Whenever discussions come up about the religion of America when it was first forming, I hear about how a decent number of them were Deists.
I understand what Deism is but I don’t know why it vanished. Though it was not particularly widespread, the ones who believed in it tended to be wealthy, educated, among the elite of the time, makers of policy in our embryonic land.
But then it vanished… How long did it take for Deism to vanish? Why did this happen? Is there a modern movement that is trying to bring it back outside of a few Unitarian Universalists?
Several reason: first it was somewhat philosophically weak. That is, it was quite amenable to the opinions of its day, but really couldn’t survive when culture changed. Those were the heydays of Nature and Reason and lots of other capitalized words. It was the era of Newton, Adam Smith, and (less positively) Rousseau: men of BIG ideas, but not men who fully developed those ideas. After the French Revolution, certainly, ideas changed considerably. People lost faith in the concept of an ordered and rational universe.
In Deism, the universe was conceived of as as a world of complete order: the watch. While it allowed and even required a watchmaker, without which it would be devoid of meaning, they looked to what they called Natural law, which included both human and nonhuman events, for guidance. Thus, they were able to discern a Right to Liberty, because in the State of Nature all creatures were free. They also found value in law and government, precisely because in Nature life was “nasty, brutish, and short.” Thus in those more optimistic days, men could revolt against monarchy, or a church, or a science, or a social system without necessarily falling into a remorseless revolutionary struggle which would consume everyone involved. (The French eventually went in another direction, with great thanks that bastard Rousseau.)
I woul say that, despite their comparitive religioisity, post-Deist thinkers were also more secular, in that they tended not to mix the sacred and the profane as Deists did. There was a stronger recognition that the world was not particularly orderly, and that it was often necessary to master Nature, or deny it altogether. Likewise, having realized the limitations of believing in God without actually having him do anything, or for that matter that Nature didn’t have a whole lot of moral elssons to teach, they opted for the traditional stance of mankind. They would have their God, and have their politics, and have their sciences, and didn’t feel much need to combine them.
As we have marched forward from the Enlightenment man has broadly driven the two camps further away from each other. Those that have faith and those that have science. The camps once upon a time were on the same camping ground, now they are in different states.
Deism does not have an overarching dogma or simple rule book and as such was always going to have a tough time.
My own feeling is that before Darwin, some sort of creator was the simplest answer to the question where did we come from in all our diversity. Post-Darwin, no such hypothesis is needed and I imagine most would be deists (or theists, I can never understand the difference) are now atheists.
Of course, there are still unanswered questions. How did life begin? We may be a generation away from answering that, but I believe it has a natural answer. Why is there something rather than nothing? I know there is a recent book (whose author I can’t quite dredge up) that claims, more-or-less, that matter emerges from the vacuum, but that just raises the question why is physical law like that and where does physics come from anyway. I do not believe that that question can ever be answered.
As I understand it, deism (or is it theism?) abjures the notion of a personal god who hears prayers and decides if we go to heaven or hell, cares how we worship, that sort of thing.
Well, what’s the point to it? There’s no rational or scientific reason to belief in gods in the first place; and psychologically, a deistic god offers little of what attracts people to religion. I would expect people to slide into either more classical versions of theism for emotional reasons, or into atheism/agnosticism because after all, deism is functionally the same as them. “God doesn’t do anything”, “we can know nothing about a god, even whether it exists”, and “there are no gods” all produce a universe that looks and acts the same.
It was pretty much the only one, leading even people who believed that religion was absurd to go with the "God did it’ argument even while acknowledging it was baseless. I expect someone like that would indeed be an atheist these days. And theism is belief in a god or gods of any kind; deism is the belief in a non-interventionist god that made the universe and no longer interacts with it.
The Great Awakening (the second one) wiped most of it out. There was a huge religious revival in the United States in the first few decades of the 19th century. In addition to a return to the old established religions (this was when the Baptists really took off) you saw new religions like the Mormons, the Shakers, the Adventists, the Disciples of Christ, and the Oneidans all start up.
I’d suggest that the OP check out Wikipedia on Deism today, and the Deism article in general. In short, my understanding is that deism accepts the idea of a Creator, without the other burdens of organized religion such as revelation or a need for salvation.
In other words: Although there are many people today who avoid participating in organized religion, they do accept the idea of God’s existence. Except for die-hard atheists, who would argue against the idea that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”?
Wouldn’t anyone who agrees with that be considered a deist? Granted, most people are not active philosophers (as the OP’s “makers of policy in our embryonic land” were), but wouldn’t anyone who believes in a Creator be a deist?
Does it? Or are the very different. To me deism is a non-involved God, so just try to figure out how He did things on our own. Spiritualism is active interaction and communication with spiritual beings with God being one of them, trying not to do things on your own, always getting guidance.
In deism though a God created things he/she is no longer active, so the surviving part is science, exploring the creation to figure out the rules and laws without reaching out to God. Deism depends on the reasoning abilities of man, as does science, spirituality has to do with communication with spirit and a learning from them.
Before Darwin and modern cosmology, there was a good case to be made for some sort of super Engineer who flipped the switch to “on” and set this complicated machine we call Life, the Universe, and Everything into motion.
But now, there is really no reason to believe in a deity of any kind. The “Universe as giant clockwork machine” view is no longer held by anyone with an understanding of science, and natural selection shows how complicated things can come from simpler forerunners. The “powerful, complicated first cause” is no longer philosophically necessary.
On preview, Der Trihs and Hari Seldon pretty much beat me to my point.
I believe well known blogger Ed Brayton, of Dispatches from the Culture Wars is on record as claiming to be a Deist. His blog used tobe at ScienceBlogs, but is now at Freethought Blogs, which is to all intents and purposes an atheist blogging collective, so I guess he gets on with atheists, even militant ones like P.Z. Meyers, OK. (I recall him talking about Deism from back when he was at ScienceBlogs, where I used to read him fairly frequently.)
Deism certainly hasn’t vanished- I’d say MOST Americans qualify as deists (more on that in a second). It’s just that very few of those Americans are familiar with the term. Thomas Paine KNEW he was a deist. Your average tepid American Christian doesn’t know that he is.
Google the following phrase: “Therapeutic Moralistic Deism.”
I’m quite serious when I say this: regardless of what religion they formally belong to, I think most Americans are, in fact, Therapeutic Moralistic Deists.