The Definition of Deism
Deism was primarily a movement among the upper classes of Britain in the 18th century that sought to demystify religion. It spread in different forms to France and America. In America, Deism existed within a Christian framework as in Britain. But in France, Deism took on a decidedly anti-Christian attitude. Thus, the American and French Revolutions are more opposites than they are similar historical events.
Deists acknowledge that God is the Creator of the universe. The French school of Deists believed that after God made the world He then left it to its own devices; God is not active in the world but a mere spectator. The American Deists believed that history unfolds according to the plan of God the Creator, what they called Divine Providence.
Deism beliefs postulate that all religions contain moral truths, which are useful only if stripped of anything supernatural or "superstitious." Voltaire defined Deism: "Pure adoration of a supreme being, free of all superstition."
The Historical Jesus Project
Western Peoples emphasized history as never before in the 18th century. A tremendous interest developed in the study, research, writing, and debating of history. Since, through the Incarnation, God, who is beyond time, voluntarily stepped into time, Deists decided to study Jesus as a historical figure, using the same evidentiary criteria used to study any other historical personage.
Deist scholars set out to dissect the Jesus of the Bible. They could agree that he was a messenger from God, who preached about the love of God and set a holy example of how to live. However, Deist thinkers began to express doubts about Christ as the way to salvation, particularly to disagree with Christian orthodoxy that Christ is the Redeemer of Mankind.
The main objection was against Atonement for the sins of people. Those of Deism beliefs could not come to grips with a God who would punish the innocent (Jesus) and absolve the guilty (us). Particularly troubling was the idea that God required human sacrifice (the crucifixion). Deists repudiated the Christian system of Salvation.
The German Deist Hermann Reimarus (1694-1768) wrote a critique of the Bible—the forerunner of the Historical Jesus Project in the 20th century—in which he argued that Jesus was nothing more than a failed freedom fighter and preacher. According to Reimarus, the followers of Christ had no desire to return to fishing so they stole his body and created a Resurrection myth. Thus the Christian Faith was simply a fraud from the beginning.
Reimarus sought to denude Christ of any supernaturalness. In particular, Reimarus wanted to separate the moral teachings of Jesus—which he accepted—from what was taught about Jesus after his death.
Thus, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem became not preparation for death and resurrection but an aborted attempt to establish a theocracy in Israel, an earthly Kingdom of God. Reimarus insisted that the things Jesus said in Gethsemane about the cup passing from him, and on the cross about being forsaken by God, should be understood as Jesus feeling heartbroken that his mission had failed.
Reimarus revised the story of Jesus from one of triumph to one of tragedy and pathos. Though the dream of Jesus had come to naught, Reimarus still felt Jesus had left us with a religion that is "reasonable, simple, exalted, holy, and practical." Thus Jesus, though neither divine nor capable of supernatural miracles, remains "the teacher of the entire human race."
Reimarus especially hated the God of the Old Testament, whom he described as a petty tyrant whose revealed "law," with ridiculous commandments such as the Sabbath, contained very little of the essence of true religion, and whom had never promised a savior as Christianity claimed.
Reimarus felt God would never choose the Hebrews as his chosen people. "I find it difficult to comprehend that out of so many wiser and more tractable nations God would choose a stubborn and perverted people as his possession and his beloved."
What Deists Believe
Deism beliefs centered on the idea that God has never revealed Himself to humankind, except through His Divine Presence in Nature. Deism denies any possibility of miracles. Therefore, a Deist believes the miracles performed by Jesus Christ in the Holy Bible were simply made up by the bald-faced liars who wrote what Deists believe to be a collection of fraudulent fictions.
Deism rejects the notion that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Therefore, Deists do not believe that anyone in the age of reason should accept the tenets of the Christian Faith. Instead, diligent studies should be undertaken as to the historical veracity of the Bible, and thus to its truth claims. Of course, the call for critical scholarship came loudest from those who wished Christian Orthodoxy to be changed to approve of what they wished to do.
Deism beliefs did revere the Great Architect of the Universe for His Handiwork. They posited that this reverence is a worldwide phenomenon. Deists sought worldwide unity by the eventual vanquishing of what they termed man-made religions, which to them history had shown produced only conflict, persecution, massacres, and religious wars.
The Supreme Being of Deism
Deism promoted a belief in a 'Supreme Being' whatever you may make of Him. 'Mystery,' defined as that which is incomprehensible in creation and providence, was announced to be a fancy name for ignorance.
Prayer was ridiculed as "speaking to the air" since God would never change the course of events for human beings; probably didn't even listen; and certainly would never talk to people. Attacks on 'superstition' were primarily aimed at Roman Catholicism, and secondarily at Eastern Orthodoxy.
Even critics of Christ agreed that he was a supreme moral force, utterly innocent, and the embodiment of human excellence. But they objected to the concept of an angry, righteous, embittered God who had to be appeased by the blood of Jesus. Deists claimed it dishonored God by making him appear to be an injured party demanding satisfaction.
One of the more famous Deists, Matthew Tindal, wrote: "God, as he can never be injured, so he can never want reparation and can gain no addition by satisfaction."
In America, Deists such as Thomas Jefferson believed in a benevolent Creator but one who did not interfere with the affairs of men. Jefferson rejected the supernatural; the Creation story of the Holy Bible; and the divinity and miracles of Jesus. He thought Jesus a great moral teacher. Thomas Jefferson zoomed in on the Apostle Paul as the "first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus."
