Re: [asa] Deism, Apologetics, and Neglected Arguments

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Sat Aug 15 2009 - 22:22:00 EDT

George, David Cl., Schwarzwald, etc.:

One of the problems that arises in talking about Deism is that it's an ill-defined term. In the long article on it in the four-volume *Encyclopedia of Philosophy*, there are indications that the meaning of the term took a long time to crystallize, and that the word was used (by both its supporters and its opponents) to cover a wide range of beliefs -- including, apparently, in some writers, a belief that God sometimes (albeit rarely) intervenes in the operations of nature, which is not usually how we think of Deism today.

Another problem is that some people use "Deism" to mean merely the conclusion of a logical argument for the existence of God, i.e., a merely propositional belief that an intelligent first cause of some sort exists, whereas others mean an actual religion, i.e., a set of beliefs meant to be operative in guiding one through life.

Thomas Paine called himself a Deist. He understood Deism to be not merely a philosophical conclusion regarding the existence of God (which appears to be how Antony Flew conceives Deism), but as an actual religion, albeit rather austere in character in comparison with most historical religions. He has an extensive discussion of Deism in *The Age of Reason*, and, as is his Deism is clearer in form than earlier Deism appears to be, it might be worth looking at what he says. He writes:

Age of Reason, Part 1, Chapter 1:

"I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

"I believe in the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavouring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

"But, lest it be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.

"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

"All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit...."

Age of Reason, Part 1, Recapitulation:

"Having now extended the subject to a greater length than I first intended, I shall bring it to a close by abstracting a summary from the whole.

"First, That the idea or belief of a word of God existing in print, or in writing, or in speech, is inconsistent in itself for the reasons already assigned....

"Secondly, That the Creation we behold is the real and ever existing word of God, in which we cannot be deceived. It proclaimeth his power, it demonstrates his wisdom, it manifests his goodness and beneficence.

"Thirdly, That the moral duty of man consists in imitating the moral goodness and beneficence of God manifested in the creation towards all his creatures. That, seeing as we daily do, the goodness of God to all men, it is an example calling upon all men to practise the same towards each other; and, consequently, that every thing of persecution and revenge between man and man, and every thing of cruelty to animals, is a violation of moral duty.

"I trouble not myself about the manner of future existence. I content myself with believing, even to positive conviction, that the power that gave me existence is able to continue it, in any form and manner he pleases, either with or without this body ...

"It is certain that, in one point, all nations of the earth and all religions agree. All believe in a God. The things in which they disagree are the redundancies annexed to that belief; and therefore, it ever an universal religion should prevail, it will not be believing any thing new, but in getting rid of redundancies, and believing as man believed at first. Adam, if ever there was such a man, was created a Deist; but in the mean time, let every man follow, as he has a right to do, the religion and worship he prefers."

I'm not here either to defend or to attack Paine for these statements. I provide them for informational purposes. Therefore, by the authority not vested in me, I throw the floor open for discussion. Does this statement of Deism help us in any way?

Two questions might be useful in starting us off: (1) Does the current theory of intelligent design (ID) purport to prove the existence of the God of Deism, as Paine understands it? (2) Are any of the leading ID theorists Deists, in Paine's sense?


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: George Murphy
  To: David Clounch ; Schwarzwald
  Sent: Saturday, August 15, 2009 7:35 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] Deism, Apologetics, and Neglected Arguments

  Wrong on several counts. Deism offers a deus otiosus, an idle God who doesn't do anything in the world. Maybe he did long ago but now he's retired. It's hardly surprising that some atheists are willing to concede the possibility that such a God exists. Those who think that scientific descriptions of the world rule out any God who actually does things have to admit, if they're honest, that such arguments can't touch a God who doesn't do anything. & such an admission matters little precisely because such a God doesn't do anything & thus offers no real challenge to anyone's worldview or lifestyle - & that in spite of attempts of classical deism to retain some notion of rewards & punishments. Historically, deism was degenration, an attempt to retain a religious fig leaf after the essntials of Christianity had been abandoned.

  & there is no "false logic" involved in saying that much of ID, & certainly the popular varieties of it, contain a strong religious element. & in reality most ID theists don't say "Yes I am" when that statement is made, but instead want to play the "Nobody here but us scientists and philosophers" game. Case in point, my fruitless attempt to discuss theological issues of ID on UcD.


    ----- Original Message -----
    From: David Clounch
    To: Schwarzwald
    Sent: Saturday, August 15, 2009 6:06 PM
    Subject: Re: [asa] Deism, Apologetics, and Neglected Arguments

    Thanks for bringing this up.

    You are not alone.

    You mentioned: "Fine, even if that's the case you can't be sure it's YOUR God! Or any religion's God!"

