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Chuck Clendenen
Chuck Clendenen is a member of the Deist Alliance and one of the founders of Unified Deism. He is also publisher, contributing author and editor of the book Deist: So That's What I Am! In real life Chuck is a security consultant and a grandfather living in Central Texas.

Deism 101

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SBNR.org welcomes a new contributor, Chuck Clendenen, who shares his insights on Reasoned Spirituality and Deism. Glad to have you Chuck!

Deism 101

This article takes a somewhat different approach to defining Deism than you will see elsewhere, because it is based on observations of and interactions with contemporary self-described Deists. I hope that this approach leads to a better understanding of what Deists believe these days. Note, however, that this is not an objective or scholarly work; it was written by a Deist.

Deism is reason-based belief in a higher power, usually called God. That’s it. Defining Deism more narrowly than this excludes far too many Deists. The scope of the definition must be as broad as the range of beliefs that Deists share. Some definitions of Deism that you can find on the Internet are pejorative, little more than brief straw man arguments built to make it easy to discredit Deism and dismiss it as a legitimate belief system. For example, you often will see the Deist God described as creating the universe and then abandoning His* creation. Who would ever be interested in a cold and uncaring God like that? There are other definitions of Deism that are equally unflattering.

You often will hear the Deist God described as impersonal, a Supreme Being who does not interact with, intervene in, or interfere with His creation. Many Deists do believe in a non-intervening God, but not all Deists believe this way. Some Deists believe that God encompasses all of nature; i.e. that God and nature are one and the same. Clearly we interact with nature, so we cannot define the God of all Deists as never interacting with us. Other Deists believe that God interacts with His creation but does not intervene or interfere in it. We cannot disqualify these people from being Deists, so we must make room for many exceptions in our generalizations.

Another approach to defining Deism is to describe what Deists do not believe. Deists tend to be critical thinkers, and most reject notions of miracles or special revelations made by God only to elite and chosen people. Few Deists believe in divine acts that violate natural laws. Deists generally value science and its discoveries more than the claims of prophets or assertions of sacred texts. They take note of the absurdities and contradictions in scriptures and consider such errors evidence that these are the work of men. Deists usually reject dogma, tenets, commandments, covenants, or any required beliefs. Most Deists will tell you that they reject “revealed” religion, or organized religion. In fact, a number of Deists will tell you that they reject religion, period. They do not consider Deism a religion; rather, they categorize their belief system as a philosophy or worldview.

In fact, we must also keep our definition of “God” broad when discussing Deism. It probably would be difficult to find a Deist who believes in an anthropomorphic God. I don’t know any Deist who pictures God as an old man with a white beard who lives in the sky and who exhibits very human characteristics such as jealousy, anger, and partiality. It would not be uncommon to hear Deists refer to their God as a force or a power or an entity, and if a Deist should use the term “being” to describe God, he or she probably would not describe God as anything like a human being.

You often will hear the Deist God described as a creator God, and many Deists, but not all, do believe that God designed and created the universe. However, many freethinking people choose Deism over Atheism because they see too much design and complexity in nature to believe it is all due to random chance. For such Deists, and I would include myself in this number, it seems more likely that the creation was intended rather than being just an accident.

So what is the advantage in believing in a non-intervening God over no God at all? What is the point of a God who does not participate in His creation? A typical Deist would say that a created universe implies that creation, and therefore life, has some purpose, some point to it. Even if we do not know what that purpose is, a created universe cannot be pointless; it is not without hope. It is an amazing and awesome universe. Not all Deists, of course, believe that God created the universe intentionally. And if God can and does intervene in His creation, why does God not do something about evil and cruelty? The “problem of evil” is not an issue if one believes in a non-intervening Deist God. This notion makes Deism significantly different than Theism. We will explore this aspect of Deism in a later article.

Many, probably most, Deists say that, although they believe in a higher power, they do not believe that God’s existence can be proven, any more than it can be proven that God does not exist. The existence of God is a belief, a conclusion that most Deists have reached, not a fact. But there is, for many Deists, compelling circumstantial evidence that God does exist. As Deists, however, we must be prepared to examine new evidence and change our minds if the facts refute our beliefs.

And what of reason? Do we need to examine our definition of reason in this discussion as well? We should. Reasoning is a process based on logic, an objective analysis of the available evidence. When we reason, we first examine the evidence and then reach our conclusions. When we decide first and then try to build arguments to make the evidence fit our conclusions, we are rationalizing. These processes are different. It is perfectly valid to use inspiration or intuition (or even imagination) to initiate our thought processes and to spark our ideas. The greatest thinkers always have done that. But as a Deist I feel we must get down to some disciplined reasoning to reach valid conclusions. We Deists look at nature and examine the evidence we find there. We weigh the evidence against our own experience and understanding. Then we arrive at the conclusion that makes the most sense to us.

