Deism (from Latin Deus – God) is a philosophical and religious movement in Europe and North America during 16-18th centuries. This movement regarded God as a distant root cause of nature and a man, and with varying degrees of consistency equating religion with morality. It was widespread in the 16-17th centuries as a religious-sectarian movement of anti-Trinitarians and Socinians, who recognized God as a creator of heaven and earth but rejected some of the most important tenets of the Christian faith, using many of these criteria for a human mind.
It is in relation to Socinians that term “deism” was nominated in Calvinist circles (it was possibly employed before by them to emphasize their differences from atheists). This term was first recorded in the book of the follower of Calvin Vire P. “Manual for Christians”(Herrick 28). Historically, deism was connected primarily with the idea of natural religion, which opposes itself to all of the dominant official religious faiths as religions of revelation, based on a particular scripture. The concept of natural religion was clearly formulated by French philosopher Jean Bodin in his work “The conversation of the innermost secrets of the seven sublime things”(1593), which gained fame in the 17th– early 18th century due to many manuscript copies (available only in the mid-19th century) (Herrick 28). The views of the supporter of natural religion are opposed, on the one hand, to the positions of the Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, Jewish and Muslim (each of which insists on the exclusive truth of their religion), and, on the other hand, to the position of an atheist. Deism as a natural religion is treated as the oldest of the religions, which are reduced to a monotheistic faith in God, the immortality of a soul, and post-mortem retribution – faith, without which there can be no morality was very popular in the 16-18th centuries in America, due to opposing religious views.
The same ideas, but in a more rationalistic form, were presented by an English politician and philosopher Herbert E. Cherberry in his “Treatise on the truth”, published in Paris in 1624. This book was generally regarded as the first document of deism (although in it, as in the work of Bodin, the term itself is not mentioned). Abandoning the search for any supramental truth in the Bible (which was inherent for Socinians) and completely breaking with the Christian dogma of the Incarnation, redemption, resurrection, and so on, Herbert constituted faith in God as a manifestation of innate human “general concepts” (notitiae communes), claiming the presence of a higher being, respect for which is a necessary condition of a human morality which is inconceivable without the concept of the immortality of a human soul. This natural religion precedes Christianity and all other specific religions, containing truth only to an extent of their compliance with this ancient “truly Catholic” religion (Stephen 69).
In the next decades deism was an influential philosophical and religious tradition in England. A follower of Herbert Cherberry, Charles Blount (1654-93) in his “Epitome of religion deists” denied miracles and prophecies. Frankly and openly he called his deistic beliefs. However, even before the appearance of this book, Bishop Stillingfleet opposed to deism in his “Letter to a Deist”(1677). In 1678, the Cambridge Platonist R. Kedvort in his “Real world sensible system “introduced a Greek-speaking term “theist”, etymologically identical to the term “deist”; in the philosophical and theological debate, some Deists called themselves theists (the difference between these concepts was reported in the 18th century; Diderot said that if theism took faith in Revelation, deism would deny it). The highest expression deism found in the works of J. Toland, A. Collins, J. Tindalay and G. Bolingbroke, who were published at the beginning of the 18th century. Rejecting Thomas Aquinas’s difference of “anti-conscious” and “supramental”, these philosophers viewed with rationalistic criteria not only the Old, but the New Testament, interpreting their content with the positions of natural religion and considering the positive religion as a clerical distortion of its simple and clear principles. Although they essentially rejected atheism, the Church of England leaders saw them as atheists. Besides Bishop Stillingflit (who polemized with Locke), deism was criticized by Bishop Butler (1692-1752), George Berkeley, and Clark S. Moral and aesthetic kind of deism was represented by Shefstderi in “Christian deists”, and others who tried to combine the principles of deism with some statements of Christian dogma (Nicolson 12). Hume presented a peculiar position: the author of “Natural History of Religion “law recognizes the idea of “higher intelligence”, “reasonable cause” and “intelligent designer”, but at the same time, he undermined the principles of deism with his skepticism and approval of fictitious character of “natural religion”, considering that the basis of religion were human emotions, often stimulated by fear (Stephen 69).
