Catholic Encyclopedia view - Deism
(Lat. Deus, God).
The term used to denote certain doctrines apparent in a tendency of thought and criticism that manifested itself principally in England towards the latter end of the seventeenth century. The doctrines and tendency of deism were, however, by no means entirely confined to England, nor to the seventy years or so during which most of the deistical productions were given to the world; for a similar spirit of criticism aimed at the nature and content of traditional religious beliefs, and the substitution for them of a rationalistic naturalism has frequently appeared in the course of religious thought. Thus there have been French and German deists as well as English; while Pagan, Jewish, or Moslem deists might be found as well as Christian.
Because of the individualistic standpoint of independent criticism which they adopt, it is difficult, if not impossible, to class together the representative writers who contributed to the literature of English deism as forming any one definite school, or to group together the positive teachings contained in their writings as any one systematic expression of a concordant philosophy. The deists were what nowadays would be called freethinkers, a name, indeed, by which they were not infrequently known; and they can only be classed together wholly in the main attitude that they adopted, viz. in agreeing to cast off the trammels of authoritative religious teaching in favor of a free and purely rationalistic speculation.
Many of them were frankly materialistic in their doctrines; while the French thinkers who subsequently built upon the foundations laid by the English deists were almost exclusively so. Others rested content with a criticism of ecclesiastical authority in teaching the inspiration of the Sacred Scriptures, or the fact of an external revelation of supernatural truth given by God to man. In this last point, while there is a considerable divergence of method and procedure observable in the writings of the various deists, all, at least to a very large extent, seem to concur. Deism, in its every manifestation was opposed to the current and traditional teaching of revealed religion.
In England the deistical movement seems to be an almost necessary outcome of the political and religious conditions of the time and country. The Renaissance had fairly swept away the later scholasticism and with it, very largely, the constructive philosophy of the Middle Ages. The Protestant Reformation, in its open revolt against the authority of the Catholic Church, had inaugurated a slow revolution, in which all religious pretensions were to be involved. The Bible as a substitute for the living voice of the Church and the State religion as a substitute for Catholicism might stand for a time; but the very mentality that brought them into being as substitutes could not logically rest content with them. The principle of private judgment in matters of religion had not run its full course in accepting the Bible as the Word of God. A favorable opportunity would spur it forward once more; and from such grudging acceptance as it gave to the Scriptures it would proceed to a new examination and a final rejection of their claims.
The new life of the empirical sciences, the enormous enlargement of the physical horizon in such discoveries as those of astronomy and geography, the philosophical doubt and rationalistic method of Descartes, the advocated empiricism of Bacon, the political changes of the times--all these things were factors in the preparation and arrangement of a stage upon which a criticism leveled at revelational religion might come forward and play its part with some chance of success. And though the first essays of deism were somewhat veiled and intentionally indirect in their attack upon revelation, with the revolution and the civil and religious liberty consequent upon it, with the spread of the critical and empirical spirit as exemplified in the philosophy of Locke, the time was ripe for the full rehearsal of the case against Christianity as expounded by the Establishment and the sects. The wedge of private judgment had been driven into authority. It had already split Protestantism into a great number of conflicting sects. It was now to attempt the wreck of revealed religion in any shape or form.
The deistical tendency passed through several more or less clearly defined
phases. All the forces possible were mustered against its advance.
Parliaments took cognizance of it. Some of the productions of the deists
were publicly burnt. The bishops and clergy of the Establishment were
strenuous in resisting it.
When the critical
principles and freethought spirit filtered down to the middle classes and
the masses, when such men as Woolston and Chubb put pen to paper, a perfect
storm of counter-criticism arose. As a matter of fact, not a few educated
and cultured men were really upon the side of a broad toleration in matters
of religion. The "wit and ridicule" by which the Earl of Shaftesbury would
have all tested meant, as Brown rightly notes, no more than urbanity and
One phase through which deism may be said to have passed was that of a critical examination of the first principles of religion. It asserted its right to perfect tolerance on the part of all men. Freethought was the right of the individual; it was, indeed, but one step in advance of the received principle of private judgment. Such representatives of deism as Toland and Collins may be taken as typical of this stage. So far, while critical and insisting on its rights to complete toleration, it need not be, though as a matter of fact it undoubtedly was, hostile to religion.
