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God and the Philosophers

Deism: Traditional & Contemporary

Robert Griffiths looks into an anti-religion, pro-God way of thinking.

Deism is belief in the existence of a creator God who does not intervene in the universe, and in particular, in the lives of people. Cleverly, deists try to detach God from religion. As far as religion is concerned, they look and sound like atheists: they reject religious revelation, and often call religion ‘superstition’. But they hold on to God.

Deism seems to come in what I call a ‘hard’ or sceptical version, and a ‘soft’ version. The sceptical version is very critical of religion, but it defends the idea of God and so wants to break it away from religious trappings such as scripture and ritual. This is the view developed in eighteenth century Europe by writers such as Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and Voltaire (1694-1778). Soft deism, by contrast, is barely critical of orthodox religion. This is an earlier form of deism, which originally emerged in the seventeenth century, in the work of people like John Toland (1670-1722) and Matthew Tindall (1657-1733). One might also call it ‘Christian deism’. The general idea was that Christianity has a core that could be defended entirely by reason, and that was all that a Christian needed. This was partly a way of cutting through the exhausting doctrinal disputes that had dominated the Reformation and the formulation of Protestantism in the previous two hundred years: let us be Christians, but let us be rational Christians! Some hints of this soft deism remain in Voltaire, who once cast Christ as a deist; but in Paine the sceptical note against religion is consistently harsh.

Deism became less popular by the end of the eighteenth century, partly because of an increase in atheism but also because of the Romantic reaction against the Enlightenment and its heavy emphasis on reason. Also, naturally deism spawned no churches or religious communities, and so often seemed an elitist, intellectual position with limited appeal to ordinary people. However, deism is still around, and may even be experiencing a revival. Today, it is promoted by organisations such as the ironically-named Church of the Modern Deist (moderndeist.org) and The World Union of Deists (deism.com). There is also a stream of publications by self-professed deists outlining for popular audiences the alleged appeal of this philosophy. Today, the target audience for deists may be (as it was in the seventeenth century) Christians and other religious people who are becoming confused or alienated by doctrinal disputes and are instead looking for a rationally defensible simple ‘core’ to their beliefs. It also tries to appeal to those who find organised religion dubious but are not convinced by atheists, old or new. In deism’s avoidance of obscure doctrine, agnostics can also find a set of convictions that might appeal to their desire for a certain vagueness or uncertainty in this area. So the potential audience for deism is quite large; for instance, the sociologist Grace Davie, in her Religion in Britain (2015), suggests that “between half and two-thirds of the population continue to believe in some sort of God or supernatural force.” However, only a minority of these people participate in religious activity. Davie dubs this ‘believing without belonging’. One might also call it deism.

Payne and Voltaire
Payne & Voltaire by Simon Ellinas 2022
Illustration © Simon Ellinas 2022 Please visit www.simonillustrations.com

Deist Methods & Metaphysics

Emerging in the seventeenth century, deism was heavily influenced by the Rationalist outlook that prevailed at that time. The key methodological principle advocated by deists is that we should base all our beliefs on reason. To emphasize this, the word ‘reason’ was often written with a capital letter, or even all in capitals. John Toland, who was a correspondent of the Rationalist philosopher Gottlieb Leibniz, wrote, “we hold that Reason is the only Foundation of all Certitude” (Christianity Not Mysterious, 1696). Bob Johnson, a modern deist asserts, ‘God gave us reason not religion’ (Deism: A Revolution in Religion, A Revolution in You, 2009).

Of course, few of us – certainly few philosophers – are going to object to the use in general of reason. However, we may not agree with the way in which reason is used by deists.

At the heart of deism are two claims. The first is that reason can demonstrate the existence of an intelligent being who created the universe, and because reason can do this very well, we do not need revelation or any other religious way of establishing the existence of God.

Rational arguments for the existence of God are very old, and long predate deism. Perhaps the oldest type of argument is now known as the ‘cosmological argument’. This basically argues that there must be a first ‘uncaused cause’ of the universe – a cause whose very existence is logically necessary in a way that the universe is apparently not – otherwise we have no explanation of why there is a universe at all. Without a first uncaused cause, there is a potential infinite regress of causes of the world – we can keep asking ‘But what caused that?’ forever – leaving the universe without a rational foundation. Aristotle already presents such an argument for a ‘Prime Mover’ in his Metaphysics. There are also several arguments of this kind in Thomas Aquinas’s ‘Five Ways’ of demonstrating the existence of God in his Summa Theologica. Rationalist Christian philosophers such as René Descartes, Leibniz, and Samuel Clarke defended detailed versions of this argument. Thomas Paine relies on it: “the belief of a first cause eternally existing, of a nature totally different to any material existence we know of, and by the power of which all things exist… this first cause man calls God” (The Age of Reason, 1794). Deists also share with Aristotle the view that once God had created the universe, he did not interfere with it. They regarded it as offensive to the Supreme Being to suppose that he needed to fiddle constantly with his rational creation. They therefore talk of miracles very glumly.

