Last time we began our discussion of Kerry Waters book, Revolutionary Deists, by looking at the basic tenets of deism, its critique of Christianity, and its political posture. Today we will look at the causes of its decline and ponder its legacy. Walters tells us deism declined in America after the death of its leading voices. Its basis in reason and science was seen as intellectually elitist – “the thinking person’s religion.” Romanticism and transcendentalism which dominated the 19th century arose in direct opposition to Enlightenment philosophy and the complete reliance on rationality.
Philosophically, it began with David Hume’s attack on causation as metaphysically suspect – mere inference due to the human mind’s propensity to see as causal two events that are contiguous, sequential, and constantly conjoined in experience – hence undermining the mechanistic description of nature. Moreover the deist view was ultimately unsatisfying with its austere and indifferent universe and its remote, uninvolved image of God. Reason also struggled to explain human moods, passion, and intuition. Immanuel Kant’s vision of the uniqueness of humans in nature in possession of freedom contradicted mechanistic explanations of behavior. Perhaps most damaging to deism were philosophers such as Baron Henri D’Holbach who in his Systems of Nature, argued a mechanical cosmos needed no God as explanation and human reason would never identify an origin of the universe nor would a first cause contribute significantly to our understanding of it.
Deism’s legacies were its effect on Christianity and political thought. Christianity reacted to its attacks by de-emphasizing supernaturalism, adopting the naturalist arguments of the deists to defend itself, and using reason in religious inquiry and biblical exegesis. Some denominations began to focus on symbolic or allegorical rather than literal interpretations of Scripture. But deism’s greater contributions to modernity may have been its humanism and its support for tolerance and equality. Many of its political beliefs such as religious freedom, separation of church and state, and freedom of speech and press were incorporated into the American Constitution.2
But I think the Enlightenment and deism have a larger place in the individual search for human meaning. Their belief in human rationality and disbelief in the supernatural have been validated in spite of Hume’s arguments. Trust in science allowed man to conquer diseases such as small pox and polio, develop modern technology, and land a man on the moon. Individuals lacking a formal religious orientation can find footing in the concept of ‘worship of the deity’ as man’s exercise of godlike qualities – reason and benevolence. The rational and empirical investigation of nature can still be the making of a viable theology, and the examination of one’s conscience and the virtuous treatment of fellow humans still works as a foundation of ethics.
Finally thoughtful people will need to come to terms with the question of the origin to the universe. Deism offers no less reasonable an answer than any formal religion and provides an ecumenical approach.
1Walters, Kerry, Revolutionary Deists, Prometheus Books, New York, 2011. ISBN 978-1-61614-190-5, pages 7-12.
2Ibid, pages 245-273.