A second phase was that in which it criticized the moral or ethical part of
religious teaching. The Earl of Shaftesbury, for example, has much to urge
against the doctrine of doctrine of future rewards and punishments as the
sanction of the moral law. Such an attitude is obviously incompatible with
the accepted teaching of the Churches.
It is thus clear that, in the main, deism is no more than an application of
critical principles to religion. But in its positive aspect it is something
more, for it offers as a substitute for revealed truth that body of truths
which can be built up by the unaided efforts of natural reason. The term
deism, however, has come in the course of time to have a more specific
So far the teaching is that of the theists, as contrasted with that of atheists and pantheists. But, further, deism not only distinguishes the world and God as effect and cause; it emphasizes the transcendence of the Deity at the sacrifice of His indwelling and His providence. He is apart from the creation which He brought into being, and unconcerned as to the details of its working. Having made Nature, He allows it to run its own course without interference on His part. In this point the doctrine of deism differs clearly from that of theism.
The verbal distinction between the two, which are originally convertible
terms--deism, of Latin origin, being a translation of the Greek
theism--seems to have been introduced into English literature by the deists
themselves, in order to avoid the denomination of naturalists by which they
were commonly known. As naturalism was the epithet generally given to the
teaching of the followers of the Spinozistic philosophy, as well as to the
so-called atheists, deism seemed to its professors at once to furnish a
disavowal of principles and doctrines which they repudiated, and to mark off
their own position clearly from that of the theists.
It was principally upon account of their methods of
investigation and their criticism of the traditional Protestant religious
teaching that they had also come to be called rationalists, opposing, as
has been pointed out, the findings of unaided reason to the truths held on
faith as having come from God through external revelation.
There are notable distinctions and divergences among the English deists as to the whole content of truth given by reason. The most important of these distinctions is undoubtedly that by which they are classed as "mortal" and "immortal" deists; for, while many conceded the philosophical doctrine of a future life, the rejection of future rewards and punishments carried with it for some the denial of the immortality of the human soul. The five articles laid down by Lord Herbert of Cherbury, however, with their expansion into six (and the addition of a seventh) by Charles Blount, may be taken--and especially the former--as the format professions of deism. They contain the following doctrines:
that there exists one supreme God,
Blount, while he enlarged slightly upon each of these doctrines, broke one up into two and added a seventh in which he teaches that God governs the world by His providence.
This can hardly be accepted as a doctrine common to the deists; while, as
has been said, future rewards and punishments were not allowed by them all.
In general they rejected the miraculous element in Scripture and
The atonement, the doctrine of the "imputed righteousness" of
Christ--especially popular with orthodoxy at the time--shared the fate of
all Christological doctrines at their hands. And above all things and upon
every occasion--but with at least one notable exception--they raised their
voices against ecclesiastical authority.
For a time it caused an extraordinary commotion in
all circles of thought in England, provoked a very large and, in a sense,
interesting polemical literature, and penetrated from the highest to the
lowest strata of society. Then it fell flat, whether because the controversy
had lost the keen interest of its acuter stage or because people in general
were drifting with the current of criticism towards the new views, it would
be difficult to say.
When Viscount Bolingbroke's works were published posthumously in 1754, and
even when, six years previously, David Hume's "Essay on the Human
Understanding" was given to the public, little stir was caused.
Bolingbroke's attacks upon revealed religion, aimed from the standpoint of a
sensationalistic theory of knowledge, were, as a recent writer puts it,
"insufferably wearisome"; nor could all his cynicism and satire, any more
than the scepticism of the Scottish philosopher, renew general interest in a
controversy that was practically dead.
In the eighteenth century, the prevailing character of French philosophy . . . was that of opposition to the received dogmas and the actual conditions in Church and State, and the efforts of its representatives were chiefly directed to the establishment of a new theoretical and practical philosophy resting on naturalistic principles. (Gesch. d. Philosophie, Berlin, 1901, III, 237)
Men like Voltaire, and even the materialistic Encyclopĉdists, exemplify a
tendency of philosophic thought which has very much in common with what in
England ended in deism. It had the same basis, the theory of knowledge
propounded by Locke and subsequently pushed to an extreme point by
Condillac, and the general advance of scientific thought.