The second argument to which deists often appealed is what’s called ‘the argument from design’. This is the claim that the world shows signs of intelligent design, such that its order could not be down to chance or the random permutation of matter. Such an argument had already been put by Aquinas, so it also was by no means new. Again, Paine relies on it: ‘‘The word of God is the creation we behold’’. And for Voltaire this is perhaps the strongest argument for the existence of God. In pressing it, Paine and Voltaire – who were both very knowledgeable of contemporary science – were partly influenced by the monumental work of Sir Isaac Newton. Newton seemed to many to have revealed the underlying – and glorious – order of nature. Newton himself was convinced that this order was created and sustained by God. So the idea that the world was orderly, and a reflection of the mind of God, was widely shared. (Newton, though, remained a Christian.)

Deist Ethics & Politics

Another key deist claim was an ethical one. They argued that God had created man as a rational being, and that if he pursued a rational life he would be happy and virtuous. In line with his liberal principles, Voltaire argued that the rational person would treat all others equally, so that the rational life would lead to both personal and general happiness. He conceded that the central Christian principle of ‘loving thy neighbour’ could easily serve as a foundation for deist (and liberal) ethics.

Having an ethical position was important to deists, as they wished to avoid the imputation of immorality that was normally thrown at atheists. So it was useful for them to cast the heart of Christian ethics within deism.

Of course, the view that the rational life is both happy and virtuous is also an old one, going back to Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle had argued that man was by nature rational and that the pursuit of a rational life would lead to happiness and virtue, which he called eudaimonia. What was different about the ethical outlook of Paine and Voltaire was a greater liberalism, and an openness to human equality that the aristocrat Plato and the royal doctor’s son Aristotle did not share.

By the eighteenth century, deism’s criticism of institutional religion had become quite strident, whereas seventeenth century Christian deism seemed remote and abstract. This change of tone was partly due to a gathering movement for radical political reform – a movement in which the Church was often seen as an enemy of the people. Paine’s comment was not untypical: “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” Voltaire meanwhile attacked religion with literary flair. The entry on ‘Religion’ in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764) imagines a tour through the graveyards of religious disputes: “These,” he said, “are the twenty-three thousand Jews who danced before a calf, with the twenty-four thousand who were killed while lying with Midianitish women” [citing the Old Testament’s book of Exodus, Ed].

This disparaging tone concerning established religion reflected a growing interest in atheism and materialism, at least in France, due to influential writers such as Diderot and the Baron d’Holbach. The deists, though, resisted atheism even while they shared the atheist’s disdain of religion. Voltaire’s concern to retain God was partly ethical. As he commented wryly, “I shall always ask you if, when you have lent your money to someone in your society, you want neither your debtor, nor your attorney, nor your judge, to believe in God.”

Deism, Modern & Troubled

In the eighteenth century the anxiety that atheism would open the door to immorality was widespread. When it came, many thought that the French Revolution confirmed this view. Nowadays, though, the deist lacks that motivation. In the twenty-first century the claim that atheism leads to vice has no bite, and the ethics of the modern deist is hardly different to the kind of humanism, or even utilitarianism, defended by contemporary atheists such as A.C. Grayling or Sam Harris. This means that the modern deist position has to rest pretty much entirely on the view that one can provide rational arguments for the existence of God.

Yet it is noticeable that a lot of modern popular deist writing focuses predominantly, and negatively, on the apparent irrationality of orthodox religion. When they explain rational arguments for the existence of God, they tend to appeal extensively to the work of writers like Paine. This is unfortunate, in a way, due to how little awareness there seems to be of the problems dogging the arguments in Paine’s key work, The Age of Reason. The book is philosophically rather thin, being more of a manifesto than a convincing piece of analysis. It was published in various editions between 1794 and 1807. One is therefore struck by the absence in it of any attempt to consider, for instance, the objections to ‘existence of God’ arguments raised in 1779 by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Equally (if perhaps more understandably), there is no awareness in Paine’s work of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason of 1787, in which rational arguments for the existence of God are criticised at length. This failure to engage with intellectual difficulties is also typical of popular deism now: the website of the Church of the Modern Deist also makes no mention of Hume or Kant.

