March 4, 2024

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The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Some Confusions about Early Modern Deism

Today, 'deism' is often characterized in terms of an image of God as an absent watchmaker—a designer, usually conceived in fairly anthropomorphic terms, who set the world going and walked away, not only never intervening in history but also not caring about us and how we live our lives. This conception often informs discussions about religion in the American founding, the French Revolution, etc., as well as discussions in philosophy. However, this is not how deism was understood in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In the first place, the definition of 'deism' is, in a slogan, the sufficiency of natural religion. This is the definition employed in one of the earliest anti-deist texts, Stillingfleet's Letter to a Deist, and other influential anti-deist writings like Clarke's second Boyle lectures. It is also the thesis that is defended by deists like Matthew Tindal. I take the slogan itself from the title of an early work of Diderot, in which he defends that thesis.

What is meant by this slogan? A distinction was traditionally drawn between natural religion and revealed religion. The former consisted of beliefs about God and practices aimed at pleasing God that are based on unaided human reason. The latter is based on 'special revelation'. That is, it was alleged that, at some specific time(s) in history, God intervened miraculously to teach doctrines and/or issue commands, and human reason could not independently discover that these doctrines were true or that God wanted us to follow these commands. Insofar as special revelation takes place at particular times and places, not all humans have access to it. It's available only to those who can receive cultural transmission from the times and places at which the revelation was made.

Deism, as understood in the 17th and 18th centuries, is the thesis that natural religion is sufficient, i.e., that revealed religion is unnecessary. Unnecessary for what? At least: to please God, and to have a happy/blessed life on earth and/or in the hereafter. Although this is not part of the definition of deism, deists sometimes defended a stronger thesis, that God has never made (and perhaps cannot make) any special revelation.

Deism as a movement or tradition is reasonably unified in its analysis and critique of revealed religion. The earliest text I know of to put the pieces together in what becomes the canonical way is John Toland's Christianity Not Mysterious, which is often credited with (or blamed for) launching the deist controversy in Britain and Ireland. On Toland's view, revealed religion has three parts: mysteries, ceremonies, and clergy. 'Mysteries' are beliefs God allegedly requires of us that cannot be discovered—and perhaps cannot even be understood—by natural reason. Ceremonies are practices God allegedly requires of us which cannot be seen as obligatory by natural reason. The more arcane and complex the mysteries and ceremonies are thought to be, the more reason there is to have a specialized guild of religious professionals—the clergy—to make sure we get them right. Thus, according to Toland, the clergy have a vested interest in obfuscating religion in order to justify their profession, increase their importance, and ultimately gain political power. This set of techniques whereby the clergy gain power over the laity Toland calls 'priestcraft'. (I've written before about Toland's masterful use of the story of Hypatia as a polemic against priestcraft.)

For the deists, then, true religion is natural religion, based on reason alone, and revealed religion is corrupt priestcraft. In Christianity as Old as the Creation: Or, the Gospel, a Republication of the Religion of Nature, the deist Matthew Tindal reinterprets the mission of Jesus through this lens. According to Tindal, priestcraft arises from natural, indeed unavoidable, human tendencies, and must be combated anew in every generation. (Semper reformanda!) On Tindal's reading of the Bible, the ancient Israelites again and again fall into the trap of adopting complex ceremonies in place of what really pleases God—a life of virtue—and God again and again send prophets to attack priestcraft and return the people to true religion (i.e., virtue). According to Tindal, the Jerusalem temple in the time of Jesus was the very height of priestcraft (comparable to the Vatican in his own time), and Jesus was another in the long line of prophets sent to tear down priestcraft and teach that God is not pleased by ceremonial observance but only by the practical love of one's neighbor. For Tindal, then, as his title suggests, the Gospel (i.e., the preaching of Jesus) truly is a message from God, but it's a message that was already available to everyone through natural reason. A 'republication' was necessary to cut through the obfuscations of priestcraft. Of course, on Tindal's telling, this didn't last: Christianity was also co-opted by priestcraft. The message must be preached again in every generation.

Turning back now to the 'absent watchmaker' picture, it has three components: (1) God is a designer; (2) God does not perform miracles; (3) God does not care about us or what we do. (1) and (2) are endorsed by some early modern deists but are not part of the early modern definition of 'deism' and are not endorsed by all. (3) is in tension with some of the deists' core ideas.