PROMINENT DEIST WRITERS
Reference has been made above to several of the more important representatives of English deism. Ten or twelve writers are usually enumerated as noteworthy contributors to the literature and thought of the movement, of whom the following brief sketches may be given.
Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1581-1648)
Lord Herbert, a contemporary of the philosopher Hobbes, was the most learned of the deists and at the same time the least disposed to submit Christian revelation to a destructive criticism. He was the founder of a rationalistic form of religion--the religion of nature--which consisted of no more than the residuum of truth common to all forms of positive religion when their distinctive characteristics were left aside. The profession of faith of Herbert's rationalism is summed up in the five articles given above. His principal contributions to deistical literature are the "Tractatus de Veritate prout distinguitur a Revelatione, a Verisimili, a Possibili et a Falso" (1624); "De Religione Gentilium Errorumque apud eos Causis" (1645, 1663); "De Religione Laici."
Charles Blount (1654-93)
Blount was noted as a critic of both the Old and New Testaments. His methods
of attack upon the Christian position were characterized by an indirectness
and a certain duplicity that has ever since come to be in some degree
associated with the whole deistical movement. The notes that he appended to
his translation of Apollonius are calculated to weaken or destroy credence
in the miracles of Christ, for some of which he actually suggests
explanations upon natural grounds, thus arguing against the trustworthiness
of the New Testament.
John Toland (1670-1722)
Toland, while originally a believer in Divine revelation and not opposed to
the doctrines of Christianity, advanced to the rationalistic position with
strong pantheistic tendencies by taking away the supernatural element from
Antony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713)
The Earl of Shaftesbury, one of the most popular, elegant, and ornate of
these writers, is generally classed among the deists on account of his
contends that this last is not only useless but positively mischievous, on
account of its doctrine of rewards and punishments. The virtue of morality
he makes to consist in a conformity of our affections to our natural sense
of the sublime and beautiful, to our natural estimate of the worth of men
Antony Collins (1676-1729)
Collins caused a considerable stir by the publication (1713) of his
"Discourse of Freethinking, occasioned by the Rise and Growth of a Sect
"prophecies were made to be a record of past and contemporary events rather
than a prevision of the future. But the "Scheme" was weak, and though it was
answered by more than one critic it cannot be said to have added much weight
to the discourse".
Thomas Woolston (1669-1733)
Woolston appeared as a moderator in the acrimonious controversy that was
being waged between Collins and his critics with his "Moderator between an
Infidel and an Apostate".
Matthew Tindal (1657-1733)
Tindal gave to the controversy the work that soon became known as the
"Deists' Bible". His "Christianity as Old as the Creation" was published in
his extreme old age in 1730.
Thomas Morgan (d. 1743)
Morgan makes professions of Christianity, the usefulness of revelation,
etc., but criticizes and at the same time rejects as revelational the Old
Testament history, both as to its personages and its narratives of fact.
Thomas Chubb (1679-1746)
Chubb -- a man of humble origin and of poor and elementary education, by
trade a glove-maker and tallow-chandler -- is the most plebeian
representative of deism. In 1731 he published "A Discourse Concerning
Reason" in which he disavows his intention of opposing revelation or serving
the cause of infidelity.
Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751)
Viscount Bolingbroke belongs to the deists chiefly by reason of his posthumous works. They are ponderously cynical in style and generally dull and uninteresting, Containing arguments against the truth and value of Scriptural history, and asserting that Christianity is a system footed upon the unlettered by the cunning of the clergy to further their own ends.
Peter Annet (1693-1769) Annet was the author, among other works, of "Judging for Ourselves, or Freethinking the great Duty of Religion" (1739), "The Resurrection of Jesus Considered" (1744), "Supernatural Examined" (1747), and nine numbers of the "Free Inquirer" (1761). In the second of these works he denies the resurrection of Christ and accuses the Holy Bible of fraud and imposture.
Henry Dodged (d. 1748) Dodged, who wrote "Christianity not Founded on Argument", is also generally reckoned, with Annet, as among the representative deists.
Transcribed by Rick McCarty
"The clergy converted the simple teachings of Jesus into an engine for enslaving mankind and adulterated by artificial constructions into a contrivance to filch wealth and power themselves...these clergy, in fact, constitute the real Anti-Christ."
Religion and History
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