Monthly Archives: August 2015

Isn’t This Just Deism? (Part 2)

Today’s Post

Last week we introduced the belief system of Deism as one which Richard Dawkins would have identified as a natural consequence of “stripping the conventional ’baggage’ of God from the concept of a ‘ground of being’ “.  He agreed with Thomas Jefferson that while the basic moral principles of Jesus have value, the rest of the New Testament contained only “so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture”.   Today we will look more closely at Deism but factor in scientific findings that were unavailable to the venerable founders of our country, and thus permitting a deeper development of Deism than that available for their consideration

So, What Happened to Deism?

Deism, while recognizing that there could be a rational basis for belief in God, had one significant weakness.  Deists believed that the Cosmic Designer, who started the world-machine and left it to run on its own, was impersonal and remote.  This was not a God who cares for individuals and actively relates to human life or a being to whom prayer would be appropriate, and with whom relationship was possible.  This was unlike the potential of traditional Western religion (despite all its shortcomings) to inform human life and offer hope for personal fulfillment, and therefore was rich in meaning to the average person.

Also, in their disdain for institutionalized religion, Deists attacked the institutional church: traditional Christianity was pictured as the enemy of the religion of reason.  In effect, the baby was thrown out with the bath.  With no means of connecting to the human psyche, Deism eventually became extinct as a movement.

So Why Isn’t This Blog Deism?

The thinkers of the Enlightenment, unfortunately, did not live to see the rise of one of the most important ideas in science: that of evolution.  In addition to providing a valuable frame of reference to biologists, the theory of evolution also gave rise to the concept of the universe, and everything within it, as “becoming”.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment saw the universe, and our world, as static, essentially unchanged since its creation.  It was a world capable of being built once, then abandoned by its builder who saw no need for continued connection.  Seeing the universe in the dynamic light of the twentieth century introduced an entirely new way of understanding the basic ground of being.

The idea of a basic principle of the universal framing force as one which would eventually evolve to beings conscious of their awareness would have seemed incomprehensible to them.  With it, as we have seen, the basic intuition of the Deists takes on new potential.

So, it seems, the Deists were on the right track.  Their idea of a universe fabricated by a creative force in which all parts mesh together in a unified reality was a good starting place.  Their view is quantified by Science’s understanding of the Six Cosmological Constants (June 11 – The Framing of the Universe, Part 1: Science’s Basic Perspective) which go much further in articulating how the universe holds together.  The missing piece of both Deism and the Six Cosmological Constants, as we have seen, comes into play when the dynamic, evolutive nature of the universe is recognized.  Seeing the universe as dynamic naturally leads to seeing it as increasing in complexity, else it would stall, becoming static.

Acknowledging this phenomenon of emerging complexity not only explains the upward momentum of evolution, it adds the missing piece to Deism.  Yes, the ground of being, first principle, or whatever name we give to the creator, can certainly be reasoned into the basic fabrication of the universe.  With the addition of the phenomenon of complexity, however, this creative force now can be seen to expand from the maker of the building blocks to the ongoing dynamic force which unites them in such a way as to power the expansion of the universe.  The addition of complexity extends Deism’s domain of creation to Theism.   

Deism, and the idea of Rational or Natural religion can therefore be seen as a first step to approaching the underlying truth of the human person and the universe surrounding him.  Even with all the perceived evils of religion, Jefferson’s belief that basic human “moral precepts” are contained in “great purity” in the teachings of Jesus suggests a way forward to the eventual “divestment of baggage” suggested by Dawkins.

Seeing these moral precepts as values which provide meaning to life and contribute to human growth and continued evolution through improved relationships therefore gives rise to the possibility of informing religion and improving its relevance to human life.  Our approach in this blog as we proceed with the reinterpretation of religion is therefore to “Throw out neither the baby nor the bath, rather restore to them their basic functions.”

As Karen Armstrong remarks in her book, ”The Great Transformation”:

“Instead of jettisoning religious doctrines, we should look for their spiritual kernel.  A religious teaching is never simply a statement of objective fact: it is a program for action.”

The Next Post

This week we have seen how Deism can be understood as a first cut at the “Secular Side of God”, and how the understanding of the universe as ‘becoming’ can offer new life to this venerable concept.   In the next post, we will turn our inquiry to rethinking many of the aspects of religion to explore the possibility of its potential for “relevance to human life”.