The modern deist is also disadvantaged in comparison with Paine and Voltaire by the blow to design arguments that was dealt in the nineteenth century by the theory of natural selection. In the form that Paine or Voltaire use the design argument, Darwin’s theory is probably fatal, and one could easily argue that nowadays the intellectual foundations of deism, in the first cause and design arguments for the existence of God, cannot be developed in the way they were developed by traditional deists. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that deism has lost all intellectual credibility. Philosophers continue to discuss both these kinds of arguments seriously, although the face of the battleground has changed considerably. Modern defenders of design arguments for the existence of God, such as Richard Swinburne (Is There a God?, 2010), largely concede that one cannot argue from the apparent design in, say, a horse, to the existence of an intelligent designer, since the apparent design in a horse is fully explained by evolutionary biology. However, Swinburne thinks that evolutionary biology cannot explain why the laws of nature upon which it relies take the form that they do. Sometimes the form of one natural law can be explained by appealing to a higher-level natural law. Aspects of thermodynamics, for example, might be explained in terms of mechanics. But, Swinburne argues, there can be no ultimate explanation by science of the form of the laws of physics that makes life possible. Science uses laws; so it cannot completely explain them. From this Swinburne argues that there must be an intelligent creator responsible for the ultimate form of natural laws. This kind of argument is linked to the lively argument today about whether the universe is fine-tuned by an intelligent designer, since if the values of the fundamental physical constants of nature had varied by even an infinitesimal fraction, life as we know it would not be possible. Swinburne would argue that the universe is fine-tuned; sceptics such as Victor Stenger would argue that it is not (The Fallacy of Fine Tuning, 2011). Nowadays it is in areas like this that the intellectual credibility of deism is tested – in the arena of cutting-edge scientific knowledge. Similarly, theist philosophers such as William Lane Craig continue to defend the cosmological argument for the existence of God, while trying to address Hume’s, Kant’s and anyone else’s objections to it. Craig has done extensive work to show that the first-cause argument can be made compatible with modern physics (The Kalam Cosmological Argument, 2019). Against him, atheist scientist Lawrence Krauss argues in A Universe from Nothing (2012) that he has undermined all first-cause arguments by showing how quantum mechanics and relativistic cosmology makes it plausible to claim that the universe just appeared, from nothing – although to make this argument Krauss relies on the laws of quantum mechanics and relativistic cosmology themselves being ‘nothing’, or in other words, not themselves requiring explanation.

The modern deist no longer has Voltaire’s excuse for rejecting atheism as leading to ethical failure. But she need not be embarrassed by continuing to argue rationally for the existence of a supreme being, as long as she is prepared to enter a more contemporary debate than the one that seems to be played out on deist websites or in the popular deist literature. If she is so convinced that we must follow reason in order to discover the truth, then reason must be followed where it leads, and in such debates as those between Craig and his opponents, it leads into some very difficult material, requiring a strong grip on both philosophy and contemporary science.

Eye in the Sky
Eye in the Sky Paul Gregory

Deism, Present & Future

Whether deism is ever likely to be a very popular position is another question. Davie’s identification of a widespread vague belief in a God or ‘force’ is perhaps not as much comfort to deists as they might think. We live in a much more pluralist age than the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We have also moved beyond the Rationalist atmosphere in which deism had its birth, and the charge of elitism that affected it then may still affect it now. It is also unlikely that those people who believe in an indistinct God or a primordial force do so because they are convinced by rational arguments for its existence. Davie herself acknowledges that contemporary ‘religious’ awareness among those who do not practice an orthodox religion is often of a vaguely ‘spiritual’ quality, influenced by a wide range of both rational and non-rational sources.

Our world is a very different one to the world of Toland, Tindall, Paine and Voltaire; yet the attempt to resurrect deism is not without modern intellectual support. However, those who defend its key arguments, such as Swinburne and Craig, are, significantly, not deists, but Christians. Traditional deism suffered because a number of influential Christian philosophers such as John Locke (The Reasonableness of Christianity, 1695) and Samuel Clarke (A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, 1705) argued that Christianity could be made as rationally defensible as deism. Swinburne and Craig et al may inadvertently be having the same effect.

Today the deist also faces a much more developed enemy in atheism. Yet it shares with atheism a strong dislike of organised religion; so it needs to differentiate itself from that. It will have its work cut out to ensure that its dislike of religion, often expressed very vituperatively, does its own claims less harm than good.

Sometimes the baby can swim out of the bath-water. But whether today one can persuade many people that God can survive the arguments for the death of religion, based entirely on rational arguments for his existence, is less than obvious.

© Robert Griffiths 2022

Robert Griffiths is a retired philosophy teacher currently writing a book called God and the Philosophers.

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