The conclusions Deists reach may be varied, but in my opinion the methodology we use to reach those conclusions is common from Deist to Deist. We are spiritual Freethinkers. We use critical reasoning as the basis for our belief. Some Freethinkers conclude that there probably is no God, and some conclude that there probably is. Either conclusion is reasonable, but neither conclusion can be proven. Deists are more comfortable with God in their universe. As Paine said, “God exists, and there it lies”.

If you wish to define Deism differently, you are quite welcome to do so. There is no reason you should be compelled to conform to someone else’s notion of what a proper Deist should believe. Deists have never been very good at conforming.

So, Deism is belief in God based on reason, a short definition for a very broad concept.

*The proper pronouns “He”, “His” and “Him” are used throughout in accordance with normal English convention, not because the author believes that God has a gender.

Share your thoughts. Leave a comment:

17 Responses to “Deism 101”

  1. Drew Underwood
    January 24, 2011 at 11:14 pm #

    Well done! I particularly appreciate your dealing with the manner in which some individuals try twist the Deist God into a cold and uncaring being, unable or unwilling to aid His creation. It is one of the few things that really, really gets on my nerves, because as you pointed out, Deism encompasses a wide variety of beliefs on God–only a few of which view God as apathetic toward creation.

    All this being said, I have a question for you as well: Knowing that there are so many different schools of Deistic thought, even Christian Deists, is there such thing as a Jewish Deist? How about an Islamic Deist?

  2. Chuck Clendenen
    January 25, 2011 at 6:40 am #

    Judaism, in my experience, is more about observance and tradition than a dogmatic approach to religion. One of my heroes is Rabbi Rami Shapiro. I know several Jewish Deists, one of whom spends a lot of time on Facebook. And yes, I know one Quranic scholar who is a Deist. He frequents one discussion board I administer. These are spiritual people who seek answers to life’s questions and don’t necessarily cling unquestioningly to absolutes.

  3. stuart
    January 25, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

    Nice article. I enjoyed it. It’s strange to me how some people think to be a real person you have to form beliefs and then defend them to the death. They see reason and willingness to change, as weak. At best you can change only within “reason”. You are never allowed to completely change your beliefs. To me a willingness to change takes strength and energy. Isn’t it fairly accurate to describe most of the USA’s founders as Deists? Isn’t that where the idea of freedom of religion comes from?

  4. Chuck Clendenen
    January 25, 2011 at 11:37 pm #

    The founders were a mix. There were Trinitarian Christians, Unitarians, Quakers, Deists and others. Neither Christians nor Deists can lay exclusive claim (as they often attempt to do). But the founders did fear the establishment of a state religion. Some of the founders are hard to classify. They changed over time. Freedom of religion certainly didn’t come just from Deists. The word “God” appears in the U.S. Constitution exactly zero times. The U.S. is a product of the Enlightenment, and Deism is just a part of that.

  5. Robert Crego
    February 17, 2011 at 10:09 pm #

    This is a good introduction to what deism is but is incredibly varied and therefore lacks any certain direction. This might be the intention of the author to highlight the variation between deists, but what is the point in generalising all deists into the category of free thinkers and other terms? It just seems incredibly vague, which is not what you find if you properly research deism.

    I also don’t think you can use the phrase ‘valid conclusions’ when perception of facts can vary as well. What the point in validity then? You also seem to generalise the overall ‘method’ of deism and deists far too much which is in fact not a method but a varying scale of notions and thought.

    You say that others are welcome to define deism differently whilst determining the apparently distinct ‘method’ of reasoning.

    This is a good introduction but I think it lacks substantial substance.

  6. Mark Little
    February 28, 2011 at 2:43 pm #

    The lack of direction, substance, vagueness and variation…,

    – Is the prime attribute which makes Deism sturdy and reliable…you’re ability to employ that which has already been provided, your God-given Reason: the only aspect needing appended…the ability to cognitively and cognizantly think. We have the entirity of the currently known universe to observe – macrocosmically to microcosmically…what direction do we need guided? What substance do you percieve is lacking? True, life can be vague and varied, but as Thomas Paine wrote in his book entitled ‘Age of Reason’…:

    “It is only in the CREATION that all our ideas and conceptions of a word of God can unite. The Creation speaketh an universal language, independently of human speech or human language, multiplied and various as they may be. It is an ever-existing original, which every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this word of God reveals to man all that is necessary for man to know of God.”

    – We live to learn…let us not require the direction of others, the answers exist – all we need is a mind and eyes open enough to find them.

    Sincerely,
    The American Deist,
    M.D. Little.

  7. Chuck Clendenen
    March 5, 2011 at 8:23 am #

    @ Robert Thank you so much for the insightful comments. You are certainly correct about this article lacking depth. Just as PSYCH 101 doesn’t make you a psychologist, this short article cannot tell you everything you need to know about Deism. There are more articles to come, and they will provide much needed amplification: Deism’s history, varieties and categories, and what it is to be a Deist in practice. I hope you tune in as we provide more “substatial substance” in future articles.

