Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

Deism — It’s Back!

benjamin franklin.jpgWhen historians refer to some of the Founding Fathers as “Deists,” it’s as if they’re talking about an extinct philosophy, like alchemy or phrenology. Very few Americans go around describing themselves as Deists.
Perhaps that ought to change. A new study reveals that a rapidly growing number of Americans hold the belief system that used to be described as Deism.
Deism was a philosophy, especially popular in the 18th century, holding that God had created the universe and its laws but then receded from the action. It was treated as heretical — akin to atheism — because Deists rejected Biblical authority. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, wrote that the authors of the canonical Gospels were “ignorant, unlettered men” who laid “a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.” He famously crafted his own Bible sans miracles.
And this brings us to a new study about the rise of “Nones,” Americans who profess no religious affiliation. Trinity College analysts now conclude that None’s make up 15% of the population and that, given their rate of rapid growth, they might surpass the nation’s largest denominations.
The rise of the Nones is usually decried by religious leaders as a sign of secularization or atheism’s ascent but get this: 51% say they believe in God.
Now some of those folks might just be religious people in between churches. So the Trinity folks asked them to describe what kind of God they believed in. 24% say they believe in “a higher power but no personal God.”
That would mean about 3.6% of Americans could be considered Deists, making them more common than Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or Mormons.
[UPDATE: Barry Kosmin, one of the authors of the study, points out that an earlier study that looked at Nones as well as those who did “affiliate” with a religion found that 12% were Deistic. That would make Deists bigger than all of the aforementioned groups combined, and one of the largest spiritual groupings in America]
And that’s if you use a pretty narrow definition of Deism. In my book, Founding Faith, I argued that even the so-called Deists of the 18th Century were a bit more religious than we think. Both Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin believed that God intervened in history. A recent study by the Pew Religion Forum, revealed that 35% of Nones pray weekly or daily.
I suspect that some modern American Deists are actually quite like Jefferson and Franklin. They don’t believe in Scripture, or cotton to organized religion. But in the privacy of their home, they think that the distant, aloof God occasionally checks in to listen to their prayers.

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Barry Kosmin

posted September 23, 2009 at 12:09 pm

In ARIS the God question was posed to a control group, a national sample and 12% gave deist answers. That’s the surprise and more than you calculate.
see fig. 1.13 of “Qmerican Nones’.

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posted September 23, 2009 at 1:29 pm

This is good news.

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posted September 24, 2009 at 9:14 am

This insightful overview of Deists is really helpful. Putting spiritual thinking into perspective and taking into account the Founding Father’s philosophical POV is helpful too, especially these days where American seems caught in a culture war gridlock. Thanks!

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posted September 24, 2009 at 12:51 pm

The point I take away from this is religion in it’s various flavors is less and less relevant. I’ve often thought that if it weren’t for religion god might turn out to be a really decent chap.

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posted September 24, 2009 at 1:32 pm

Ethan Allen seems to get the short end of the stick when it comes to deist thought, always, if mentioned at all, behind Jefferson, Washington, Franklin and Adams but I find his writings on the topic of god and religion to have had great influence on me.
Down with magic…up with reason!

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posted September 24, 2009 at 1:45 pm

While Deism has no intellectual superiority to fundamentalism (in the age of Darwin), it does have many practical advantages. Not the least of which is that a distant, unknowable God is definitively NOT a booster for genocide, hate crimes, or opression. A God without a holy book is far more attractive than one with.

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posted September 24, 2009 at 5:42 pm

I’m not sure that many of today’s deists are quite in the mold of Thomas Jefferson. Back in Jefferson’s time, religion was pretty much a part of every community’s daily life, and so even those who did not subscribe to the prevailing belief system were forced to confront religious issues on a constant basis — no doubt doubly so for serious thinkers like Jefferson.
Being British (though I now live in Texas) it’s long been clear to me that many of those who lead a wholly secular lifestyle (and Brits are much more secular than Americans in general) like to hedge their bets when asked if they believe in God. The rejection of the existence of God is simply too final, too unpalatable for many to stomach, and even if they offer up a little prayer now and again in the hopes that someone is listening, I would not make the mistake of reading too much into that. (Many prayers are probably a continuation of family tradition, like saying grace before a meal.) In most practical ways, Deists have more in common with the rest of the Nones (atheists and agnostics) than they do most Christians.