Deistic movement in France during the 17th century was closely intertwined with the influential skepticism. Its carriers were freethinkers (Liberty representatives), although their criticism of Christianity (Catholicism) did not reach the acuteness which was a characteristic for English deism. In the late 17th century, the concept of deism was popularized by Bailey P. (his article “Vire” in Historical and Critical Dictionary) (Stephen 69). In the 18th century, the influence of deism was particularly evident in Voltaire who usually called himself atheist. French materialists of the 18th century – Diderot (who experienced the last stage of deism in his philosophical development), Holbach, and others – subjected deism to uncompromising criticism (Nicolson 12). However, Rousseau, rejecting traditional Christianity, in his “Confession of Faith of Savoyard Vicar”, which was included in an educational novel “Emile, or On Education”, formulated an emotionally charged version of deism: the supreme divine being – as the source of justice and goodness, as well as faith in him, – was the requirement not so much of a mind but of a heart. A follower of Rousseau, Robespierre, rejecting both traditional Christianity and atheism, insisted on the introduction of the cult of the Supreme Being, as the civil religion of France by the Convention (May 7, 1794) in the midst of the French Revolution (Stephen 69).
The views of the most prominent philosophers of North America were presented in the second half of the 18th century – Franklin, Jefferson, Paine and others, – which were formed mainly under the influence of the English deists and the French Enlightenment. Under their influence (and influence of the first American President George Washington who supported deism) a principle of the complete separation of church and state was clearly stated in the U.S. Constitution (1787), and the country established religious tolerance (Orr 97).
The concept of deism was also used in a broader sense to describe the relationship of God and the world in which God’s role was extremely minimized, so that he became the only guarantor of the strength of the laws revealed by science (Nicolson 12). Muzeus in 1667 in order to describe the views of deists used the term “naturalist” and Montesquieu early in his main work “The Spirit of Laws”(1748) articulated this basic idea of deism: “… There is the original mind, the laws of the relationship that exist between it and different beings, and the mutual relations of these various creatures. God relates to the world as the creator and guardian, and he doeth according to the same laws that he protects and he acts according to these, because he knows them …” (Pangle 48). With such a broad interpretation, deism usually referred to some concepts of Descartes, Hobbes, Leibniz, Locke and many others. However, the boundaries between deism, theism and pantheism in these and other philosophers are often very vague. Deists recognized atypical ontological proof of God’s existence, which was more suitable when going back to Aristotle’s cosmological proof, but even the most characteristic and peculiar of them were physical and theological evidence of success in human activities, especially in mechanisms (starting in the 14-15th centuries) and in the disclosure of the mechanical laws of the world. Hence, here comes the huge role of Newtonian Earth-celestial mechanics, which gave the main arguments to justify the physics and theology to many deists – only the “higher intelligence” could have created such a complex and well-functioning mechanism as the Earth’s sky (Orr 97).
With the triumph of the principle of tolerance and understanding of the historical influence of religion, deism’s popularity in the Western Europe fell sharply at the end of the 18th century. Yet, religious freethinking in the 19th and 20th centuries maintained a connection to the historical deism. Deistic tendencies existed in the views of some scientists, emphasizing the “reasonable” order of the universe. Finally, educational thought in the United States during Enlightenment was fed by the ideas of European Enlightenment. Locke and Shaftesbury, Defoe and Swift were widely red, works of Montesquieu and Voltaire penetrated here (Orr 97). The American educators, like their European counterparts, had to wage a fierce struggle against the church. American educators were promoting rationalism and deism. Deism was a feature of the Enlightenment worldview in the U.S., which, in some cases, (Thomas Paine) went beyond deism, even closer to atheism. However, the main task of the American Enlightenment was preaching republican ideas, strong condemnation of the monarchy, and protection of national sovereignty. Moreover, in contrast to the European Enlightenment, which was given only to prepare the minds to the revolution, the American Enlightenment figures were able to take a direct part in the revolution – they have become its ideology and its political leaders. Deism was extremely beneficial, since it gave people a possibility to limit church and become tolerable towards different religions and views. According to deism, God, standing as a transcendent Absolute to the world, performs an act of Creation as the original miracle of the beginning of the world (a semantic figure of divine act in “the first impulse”), without interfering with later future unfolding, occurring in the communication of the original reasonable laws. Despite inconsistency, deism was existentially important for intellectuals as a phenomenon, standing in modern American culture if not the most important instrument to overcome the individual consciousness fundamental mentality of dualism, then at least an instrument of the integrity of the constitution of self-consciousness in this dualism.