Sunday, March 7, 2021

Deism: Introduction

This is the first post of many on a topic I am devoting a great deal of time to thinking about and now writing about: deism.

The term deism is often used as a pejorative in our religious landscape. It indicates someone who is wishy-washy about God* and doesn't commit to one of the pre-existing religious systems that are established in our society. Many religious people equate not subscribing to their particular organized religion as being inherently atheistic, and that is simply inaccurate and intellectually lazy. 

At the outset, let me state unequivocally that I am not an expert on deism. I know quite a lot about the Bible and Christian theology thanks to over two decades of study but deism is a topic I am just starting to explore so I present this series as my own exploration of discovery, not an authoritative and all-encompassing explanation.

America is a relatively young country, not even 250 years old, but there is probably no nation on earth where religion has played such a critical role in the founding, expansion and modern iteration of a people. From the earliest settlers, many seeking religious freedom, to the founding document of the nation enshrining the right to religious expression free from government interference, we Americans are a highly religious people.

One could be pardoned for seeing the American landscape as mostly made up of Christians and atheists, with a smattering of Muslims, Jews and other fringe religions/cults like Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses mixed in. The vast majority of Americans were married in a church of some sort, even people who express no religious affiliation. We often go to churches for funerals. The average American has usually instinctively identified themselves as Christian when asked about religious affiliation. Many of our laws and cultural norms are distinctly European flavored culturally Christian. This should not be confused with "Judeo-Christian", a very recent phrase that ignores 2000 years of Christian theology and Western history. Christianity and Judaism are distinct and incompatible religious faiths and while we have always had a small Jewish population, Americans have always considered ourselves to be a Christian people.

This is rapidly changing. The percentage of people identifying themselves as Christian is dropping like a rock.


I have written a lot about this in the past. I believe the biggest factor contributing to this decline is that the social stigma of not being Christian has greatly diminished. As the moral underpinning of Christianity has eroded and things like co-habitation outside of marriage and the general acceptance of divorce have become less stigmatized, even in Christian churches, the church has lost much of her authority. If the Roman Catholic Church says getting divorced and remarried is a mortal sin but then let's you get remarried in a Catholic church if you slip the priest a few bucks, why should you take anything they say seriously? Protestant churches aren't much better, especially the so-called mainline Protestant churches that are bleeding members while stubbornly doubling down on the liberal positions that are driving people away in the first place. Perhaps nothing has been as damaging as the Catholic church abuse scandal that exposed the Catholic hierarchy as being complicit in covering up abusers and simply shuffling them to a new parish where they could abuse children all over. When your church is enabling homosexual pedophiles, it makes it difficult to claim a moral authority from God. This has hurt all Christian churches, not just Rome and it is becoming clear that the problem of child sexual abuse is widespread across denominations (and most other institutions where children are present).

Religious inertia is still quite strong and even today around 2/3 of American adults still call themselves Christians but we are rapidly approaching the point where even the most tenuous identification as Christian will drop below 50%. Further, while this might upset a lot of people, the stark reality is that very few people calling themselves Christian are even mildly practicing their faith and an even smaller percentage have even the most rudimentary understanding of the faith they claim to profess. I can say this with absolute certainty. Having spent the better part of this century among church-going Christians, it is not a stretch to say few have more than the most basic attachment to their faith.

While there is a vocal contingency on the Right that has declared that only a return to a monolithic cultural Christianity can save the West, the stark reality is that identification with Christianity is in a nose dive and America will soon follow Western Europe in seeing the church become a quaint relic of the past for all but a handful of Americans. If you are pinning your hopes for arresting the freefall of Western civilization on a resurgent Christianity, you are going to be disappointed.