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posted September 25, 2009 at 2:51 pm

When talking about founding fathers who were deists, we must not forget Thomas Payne, who wrote several essays on the subject and also The Age of Reason. Payne makes it abundantly clear why he was a Deist and how reason makes the nature of God much more clear than does superstition and faery stories.

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Norwegian Shooter

posted September 28, 2009 at 11:06 pm

Either words mean something or they don’t. The only meaningful definition of Deism is your first: God created the universe and its laws but then receded from the action. This precludes God intervening in history and listening to prayers. If someone believes that God does at least one of these, then they can only be called Deists with the denigrating (and obfuscating) modifier of “so-called.” I would guess the number of Deists would drop significantly if it was limited to this “pretty narrow definition.”
And prayer is such a catch-all term that I wouldn’t claim to know anything about it from a survey. But it would help to know more about the questions asked. Can you post the link to the survey results on prayer? The other post just links to the Pew home page.

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posted September 29, 2009 at 9:05 pm

Silly me. I thought we made up about 25% of the population.
From my readings, I think it all depends on how the study defines “deism.” I’ve seen estimates from as low as a fraction of a percent, up to 44%. I can even rationalize that 100% of the US population is Deist iby rationalizing that the US is a Deist nation. The difference seems to be how “deism” is defined. For practical purposes, saying that about a quarter of the US population is Deist by belief seems to me to be close to correct.

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Rev. Keith Wright (Deist)

posted October 18, 2009 at 8:07 am

If Deism is back, then someone should tell the powers-that-be at Beliefnet (someone please tell Steven Waldman about Steven Waldmans article). Deists are still forced to check “other” as a faith. It would be nice if Beliefnet put their money where their mouth is and included, at last, Deism as a choice of faith.
…and it is Paine, not Payne.

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Gail Rendle

posted February 28, 2010 at 4:08 pm

As I understand it, the Deist believes in a Creator who is an intelligent Entity, as opposed to the creation of this world and universe by “chance”, or a “big-bang”; and that this Creator set up the rules, which we call “science”, and stepped back from this Creation, allowing us to observe it and learn how to work with it.
This would mean that we are left to be “self-regulating” – we are to seek and find our own path, our own structure for life, and stick to it. We find, for instance, that courtesy and respect for our fellow man (“man”, here, is a “gender collective”)can ease communication and help us get along with each other, while arrogance and disrespect do not. Therefore, it is reasonable to be courteous and respectful to others, and unreasonable to be arrogant and disrespectful.
So long as there are no requirements or agendas other than honoring the Creator and taking care of what was Created, and working together with our fellow man toward the common good, this seems a workable way of life, for me.
If all our governmental and religious heirarchy could come down to this level (I mean world-wide – one country alone cannot do it), we might actually find that life is worth living. I suspect that the natural world would provide us with enough variety of problems and solutions, so that we would not miss the variety of self-aggrandizing political and religious figures and the nonsensical problems they cause that we are forced to deal with every day. It seems to me that it is bad enough that government and politics get in our way, but insult is added to injury in that today’s organized religions really tip the scales, and not in favor of the common man. I’m 68 years old, and I’ve seen enough to convince me of this.

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Jesse Woody

posted March 16, 2010 at 3:30 pm

What amazes me, is that here we are in the first decade of the 21th century CE and such a large percentage of “intelligent” humans still accepting the archaic, superstitious beliefs of “revealed” religions. With a world-wide acceptance of Deism, mankind could become a peaceful, productive and yes, a more intelligent species.

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