Isn’t This Just Deism? (Part 1)

Today’s Post

As we saw last week, Richard Dawkins himself, arguably one of the most eloquent apologists for atheism, points the way for this third phase of the blog, reinterpreting religion. Undoubtedly he believed that stripping the conventional ’baggage’ of God from the concept of a ‘ground of being’, or a ‘first cause’, would strip any religious meaning from the concept of God as well. The thought that the opposite might occur, that such reinterpretation might actually add relevance to the concept of God and the meaning of “person”, evidently did not cross his mind. The remainder of this blog will address such reinterpretation in the light of Teilhard’s secular, scientific approach to evolution and the framing of the universe taken in the first two phases. This third phase of the blog will consist of six parts:

  • Distinguishing the approach of this blog from Deism (this post and the next)
  • A brief history of religion
  • What’s unique about Christianity?
  • Some thoughts on a definition of religion
  • Approaches to ‘reinterpreting’ religion
  • Reinterpretations of common Western religious beliefs in the light of Teilhard’s insight into a more cohesive view of science

So far, this blog has identified a personal aspect of the “first cause’, as manifested in the integrated and unified ‘framing’ forces of the universe. This would not seem to lend itself to anything which possesses the traditional attributes of God found particularly in Western theology. Understanding God as “a manifestation of force” would not seem to equate very well with the God of the bible, or the God to which one prays, or the God with whom one could have a relationship. To this statement, Professor Dawkins would certainly agree. He would suggest that this particular perspective is just another type of Deism.


As a system of belief, the rise of Deism reflected the distinctive new eighteenth century viewpoint of the intellectual leaders of the Enlightenment: that religion should be based on reason. Deism, then, was the approach that “adapted Christianity to reason”, as Dawson puts it, by “divest(ing) it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers.” Such ‘divesting’ resulted in a Natural Theology in which reason replaced revelation as a basis for belief. Effectively, the thinkers of the Enlightenment considered reason alone as sufficient to understand reality.

Deism therefore didn’t fall into the categories of ‘a-theism’ (non-belief in God); ‘anti-theism’ (against religion); or ‘agnosticism’ (neither belief nor denial of God). Instead, Deists believed that there is indeed a God, that he created the universe as we see it, but since then has left it alone. In the world of Deism, God created but is no longer involved.

Many, if not most, of the founders of the American nation were Deists. They were very aware of the horrors and aftershocks of religious wars in Europe, extending back several hundred years, and had a healthy respect for the potential dangers of institutionalized religion to society. The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, while granting freedom of religion, by its wording,

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion

also guaranteed ‘freedom from religion’. In addition to an aversion to the miraculous, supernatural and generally non-rational content of Western Christianity, the framers of the constitution had a healthy fear of the ills of religion when it becomes iestablished as a political entity.

Jefferson, Deism and Christianity

Thomas Jefferson is undoubtedly the best known of the framers of the constitution, and like most of them, a Deist. His views on religion in general and its influence on society are succinctly summarized by Wikipedia:

“On one hand Jefferson affirmed, “We all agree in the obligation of the moral precepts of Jesus, and nowhere will they be found delivered in greater purity than in his discourses”, that he was “sincerely attached to His doctrines in preference to all others” and that “the doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man”. However, Jefferson considered much of the New Testament of the Bible to be false (containing “so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture”). In a letter to William Short in 1820, he expressed that his intent was to “place the character of Jesus in its true and high light, as no imposter himself”, but that he was not with Jesus “in all his doctrines”. “

From his study of the Bible, Jefferson concluded that Jesus never claimed to be God.

While living in the White House, Jefferson began to piece together his own version of the Gospels…from which he omitted the virgin birth of Jesus, miracles attributed to Jesus, divinity, and the resurrection of Jesus – among many other teachings and events. He retained primarily Jesus’ moral philosophy, of which he approved. This compilation was completed about 1820, but was not published after his death and became known as the Jefferson Bible.

Deism also had an anti-religion content. Many of the constitutional founders beside Jefferson, such as Franklin, Adams, Madison and Paine harshly criticized the Christian establishment of their day, as “perverted” (Jefferson), “useless” (Franklin), “frightful” (Adams) and “of prideful and arrogant clergy” (Madison).

The Next Post

So this week we have seen how the approach to God as reflected in all the framing forces of the universe has historically led to a naturalistic but impersonal belief system which is further somewhat hostile to traditional organized religions. Is Dawkins correct when he predicts that this is the inevitable outcome of “stripping the conventional ’baggage’ of God from the concept of a ‘ground of being’ “? Next week we will take a closer look at Deism to see what was missing from the viewpoint of the intellectual leaders of the Enlightenment, and situate Deism more clearly in the spectrum between atheism and theism.