I was scarce fifteen when . . . some books against Deism fell into my hands. . . . It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.Benjamin Franklin1
Franklin’s experience is not unique. During the eighteenth century, Deism was sweeping through the intellectual elite in places like England, France, and America. Many embraced this new way of understanding God and the world. Indeed, most of America’s Founding Fathers, like Franklin, were Deists.2
Deism is the belief that there is a God who created the world but does not intervene in its affairs. There are other tenets to traditional Deism, but its view of God as a distant deity is the most prominent.3 And while few actually call themselves philosophical Deists anymore, many continue to wrestle with this all-important question: Did God set the world in motion and then just leave us to ourselves?
In Favor of Deism
The idea that God set the world in motion and left it to run on its own has several strengths. For one, Deism starts with belief in God. Admittedly, relatively few people today are true atheists in the sense that they believe there is absolutely no God. The majority of people believe that a higher power does exist, and a large portion of the remainder believe we simply can’t know either way.4 Even if they call God by different names and have differing opinions on what he (or she) is like, most think that the beauty and design of nature itself are evidence that a powerful God created the world.
But despite our grand ideas about God, we all live in a world governed by predictable, scientific laws of nature. We’ve never seen an apple fall upward from a tree, or a piece of paper withstand a fire, or time move backward. And though we may use the word “miracle” now and then, hardly any of us can claim to have observed a genuine miraculous event that transcends all scientific law.
So what seems to make the most sense is the idea that God set the world in motion but now just lets it run according to the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, and such. Deism seems to correspond to our everyday human experience.
Most importantly, Deism upholds human responsibility. If God set the world in motion and has left us to ourselves, we cannot blame him for our problems. Nor can we count on him to magically fix anything. It is up to us—we hold the destinies of our lives, families, cities, and planet in our own hands. This is not only responsible; it is empowering. And many Americans, whether they espouse Christianity or some other religion, are practical Deists in this sense.5
Nevertheless, there are some compelling reasons to challenge the idea that God merely set the world in motion and then left us to our own devices. As the simplest starting point—and hear me out here—Deism is at odds with the teachings of most world religions.
For example, the Bible portrays God as very engaged in human affairs: he hears and responds to prayer, shows mercy and grace, brings justice to the oppressed, and most significantly, becomes a human himself in the person of Jesus Christ.6 Other religions, such as Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism also uphold beliefs that divinity is intimately involved in the lives of people.
Of course, this does not automatically make Deism untrue; it is entirely possible that the teachings of most world religions are incorrect. But it does reveal that the idea of God leaving the world on its own is inconsistent with religious thought and tradition throughout history and is largely a product of modern Enlightenment philosophy.
Second, at its heart, Deism understands God as remote, distant, impersonal, and unapproachable. There is no place for prayer with a God who has left us to ourselves. There is no possibility of receiving compassion, grace, sympathy, or help from him. He is only a creator—a powerful one but nothing more. Few find comfort in this view of God.
What benefit is there to God’s power if he cannot or does not help his creation? What source of hope do we have when people fail us and human systems remain unjust? In what sense can God be called a Father if he does not care about his children? And more logically speaking, what was the point of creation if God was just going to walk away?
Simply wanting a compassionate, interactive God does not make his existence true. But for many of us, the belief that we are all alone in this world just does not resonate with the deepest recesses of our souls.
Finally, the view that God has left the world on its own propagates the huge potential for human pride and fear. We believe that all success, progress, and good fortune are results of our own hard work and efforts. We pat ourselves on the back and place ever-more confidence in our own achievements. This kind of pride in the amazing nature of human progress drove the Enlightenment movement. It also came crashing down when the twentieth century revealed how “progress” could lead to world wars, economic collapse, ethnic cleansing, and atomic bombs.
It’s of course possible that God created the world, set it in motion, and then left us to ourselves. It is also possible that God desires to be engaged and involved in our lives. In the absence of indisputable proof, both viewpoints require faith. The question is this: In which view will we put our faith?
- Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1886), 77–78.
- For excellent background information on this issue, see Steven Waldman, Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty (New York: Random House, 2008).
- A helpful background of the historical origins of Deism as it emerged from Christianity is found in James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought, Volume 1: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).
- “Religion Statistics by Adherents,” Religion Facts, http://www.religionfacts.com/religion_statistics/religion_statistics_by_adherents.htm.
- See Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) for their assertion that young people embrace what they call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
- For a treatment of how the Bible portrays God as intimately involved in the world’s affairs, see N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (San Francisco: Harper, 2006).
- Photo Credit: ssguy / Shutterstock.com.