Though the word “deism” may conjure up vague ideas of Enlightenment philosophy or American history, it is more than just an outdated idea. Deism continues to affect our lives even today.
Deism is not a universally agreed upon religion, but rather a common set of ideas. Since there is no official “Deist Handbook” that has been universally agreed upon (although an 18th century man did write a book entitled The Deist’s Manual), definitions are difficult. A common thread of deism is the idea that God set the world in motion and then stepped away to let it run its course.
What is Diesm?
Deism teaches that there is a God, and that He created the world, but created things do not need His presence and the exercise of His power in order to continue in existence and fulfill their functions. The material world is placed under immutable law; while man, the rational and moral free agent, is left to do as he wills. God sustains, according to deism, very much the same relation to the universe that the clock-maker does to his timepiece. Having made his clock, and wound it up, he does not interfere with it, and the longer it can run without the maker's intervention the greater the evidence of wisdom and skill on the part of the maker. God according to deism has never wrought a miracle nor made a supernatural revelation to man.
The only religion that is possible to man is natural religion; he may reason from Nature up to Nature's God. The only value of prayer is its subjective influence; it helps us to answer our own prayers, to become and be what we are praying to be. If the Divine Being is a prayer-hearing God, He is least not a prayer-answering God. The laws of Nature constitute God's general providence; but there is no other personal and special providence than this, according to deism. God, the deists affirm, is too great, too distant, too transcendent a Being to concern Himself with the details of creaturely existence. (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
How Did Deism Get Started?
The exploration of deism began in the middle of the 17th century with English writers. Though the word was initially used in 16th century France, it didn’t gain its current meaning until later.
The high point of English Deism was from about 1689 through 1742, during a period of backlash against the Church of England, explains this article from Encyclopedia Britannica. Explaining the beliefs of these early deists proves difficult, since there was a wide variety of thought. Some held that God created the universe and then stepped completely away. Others emphasized moral living, but still did not believe God involved himself in human affairs. Common threads included that the teachings of Jesus were helpful, but not essential, and that the Bible contained good moral teachings but was neither a historical record nor completely pure.
The Deists were especially opposed to what they considered religious fanaticism and enthusiasm. Fire and brimstone sermons were certainly out, and the deist God was perpetually benevolent and tolerant, as all men should be.
By the end of the 18th century in America, deism was a common religious attitude among the intellectuals and upper class, coinciding greatly with Enlightenment thought, explains this article. It was embraced by notables such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. According to Enlightenment thought, man was capable of improving himself, and for many, utopia was believed to be attainable through human reason and education.
What Does Deism Look Like Today?
Today’s population has much less faith than the early deists did in man’s ability to bring about perfect peace. Especially after events such as the World Wars in the first half of the 20th century, Enlightenment thinking and Romanticism were largely abandoned in favor of Modernism and Post-Modernism.
However, deist thought persists. Dozens of websites and forums promote deism, and the philosophy of “I believe there is a God, but I don’t have much to do with him” is widespread.
Even in mainline Christianity, a new form of deism is spreading.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
According to Christian Smith and his fellow researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism can be defined by the following beliefs:
- A god exists who created the world and watches over humans.
- God wants people to be kind to one another, as taught by most major world religions.
- The main goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself.
- God doesn’t need to be particularly involved in our lives except when he’s needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
Researchers found that this was a commonly held set of beliefs, especially among young people. However, those who held to these beliefs were inarticulate about the particularities.
Are You Falling into Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?
Sometimes, we as Christians have a tendency to fall into some of the fallacies of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). Have you noticed any of these in your life?
1. Salvation by morals instead of grace
MTD emphasizes the idea that “good people go to heaven” and “God just wants us to be nice.” However, as Ephesians 2:8-9 emphasizes, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
A relationship with God, asking for forgiveness, and pledging ourselves to Jesus as our Lord and Savior are what are important for salvation, and our good works flow out of our relationship with Christ.
2. The main goal in life is to be happy
Jesus didn’t say that Christianity would be easy. Instead, he said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
Jesus expected that Christianity would be hard. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).
He demanded radical sacrifice. To the rich man he said, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22).
Eleven out of twelve of the apostles died martyrs.
John put it bluntly. “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (James 2:19). Being a Christian requires more than just belief.
Though he may require different things from different people, being a Christian means giving up everything to God. Though His people will certainly experience eternal joy, temporary worldly happiness is not His goal.
3. God as a genie
In MTD, God is called upon when a person wants something, and ignored otherwise. He is a genie in a bottle granting wishes.
Christianity does not support this view. God will never accept being an afterthought. He demands to be the center of our lives. All actions, thoughts, and requests are to be informed by allegiance to Him.
In Christianity, God does respond to our prayers as a loving Father hearing the requests of His children, but not as a genie granting wishes.
The Fallacy of Deism
Deism’s fatal flaw is its failure to recognize the living and active role of God in our lives. Our God is not distant. He did not leave us to our own devices. Instead, He sent His one and only Son to die for us in order to save us.
Our Father God wants to be intimately involved in our lives. Will we let him?
Photo credit: Unsplash/Benjamin Davies
Alyssa Roat is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., a professional writing major at Taylor University, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. Her passions for Biblical study and creativity collide in her writing. More than a hundred of her works have been featured in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids.Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.