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”.