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

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Sun Aug 16 2009 - 18:36:45 EDT

You & Cameron are quite right in pointing out that the word "deism" has a variety of meanings. I think though that the distinction you make below between "Deism 1" and "Deism 2" & the way you expound the meanings of the 2 varieties confuses things. What you call "Deism 2," in which "God is established and Christianity at that point remains a live possibility and warrants investigation," I would call "mere theism." I.e., it is the view that the existence of God & perhaps some basic properties (e.g., God originated the world) can be established from observation of the world & reason, & it may be possible to know other things about God from special revelation.

This is essentially what I have called the "classic" view of natural theology in the Christian tradition, a theology which can serve as an introduction to a more complete & satisfactory theology based on revelation. As you note, this is the approach of Aquinas, & it seems to me unhelpful to refer to this as a variety of “deism.”


But terminology is not the fundamental problem. Whether it’s called Deism-2, mere theism, natural religion or anything else, this is a dangerous approach to take. Supposedly such “natural religion” is to serve as the “forecourt” of the temple, but the difficulty historically has always been that people tend to stop in the forecourt, which eventually becomes the sanctuary. I have quoted here before the following passage from Richard S. Westfall's Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (Yale, 1958), pp.106-107, but I think it’s worth repeating.

    "While the virtuosi [scientists in today's parlance] concentrated vigorously on the demonstrations of natural religion and proved to their own satisfaction that the cosmos reveals its Creator, they came to neglect their own contention that natural religion is only the foundation. The supernatural teachings of Christianity received little more than a perfunctory nod, expressing approval but indicating disinterest. Although the absorption in natural religion and the external manifestations of divine power did not dispute or deny any specific Christian doctrine, it did more to undermine Christianity than any conclusion of natural science."


I.e., the classic view of the introductory and subsidiary role of natural theology changed into the Enlightenment view in which reason is all we need and revelation is unnecessary. Even when this doesn’t happen, even when people do move on to take special revelation seriously, theology suffers from the influence of the prior non-Christian ideas about God & God’s relationship with the world. Many of the problems that theology has had in dealing with Christology and the Trinity are due to such influence.


Secondly, it can be argued that deism may claim to provide some standards of morality and value. Cameron, e.g., quoted Paine as saying, inter alia, “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 in fact there is nothing in a natural religion based only on observation and reason that leads to such beliefs. They are really just some of the debris left over after the demolition of religions that claim to be based on revelation. Similarly today the New Atheists imagine that society can get rid of religion (or “revealed religion”) and go happily along with people accepting moral standards of justice, mercy &c. They are unwilling to look into the abyss that they would create and see that in fact there is no basis for any such morality.




  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Schwarzwald
  Sent: Saturday, August 15, 2009 9:30 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] Deism, Apologetics, and Neglected Arguments

  Heya George,

  Some interesting comments. I'll offer up some replies.

  First, I don't bring up these thoughts about deism and a more basic/fundamental theism as a defense or promotion of ID. I mentioned ID mostly in passing, because that's where I see the 'deism' charge spring up most often. Edward Feser, to give a different example, is a philosopher who is sympathetic to but deeply critical of the ID movement - but the approach he took in "The Last Superstition" matched what I'm talking about here. Namely, he argued for the existence of God (along with other things, primarily in an Aristotilean / Thomistic context) yet made it clear that the arguments he made in the book were not sufficient to establish more than a very basic theism. What I'm contending is that such a "basic" God is important to communicate and argue for, rather than relying on arguments that practically begin with the assumption that a person already believes in some kind of God.

  Second, it's important to draw the distinction here between the enlightenment and post-enlightenment Deism (which was in part a more particular viewpoint that grew out in reaction to sectarian conflict and other issues) and the sort of "deism" that one finds in Aquinas' five ways, in Plato and Aristotle and other greek thinkers, etc. The latter was largely concerned with establishing the existence of a basic deity and divine power, and moved from that point to questions of God's traits and (for christians, muslims, possibly neo-platonists) issues of revelation - and that's the kind of "deism" I'm talking about here. The former was more a collection of essentially definitive positions about God - in other words, not an open-ended view that could lead one to additional conclusions, but a final conclusion itself. I'd also point out that even post-/enlightenment Deism didn't universally show up in the form of a deus otiosus - in fact at times the existence of God was seen as meaning quite a lot for morality, man's place & destiny, the purpose of existence and the universe, etc. So if deism is defined as a belief in the existence of a God whose existence has absolutely no repercussions for anyone's worldview or lifestyle, then quite a lot of people we recognize as deists (Franklin, Paine, etc), were not.

  Third, I think you're underestimating the importance of deism/basic theism in these science v religion debates. You point out that a God who never does anything (or who perhaps did things, but has not in quite a long time) isn't immediately threatening to most atheists, because such a God doesn't make demands on one's worldview and lifestyle. I agree with this wholeheartedly - in fact, it's my view that the "new atheist" movement is motivated primarily by politics and social aims more than anything else. But I want to illustrate the "two kinds" of deism/theism I talked about in the previous paragraph, and why a particular distinction matters.

  Deism-1: A God who certainly has no active involvement in the world, particular concern for humanity or the universe, overarching plan, etc.
  Deism-2: A God, whose intentions and activity is unknown.

  Deism-1 is of no concern to any atheist motivated by sociopolitical factors, precisely because Deism-1's God definitely has no active involvement, plan or concern with humanity and our universe.
  Deism-2 is of tremendous concern to any atheist motivated by sociopolitical factors, precisely because Deism-2's God -may- have an active involvement, plan or concern with our universe.

  Put another way: In Deism-1, God is established but Christianity (and judaism, and islam, etc) is ruled out. In Deism-2, God is established and Christianity at that point remains a live possibility and warrants investigation.

  When Krauss, Coyne and others concede the compatibility of science with deism, they're making a tremendously important concession: They are saying that the existence of God is entirely compatible with science. They may move on to dispute certain acts (miracles, etc) and traits (omnibenevolence, concerned with the universe/humanity, etc), but the fact is they've conceded that science is compatible with some basic yet fundamental God's existence. Indeed, if they allow for a God who 'set the universe up and now passively lets it unwind', they have conceded the compatibility of science with the existence of a creator-God of tremendous capability. The Christian still has work to do in such a discussion, but if deism is conceded as compatible with science, quite a lot of work (in the context of that particular debate) is already done for them.

  One last note: I didn't bring up this talk about deism/basic theism as some antidote to the New Atheists. In fact, after seeing the actual fallout from Francis Collins' nomination to head up the NIH (read: in essence, none, in spite of the protestations from Harris, Coyne, etc), I'm starting to believe they're given too much attention - they may be a red herring. The reason I bring this topic up is specifically to promote thought about apologetics in the west. I'm talking in particular about an approach for agnostics, or "practical atheists" - men and women who have no major hostility towards the idea of God or faith, but for whom it just doesn't seem like an important issue in their day to day life. In other words, the kind of person who may be amenable to some greater thought about or interest in God and Christ, who probably had some superficial exposure to it as a youth, but who (also superficially) believes that God's existence just isn't compatible with science, or who may believe (not because it was drummed into them as youths, but because that's just "what they hear") that if the earth isn't 6000 years old, then God doesn't exist. This is an example of a person for whom I think a "starting basic" approach - arguing for the existence and rationality of some basic, fundamental deity, divorced at first from any deeper revelations or commitments - may be fruitful.

  On Sat, Aug 15, 2009 at 7:35 PM, George Murphy <> wrote:

    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 Sun Aug 16 18:37:52 2009

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