However there is a growing segment of the population that falls into the very amorphous "spiritual but not religious" category. Pew Research categorizes these people as "somewhat religious" in two categories shown below:



This category is growing very rapidly as people shed their traditional identification with organized religion. "Religious" is generally associated with traditional communal practices, most typically "going to church" or attending a synagogue or a mosque. It also is typically associated with a "revealed religion" religious belief, in our context meaning the Bible, Quran or the Hebrew scriptures. In essence, God has spoken to man to express who he is and what he wants in the form of a written text and/or human prophets that are divinely ordained to speak on behalf of God.

What is critical about this concept of "spiritual but not religious" is that it removes a major component of organized religion: authority. When a pope says "God wills it", he is declaring that as the sole spokesman on earth for God, he alone can make declarations on behalf of God that carry the same authority as God speaking from a burning bush. Authority provides a foundation for belief in that what you believe about God or a related theological topic can be trusted because it comes with the mantle of authority. 

Along authority comes two other related concepts: certainty and exclusivity.

If God has indeed spoken on a subject, that pretty much ends the speculation. Or at least it should, 500 years of fighting between Protestants and Catholics suggests otherwise. Conceptually though, God has spoken and his spoken word, whether relayed by living prophets or by holy text, provides a sense of certainty. As an example, very few Roman Catholics could give you a theologically sound explanation of transubstantiation or even identify that term as what is supposedly going on during the Mass but they believe that a wafer becomes the body of Christ and a cup of wine becomes his blood and that eating and drinking these items conveys something spiritually significant. Not to pick on Catholics, the average lay Protestant doesn't really understand why they aren't Catholic in any meaningful explanation. 

Revealed religion also leads to exclusivity. The Christian faith teaches that Jesus said "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6 ESV). The only way to heaven is through Jesus. Period. A Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, whatever, can live a great life and still not get to heaven without belief in Jesus. There is of course some variation to this but that is the basic gist of Christianity. The whole history of Judaism is one of exclusivity, they believe they alone are the chosen people of God and their scriptures speak very harshly of intermingling the Hebrew people with other religious and ethnic groups up to believing God commanded genocide on entire populations in the Old Testament. Islam is pretty well known for smiting the infidels who don't worship Allah and just as often smiting other Muslims who don't worship Allah the right way. In other words, if my flavor of organized religion is "right" that of necessity means all other flavors are "wrong" as all of the major world religions are incompatible with the rest.

That brings me in a rather roundabout way to the topic at hand, a school of thought called "deism". Deism is one of the forms of theism, in opposition to "atheism", in that it recognizes a god/gods. In the spectrum of theism, there is a wide range of beliefs from devout organized religious adherence to general belief in a "higher power".

Because it doesn't share the certainty of being a revealed religion, there is a great deal of variation under the umbrella term "deism" so what follows is my interpretation.

Deism is the belief in a god/gods who is/are the eternal First Cause. This is known as the "Cosmological Argument". This belief is manifested in two pillars that form the foundation of deism, one an affirmation and one a rejection.

On the affirmative, deism recognizes a divine god or gods who are created the universe. This divinity can be discovered through nature and reason, although due to human limitations this understanding is necessarily limited.

On the denial, deism denies divine revelation and therefore also ecclesiastical religious authority. There are no deist popes or priests who transmit God's will and serve an intermediary function between God and man. There isn't a holy book or scroll that contains God's specific, revealed will.

Early forms of deism, called "classical deism" and represented by many of the Founding Fathers and contemporary philosophers, likewise rejected the idea of supernatural intervention and the need for prayer. This is sometimes explained in the idea of God as a clockmaker who created the universe with set laws, put things in motion and then disappeared. In other words, God set things in motion and then let everything unfold without direct intervention. More contemporary expressions tend to blend the idea of deism with more monotheistic faiths that suggest an active god/gods that acts directly on his/their creation. While it may not be commonplace to do so, I would lean toward lumping modern paganism and other beliefs systems, primarily polytheistic forms, in with deism. I don't think most people who are into Odinism believe in Odin literally but rather believe in a divine order that they call Odin and the Norse pantheon for cultural reasons. 