    This is the position I have always taken. If one looks at science alone, and nothing else, then the best one can arrive at is deism. The reason is one can learn someone was there, but one doesn't know anything about who. Inferring an intelligence is simpler than inferring details about the intelligence. Example: we see evidence of a Roman soldier being present in a viaduct in Italy. But we cannot tell if he was a republican or for the empire, whether he beat his wife or cheated on his taxes.
    We can tell nothing about him except that he leaned his hand against the mud.

    So, I have always looked at ID as at best just a way to bring us to deism. For this reason I once upon a time suspected that Christianity, or at least the right wing of Christianity, would reject ID as not being compatible enough with or supportive of Christianity.

    Of course if one looks at clues outside science then one can refine one's picture. But one must be very careful not to commit the logical error of affirming the consequent.
    And that error is, I suspect, what virtually all theists commit when thinking of ID.
    Because they commit this error, then when someone levies an accusation of "oh, you ID types are doing religion" then the theist will often raise his hand and say "yes I am". Not realizing the accusation is based on undetected but false logic.

    I think deism as an offshoot of Christianity goes ignored. I've wondered if there is such a thing as deistic Christianity.

    You are absolutely right - any evidence for deism repudiates atheism. It is vastly more dangerous to the atheist than to the theist.


    On Sat, Aug 15, 2009 at 1:07 AM, Schwarzwald <> wrote:

      One thing I've noticed in the various science & religion debates is the beating the deists tend to take. You can see this now and then in the TE/ID debates - TEs accusing ID proponents of believing in a God who is a cosmic tinkerer, more brilliant (or not so brilliant) engineer than God. ID proponents accuse TEs of believing in a God who is remote, either to the point of impotence (God "starts up" the universe, perhaps, but controls and foresees nothing) or being downright impersonal (God foresees everything to the point where natural processes unfold according to God's will, such that anything but secondary causes are not needed, or are needed in fantastically few historical moments).

      I can understand why Christians take it as an insult. Our faith is founded on the concept of a God who loves, and loves personally. There's even that famous quote from Pascal, "The God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob not the god of the philosophers!" And I agree with Pascal that the difference is paramount. Aquinas, giving his five ways, admitted outright that even if his five ways work, they alone don't get a person to Christianity - revelation and additional arguments are needed there.

      But here's why I bring this up. I think for many people - I'm thinking here in particular of western agnostics and practical (non-energized, ambivalent) atheists - arguments that expressly bring one to at the very least a deistic God, are necessary, but neglected. Not that there aren't popular arguments that apologists admit only get someone as far as deism or a basic theism (Craig is pretty open about this with regards to the cosmological argument, ID proponents - whatever criticisms may be lodged against them - expressly admit that their arguments get one to a Designer or Designer(s), etc.), but a very popular reply is "Fine, even if that's the case you can't be sure it's YOUR God! Or any religion's God!" - and just about every time I've seen this charge made, the apologist's reply is to quickly move on to additional arguments from revelation, from the historicity of the gospels, etc. And the impression is that A) the apologist doesn't really view the existence of or belief in at least a deist God as all that important [Reasonably so, considering what's on the line], and therefore B) has little to no interest in defending such an anemic, or at least vague, view of God.

      I think this attitude is, while understandable, profoundly mistaken. And I think it's particularly relevant as a topic about the interplay between science and faith for numerous reasons, but these spring to mind: A) If even deism is right, then atheism is wrong, B) Someone who moves from atheism/agnosticism to deism is vastly more apt to seriously investigate the claims of Christianity, and C) Even prominent atheists/agnostics (Lawrence Krauss, most recently. Even the rabid and increasingly off-kilter Coyne, if I recall) are willing to cede the compatibility of mere deism with science.

      I'd further point out that, just as the scholastics (and the greeks they worked off) realized, an intellectually rigorous path to God has to navigate through the deistic/basic theistic waters at some point if the belief is not already there. In other words, arguments and evidence that pointed at, or was compatible with, such a simple God were recognized as important. One of my favorite acts of Paul is when he takes note of the altar to an Unknown God and makes use of it in his evangelizing, which I think is comparable here.

      Either way, I bring this up to the list because I wonder: Am I alone in this? Does anyone else see the value of deistic arguments and insights in the west, as a stepping stone towards evangelizing a skeptical or jaded audience? Or maybe there are pitfalls to this which I have not considered. Whatever the case, I thought I'd put it to the ASA list for discussion. Obviously, I personally think arguments and attitudes along these lines are neglected, and are so to our detriment. And I think it's particularly important in the science/religion interface debate, and with certain audiences. (On this note, I'll relate how I often hear stories about how missionaries will spend a lot of time learning the culture, beliefs, and history of the peoples they're visiting in order to find the best way to approach them about Christ. I think a similar approach is desperately needed in the west.)

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Received on Sat Aug 15 22:22:58 2009

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