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.