The designer picture views God in largely anthropomorphic terms, analogous to a human craftsman or engineer. This picture did start to become popular in the 17th century as the new physics increasingly analogized the world to a great machine. Behind a great machine, one supposes, there is a great Engineer. But this picture is actually more popular among religious moderates like Boyle, Newton, Leibniz, and Clarke who are trying to put the new science together with something like traditional religion than it is with religious radicals like the deists. Indeed, deism was closely associated with Spinozism in the period, and John Toland, one of the most important deists, may have been the first person to self-identify as a 'pantheist'. The Spinozistic or pantheistic picture, on which Nature is God, is clearly incompatible with any straightforward analogy to a human craftsman. (It would be like a craftsman who is his own product!) The watchmaker idea is thus not a deistic one. It is, rather, a popular way of thinking about God in the period endorsed by some, but not all, deists, and some, but not all, more moderate thinkers.

As for the 'absent' part, it is true that many deists rejected the very possibility of miracles. In 1683, Charles Blount, one of the earliest self-identified deists, published a pamphlet called Miracles, No Violations of the Laws of Nature. It was a piece of plagiarism: the whole thing was stitched together from passages in Hobbes and Spinoza. It is, however, unmistakably a deistic tract and unmistakably an argument against special divine intervention. However, making the denial of miracles part of the definition of 'deism' not only excludes some deists who were not so firm in their denial, it also misunderstands the importance of the argument against miracles for deism. Special revelation, the basis for revealed religion, would be a miraculous divine intervention to make known certain truths or command certain practices. If miracles are impossible, then all claims to special revelation are frauds. Thus, the denial of miracles is a premise in an argument for deism, not the essence of deism itself.

As for (3), deists like Toland and Tindal emphasized very heavily that what pleases God is a life of virtue and love of neighbor. It was widely thought to be part of natural religion to believe in rewards and punishments in an afterlife. The deists simply thought that mysteries and ceremonies were irrelevant to these rewards and punishments. Thus, for many deists, God absolutely cares how we live, and will in fact reward or punish us in an afterlife accordingly.

Now, a bit about the relationship of deism to atheism and to Christianity.

Deists were constantly accused of atheism. However, even anti-deist writers in the period don't typically claim that deism is a form of atheism. Rather, they allege that people who claim to be deists are secretly atheists. Whether some or all of the (supposed) deists were secret atheists remains disputed by scholars to this day. Personally, I think Anthony Collins was indeed an atheist, but many other deists were probably quite sincere in endorsing natural religion but rejecting revealed religion.

The relation of deism to Christianity is far more complicated. In the first place, nearly all of the English deists claimed that deism was true Christianity. I've been focusing mostly on the English deists because I know more about them than the French ones, but French deists seem to be more likely to portray deism as an alternative to Christianity. I suspect, however, that this difference may turn out to be merely verbal: by 'Christianity' the English deists mean the authentic teaching of the historical Jesus, while the French deists mean Roman Catholicism. Many French deists also claim that the historical Jesus held views similar to theirs, and the English deists are of course just as anti-Catholic as anyone. The fact that English deists generally see themselves as the real Christians causes a lot of confusion to people who wonder whether particular historical figures (e.g., American founders) were deists or Christians.

In the second place, it can be seen from the above that there is good reason to classify deism as a form of radical Protestantism. Like the 'magisterial' Protestants (Lutherans, Anglicans, and Calvinists), the deists think that the institutional church, at some time in the past, became corrupted through the wealth and power of the clergy and the pope and needs to be called back to the pure message of Jesus. Like the magisterial Protestants, they affirm the role of individual judgment/conscience in determining that the church has gone astray in this way. But like the Quakers (a paradigm radical Protestant group) they hold that having any clergy at all is a corruption. And they are more radical than any other radical Protestant group in how early they think Christianity became corrupted (basically as soon as Jesus left the scene!).

In the third place, as we saw in the case of Tindal, the claim that natural religion is sufficient needn't imply that there's no room at all for prophets. On the other hand, it's not unusual for even relatively traditional Christian thinkers to believe that some people are saved without knowing (explicitly) about Jesus. For these Christians, there is some sense in which special revelation is not absolutely necessary. In the late 17th and 18th centuries, latitudinarian Anglicans pushed this inclusive theme pretty far, and there are places where some Anglicans appear not to differ theologically from some deists. But they differ politically: Anglicans, by definition, support a state-church with clergy, mysteries, and ceremonies (even if some latitudinarians try to minimize the mysteries and ceremonies and their importance). Sometimes these political matters appear to eclipse the theological ones.

Finally, it's worth noting that the title of Kant's work Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason must certainly be an intentional invocation of the deist tradition. However, Kant takes things in a new direction. Kant can be seen as constructing a surprising sort of fusion of deism and pietism, which would serve as the foundation for the liberal Protestant theological tradition.

Posted by Kenny at March 4, 2024 9:23 PM
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