David Hume was a Scottish philosopher dedicated to disproving the Christian Faith, particularly miracles and any other manifestation of the supernatural. The Deist Edward Gibbon wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in which he blamed Christianity for the fall of Rome and everything bad that has happened since.
Voltaire ridiculed Catholicism for venerating relics, among other things. He drilled home his belief that Catholics practiced "hating your neighbor for his opinions."
Voltaire cast doubt in the minds of his readers as to the Genesis account of creation. He believed that there is a God but that Deism would, or should, become the religion of modern men. Voltaire railed against Catholic rituals, prayers, and fears. The Catholic Church, he said, was an imposter designed to benefit popes, bishops, priests, and monks—not the citizen.
Voltaire was not an Atheist. He defended God when, reflecting on the night sky, he wrote: "One would have to blind not to be dazzled by this sight; one would have to be stupid not to recognize its author; one would have to be mad not to worship him."
Voltaire also said: "I believe in God, not the god of the mystics and the theologians but the god of nature, the great geometrician, the architect of the universe, the prime mover, unalterable, transcendental, everlasting." And he added on another occasion: "To believe in absolutely no God would be a frightful moral mistake, a mistake incompatible with good government."
Diderot expanded this view with his statement that mankind would be saved when "the last king has been strangled with the entrails of the last priest." Diderot saw the French Enlightenment as a religion to replace the Christian Faith---a Secular Humanism, if you will.
The French Revolution
In France, Deism definitely operated outside the Christian Faith and usually against it. France is where Deism uniquely morphed into full blown Agnosticism and even outright Atheism.
Whereas the Enlightenment developed alongside and in partnership with the Christian Faith in England, Scotland and America; in France the Catholic Church was far more rigid and brooked no compromise with new ideas.
The French Enlightenment thus became the first intellectual movement in Europe that developed outside the parameters of the Christian Faith since the 4th century. French philosophers proclaimed that the Christian Faith was the producer of evil.
The French Revolution at first merely abolished tithing and confiscated all church lands—20 percent of the land in France. Priests and bishops would now be elected by popular vote and all ties to Rome were cut.
Then things got more radical as the French Revolution proceeded. Christianity was banned altogether and replaced by an official government religion of Atheism, with Reason as the new god. To make it official, a new calendar was produced with ten-day weeks, devoid of religious holidays, with new holidays dedicated to various vegetables, flowers, and fruits. All opposed could make ready to have their heads chopped off with the guillotine.
Most churches were forcibly closed. Signs were placed in cemeteries that read "Death is Extinction." France then declared war on the rest of Western Europe and promptly invaded Belgium and Holland. Surely, this was a great triumph for Reason.
The madness, the utter depravity, the bloody murders of the French Philosophers killed Deism; its children live on in different guises.
The Christian Response to Deism
Christians of the day saw Deism as an attack on their faith from within. William Law responded for the faithful that the arguments by Deists are "childish."
Law added: "All these objections proceed upon this supposition, that atonement, or satisfaction, when attributed to Jesus Christ, signify neither more nor less, nor operate in any other manner, than when they used as terms in human laws, or in civil life."
Theologians countered Deism by stating that if the universe was only "to be judged by our ordinary notions and faculties, it is useless to try to persuade anyone to accept the principle mysteries of the faith; a truth revealed by God, above the power of natural reason to find out or comprehend."
Scripture definitely presented Christ as the Redeemer and Savior. William Law conceded that before the Resurrection and Pentecost the disciples of Jesus had not understood "the doctrines concerning Christ's death, the nature, necessity, and the merits of his sacrifice and atonement for the sins of the world." Deists were claiming that Jesus neither taught these doctrines nor intended them to be taught.
But to Godly men such as Jean-Frederic Osterwald, the sacrifice of Christ on Golgotha was "offered to God to expiate our sins, to deliver us from death, and enable us to acquire a right to eternal life." This was not because God demanded this sacrifice but because sinful humankind had necessitated it.
Rebuttals to Deism were put forth forcefully by English philosopher and theologian Joseph Butler. He thought Deists abandoned the Christian Faith because it might interrupt their pleasure-seeking. Deists might be high-minded, Butler thought, but their rejection of divine revelation gave lesser spirits an excuse to mock the morals of the Bible and drift into the occult. He also pointed out the fruits of disbelief among British aristocrats, which undoubtedly included addictions, diseases, gambling, and bankruptcy.
Deism Was the Fashion Among Intellectuals
Deism became fashionable among the intellectuals of Europe, and lesser so in America where a few of Founding Fathers jumped on the bandwagon. To be a Deist was for a brief time to obtain entrance into a select club of the 'enlightened.'
Deism became the historical stepping stone to agnosticism and atheism. Deism is the father of Unitarianism, and of the modern New Age religions that are pantheist or worship the Mother Earth.
The ideas of Deism challenged the very foundational truths of the Christian Faith. Perhaps it was an extension of the Reformation, which challenged the authority of the Catholic Church. The Deists took it further, and their lack of reverence was thought by Jean-Frederic Osterwald to have led to "irreligion and unbelief, these detestable sentiments which attack religion itself and lead to atheism."
Soon the Christian Faith would face what it had not seen before, something beyond subtle subversion: open mockery.