Deist, deist, theist—say those words in Jersey (pronounced Joy-zie) and they all sound the same. Fortunately, spelling will help us keep tabs on which is which. Besides spelling, there are important differences. Of note: Deists (capital D) went the way of the dodo bird and deists (lowercase d) are rarer than diamonds. Theists rule–like it or not.
Now to clarify. A story about François-Marie Arouet , a.k.a. Voltaire (1694-1778), nicely illustrates the difference between a Deist, a deist, and a theist. He’s considered by people-in-the-know to have been a “mystical, and even emotional deist.”
Voltaire was already eighty years old when this incident took place. He rose before dawn and, with a visitor, he climbed a nearby hill to watch the sunrise. Upon reaching the top, Voltaire was overcome by the beauty of the morning scene. He took off his hat and knelt, exclaiming: “I believe, I believe in you, Powerful God, I believe.” Then, on his feet again, he drily proclaimed, “As for monsieur the Son and madame his Mother, that is a different story!”
Voltaire was a French Deist (note the capital D). Deism (with a capital D) was a religious movement. Also called the “religion of reason,” it originated in 18th century England.
Today, if someone adopts tenets like those of the English and French Deists, he or she qualifies as a deist (lowercase d). How you doing with keeping the capital D’s and the lowercase d’s straight?
Here’s more. Deism, deism and deists (words derived from the Latin for god, deo) subscribe to a God who created us and the universe. Since then, the universe has continued to operate under reliable and discoverable laws. And since then, God has not mucked with the laws of nature or with our personal lives.
By contrast, theism and theists (words derived from the Greek for god, theos) subscribe to a personal God, active in human history, and guarantor of eternal life. You know—the beliefs to which most of today’s religious believers in the West subscribe. In case you forgot, let me remind you–theists rule.
Probably because French philosophes like Voltaire were literary individuals, not trained philosophers, they were able to popularize and disseminate the new religious movement. They believed (wrongly, it turns out) Deism would emancipate society from ignorance and fanaticism.
Here’s how, in a lightly adapted passage, Voltaire described the deist:
A deist is a person firmly persuaded of the existence of a Supreme Being equally good and powerful, who has formed all existences; who perpetuates their species, who punishes crimes without cruelty, and rewards virtuous actions with kindness.
The deist does not know how God punishes, how God rewards, how God pardons, for he is not presumptuous enough to flatter himself that he understands how God acts; but he knows that God does act and that God is just. The difficulties opposed to a providence do not stagger him in his faith, because they are only great difficulties, not proofs.
He does not join any of the sects, who all contradict themselves. His religion is the most ancient and the most extended, for the simple adoration of a God preceded all the systems in the world.
He believes that religion consists neither in the opinions of incomprehensible metaphysics, nor in vain decorations, but in adoration and justice. To do good–that is his worship; to submit oneself to God–that is his doctrine. He succours the poor and defends the oppressed.
Does this describe you? Then you’re a deist.
If so, it may be instructive to consider why Deism, the religious movement, was short-lived.
Yes, Deism died in fairly short order both in England (in its more theoretical and abstract version) and in France (in its more popular and literary version).
In place of Christianity, Voltaire envisioned a rather vague, popular form of Deism. Doctrine would be reduced to belief in a just God, whose service was the practice of virtue. Worship would be simple and would consist primarily in praise and adoration and lessons in morality.
According to religious-studies scholar, James Livingston, Deism fizzled, in part, because it failed to attract the masses. Why?
1. It was too abstract, too intellectual in spite of its claim to simplicity; feeling and aesthetic sense are required of any religious faith that expects a wide appeal
2. It lacked unity—its radical demands for autonomy were liberating but did not encourage the shared sense of faith and worship necessary for congregation-building
So, deists of the world, you’re likely feeling pretty alone. There aren’t many of your kind. And anyway, you (supposedly) aren’t the sort to seek each other out to worship together. Which is why there’s not a First Deist Church of insert-your-town’s-name-here. Why not unite and start one today? Dare to prove the experts wrong.
HNFFT: If you qualify as a deist, what do you say to the charge that your beliefs are too abstract and intellectual for most people (this is not necessarily a negative)? How do feelings and aesthetics come together with your deistic beliefs?
Reference: James C. Livingston: Modern Christian Thought: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, vol 1, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), p. 26-28.