  8. Ken Knoppow
    May 13, 2011 at 10:07 am #

    @Drew Underwood
    You asked if there is such a thing as a Jewish Deist. Indeed there is. I speak as a Jew by ethnicity and even by observance of some Jewish religious practices. However, I am a Deist by theological belief in that I do not believe that any scripture (including my tribe’s Torah, what Christians all “The Old Testament”) is divinely given or inspired by the divine. I believe as Paine did that Creation is the only God given Bible.

  9. Ken Knoppow
    May 13, 2011 at 10:10 am #

    P.S. Other people who had/have a strong identity as ethnic Jews but who had Deist theological beiefs include Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, and Senator Al Franken.

  10. Name
    October 12, 2012 at 8:04 am #

    Very well written. I at one time was an orthodox jew. I still engage in many of the commandments but I am also definitely a free thinker and do not believe in divine providence, that God intervenes in daily events the way Orhodox jews beleve. I cannot believe that a plane crashing killing 270 people is the works of God, as my Local Rabbi suggests that it was “here time to pass”. I cannot believe that the ones who were killed in the Holocaust or 911 was because it was their time to pass, as my Local rabbi suggests was divine will. If a person commits suicide, was it his time to pass?

  11. Judy Sopher
    February 23, 2013 at 9:52 am #

    This is well said. I am presently reading”Age of Reason” and amazed how something written 200 years ago can describe my beliefs. As a Jew,having studied Torah for years–I was very familiar with the absurdity of the stories and viewed Torah only as an interesting book of literature or mythology.

    I have read of Jews who say that they are Jews by Ethnicity ( or by food, family and some Yiddish) as I am. But I have a problem with the rituals, as the seder and the services. I would love to have discussion concerning how Deists have been able to continue to practice their religion.

  12. Ibanez
    July 1, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

    “Evil” does not exist, it is a word we choose when something bad happen to us (mostly by other human beings)and then we blame a higher being for it? we are responsible for our actions.
    “evil” is a human error not something created by God because U can not smell, hear, touch, or see “evil”. It is not a physical created thing but something within us. Without Evil we could not choose between good and evil. If we eliminate “evil” we would not have free will, to make choices to love or reject God, why would God force us to love him? a loving God wouldn’t. we would be like programmed computers that are not capable for real love.

  13. Dr. Ben Johnson
    April 26, 2015 at 7:28 pm #

    Can you cite reference/source for the quote “God exists, and there it lies”. ?

  14. Lisa Smith
    June 26, 2015 at 11:07 am #

    I very much liked your article…it makes a lot of sense to me. I am just learning about this term, yet I have been saying for some time I believe there is a higher power driving us, I just don’t know what it is due to no proof. I understand the make up of how the human body works, as well as any other living creation with thoughts, emotions, and things like that. I feel if there was no kind of high power, or something bigger than ourselves driving us, based on on just how the body works, we would all be more like robots, working all the same. But something else drives our thoughts & our emotions. Our likes, our dislikes, our choices to right, or do wrong, our different personalities….our individualism!
    I don’t look down on anyone’s beliefs and will stay Ina conversation about God, understanding where the person is coming from. But I do not tolerate ignorance of people that look down on someone else for their beliefs, or someone who will push to change someone’s beliefs. My step sister, 16 years old, just left a boy a few months ago for telling her she was stupid for believing in God. While he is an Atheist, that is his preference, but he no right belittling her for her beliefs. When it comes right down to it they kinda do believe in the same thing….they both believe in something that has no actual facts proving it’s existence or non existence.
    As much as I would love to believe in God, I just can’t comfortably come to that belief without having those facts to support it. I also don’t believe in organized religion. If there is a God, first of all, you can pray anywhere, it doesn’t have to be in this elaborate, expensive building to be done. Also, they saying God is loving and created us all equally, then why do we have have to dress up in fancy clothes to GI to church without being looked down on. God wouldn’t care what we were wearing, just that we are there. And the collection plate…..last I checked God doesn’t go shopping! I don’t need to hive my money away to support a building that is not needed to worship a God in anyway….worship can very well be done for free at the park.
    Sorry, I know that got a little lengthy, so I will just leave it at that, & will end this….your article was a great read & very informational. Thank you for shedding some better light on the things that I have been curious about, & giving me a better way of answering people when they ask me what my religious preference is.

  15. scott rutherford
    April 4, 2016 at 7:33 pm #

    Hello Chuck

    Thank you for sharing on your belief in Deism. Well I agree that the bible does not state any religion and I am religious, I do believe in the creation of the world that is in Genesis. I’m at this point not going futher as we at this point dont agree on how the world was created, I thank you for giving me this opportunity to express my belief in God. Maybe this will lead to furthet discussion.

  16. scott rutherford
    April 4, 2016 at 7:37 pm #

    Sorry noticed that I mislead with my religious statement, I meant to say that I am not religious and believe religion is man made.

  17. Amber Skjelset
    November 11, 2016 at 11:17 am #

    First I must say the writer is very eloquent and very good at getting his concepts across in a very understandable way.

    I really like that concept about deism. I share the majority of what he explains about deist concepts and those fits quite well with the concepts that I have learned in my religion, which is Scientology.

    Thanks for sharing.

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