Deism and atheism

Ted Davis (
Sun, 29 Mar 1998 12:21:15 -0500

Dear Will,

You wrote,

"The definition of "deism" in Newton's day (and who can believe that Newton
a deist, or consistent in following MN) meant one who believed in nature
divinity could be understood by faith alone. The theist could see
handiwork of God in nature not by faith alone, but by deduction from
intelligently designed phenomena. Newton denied being a deist on many
but particularly on the adaptations of biological organisms being obvious
of God. Howard, you would be judged a deist by those who accused Newton of
deism. So would George Murphy, Keith Miller and Allan Harvey. Believing the
miracles of the Bible, by the way, did not excuse the deist of nature."

I'm not at all sure this is correct, historically, and I'm writing to ask
for some support and/or clarification for your statement. My understanding
of deism in the late 17th and early 18th centuries is that it involved deep
scepticism about the validity of the Bible, esp of the historicity of
miracles, coupled with general belief in the need for a creator to have "set
it all up" at the start; this was indeed typically linked with the argument
from design, which deists generally accepted. These two elements MUST be
present together, in my view, to make the real deist. Thus, Thomas
Jefferson is a nice example -- ever see his Bible, essentially the gospels
alone excised of all "supernatural" elements? Voltaire was himself a nice

I agree strongly that Newton was no deist, though he has very often been
depicted that way, esp. by scholars who didn't know anything about his
theological papers -- such as Voltaire and many modern authors -- but also
now and then by those who should have known better, such as the late Richard
S. Westfall, my thesis adviser and no doubt the finest Newton scholar of our
time. (I detail my differences with Sam in an article that I have
summarized on my web-page, but I won't repeat that here. Suffice it to say
that nearly every Newton scholar today would agree with me, rather than with
Sam, on this one.)

I'm particularly interested to know: who AT THAT TIME accused Newton of
deism? Please note my verb: Accused, implying that he had to answer charges
to this effect. Are you thinking of Leibniz? Newton has often been
portrayed as a deist, as I stated above, but this is different from someone
calling him that at the time.

Ted Davis