In a nutshell, deism teaches that there is a God or gods, we can know him/them in a limited capacity via reason and observation of nature but that God cannot be neatly boxed into a systematized understanding through organized, revealed religion.

That definition is quite broad so it leaves a lot to interpretation. It also makes me twitchy. As a long time Reformed Christian, amateur theologian type, I don't like uncertainty and imprecision. Questions are meant to have answers. Questions that remain unanswered, and even worse questions that by the nature of the question that cannot be answered, make me feel unsteady. For many years I could formulate an answer to just about any question and present it clearly and unambiguously. Why is there evil? Why did God create man? When someone asks "What is the meaning of life", I could refer to the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?

A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

Easy peasy. There is a 500 year old Protestant intellectual tradition that explored and explained pretty much every question and provided an answer. While I tried to work through questions on my own, I could always fall back on the work others had done.

Therein lies the problem of deism. There are no "right" answers to questions that are inherently dealing with infinitely vast issues. It is a quest for knowledge that recognizes that even a lifetime of searching will at best only scratch the surface. I would gingerly suggest that it is the lack of certainty that drives many people to stay in an organized religion. Humans hate uncertainty. 

What I am slowly discovering is that it is OK to say "I don't know" to answers about the divine. After all we are talking about a being(s) that are presumably eternal and capable of creative acts like making the universe. I would no more expect to understand the essence of such a being's nature than I would expect a toddler to understand the complexities of an internal combustion engine. A baby knows the car goes vroom and takes them places. I don't think humans can have even that level of understanding of the nature of God.

Up next, I'll take a step back and talk about the evidence supporting the existence of God.


* As a rule I will generally use "God", capital G, to reference the divine in this series, for no other reason that simple expediency.


4 comments:

  1. I think one of the bigger things has been a persistent anti-Christian propaganda push by the media over the last few decades. I used (when I was much younger) read Stephen King. Looking back, he has a love of putting Christians in as the bad guys. Now multiply that by the radio, film, books, news, etc.

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    1. That is certainly a major factor as well. You will be hard pressed to find a movie or TV show that portrays a devout Christian in a good light, at least a White Christian.

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  2. "Therein lies the problem of deism. There are no "right" answers to questions that are inherently dealing with infinitely vast issues. It is a quest for knowledge that recognizes that even a lifetime of searching will at best only scratch the surface. I would gingerly suggest that it is the lack of certainty that drives many people to stay in an organized religion. Humans hate uncertainty."

    I'm a Christian, and a particularly simple-minded sort of Christian at that. The thing that primarily interests me about a statement is whether the statement is true or false. About such statements as "God exists, and His characteristics are those revealed in the Christian scriptures," I don't think certainty is available to us; certainly not the sort of certainty with which Pythagoras' theorem can be proved. But that uncertainty is found in considering anything that is complex. So the best we can do is to consider the available evidence: what we see or can know about what's around us, and what we find within us. And the considerations are: are the claims of Christianity consistent with what we can observe independently? Are they internally consistent, or self-contradictory? Is there a better explanation for what we know from our own experience about "life, the universe, and everything?"

    It isn't science, because we can't do falsifying experiments. It's more like what the medical researchers call "meta-analysis:" drawing inferences and conclusions from data that already exist.

    I'm looking forward to your upcoming treatment of the evidence for God's existence. I might have a pebble or two to add to the pile.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I think we sometimes get so wrapped up in the tactical that we might be in danger of forgetting the basic, fundamental reasons for fighting in the first place.

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    1. That is part of the problem with the Scriptures, some things make sense but others make no sense. The Mosaic civil law might have been handed down from God or it might have been the outgrowth of common sense rules for living together as people: don't steal from each other, don't murder each other, if you do something wrong you have to make it right, etc. Some of the miracle stuff seems less reasonable and the timeline is all wrong unless you don't believe the Genesis account literally and doing that leads to the question of what *do* you take literally and then the whole thing falls apart and you get mainline Protestantism. So lots to unpack in this series and I am not even sure where it is going yet.

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