contradicts reality.

 

7. What is the meaning of history?

The course of the universe was set at creation and follows a linear path implying that all events occurring after the beginning are determined. For this reason, history, to the Deist, is not important since God is discovered through nature, not revelation or divine intervention. The Deist God acts using general rules and the universe is closed to external interference.

Deism as the dominant worldview was short-lived but briefly powerful, dominating the intellectual world of France and England from the late seventeenth through to the mid-eighteenth centuries and serving as the transition between Theism and Naturalism. We have already seen some of the naturally arising objections above like the inability to affirm human value and freedom or to ground morality in objective reality. Even so, many people today present themselves as Deists unknowingly. When asked about the nature of God they will describe him as an energy or force, who explains the existence of the universe but who is also distant and not involved. How many people do you know who believe in a God like this? Useful approaches to “modern-day Deists” could be to touch on some of the points above by asking questions like: “Does God love you? Where do right and wrong come from?” You may find they have never really thought it through. Ask questions, and be curious. Don’t be too aggressive. If you ask these sorts of questions long enough, you may just find an opening to be able to share with them why they ought to consider Christianity.

While Deism as a worldview is no longer very popular, it helps us to understand the roots of Naturalism, the worldview which argues all that exists is matter and energy. A universe with a God who created it and then disappeared is no different, practically, from one where there is no God at all. If God could be replaced by some natural phenomena that did not require an explanation, then he would no longer be necessary and could be dispensed with. Naturalism, as we shall see, was the natural next step for all those who became unsatisfied with Deism.

 

Photo Caption

The 1755 Lisbon earthquake killed between 10 and 30 thousand people and significantly damaged the Portuguese economy. The French enlightenment philosopher and deist Voltaire used it as evidence that there could not exist a deity who cared about and intervened in the affairs of mankind. The painting is Allegory of the 1755 Earthquake, by João Glama Strobërle.