Monday, January 11, 2010

Deism and Some Alternatives

The Conservative Deist has become confused. What is deism exactly? How does it relate to the other isms? Should he continue to call himself a deist, a panentheist, a theist, or should he just give up on the project altogether? Now the Conservative Deist will stop referring to himself in the third person and start thinking about this.

Let’s begin with the all-time cheesy beginning--consult the dictionary!

The online Oxford Dictionary defines deism as “belief in the existence of a supreme being, specifically of a creator who does not intervene in the universe.”

Theism is “belief in the existence of a god or gods, specifically of a creator who intervenes in the universe.”

Pantheism is “the belief that God can be identified with the universe, or that the universe is a manifestation of God.”

Panentheism is (according to "the view that God is immanent within all Creation and that the universe is part of God or that God is the animating force behind the universe. Unlike pantheism, panentheism does not mean that the universe is synonymous with God. Instead, it maintains that there is more to God than the material universe. In panentheism, God maintains a transcendent character, and is viewed as both the creator and the original source of universal morality."

All of this gets confusing, but perhaps we can untangle this just a bit. The definition of “theism” is here pretty broad, but I tend to accept the implication from the Oxford definition that theists tend almost always to affirm the existence of God’s intervention into the universe in the form of miracles. This is exactly what deism denies. Pantheism doesn’t have any miracles in it, in the sense that God’s manifestation as the universe itself suggests that the universal law-like regularities that we observe can be counted on to remain constant, being as they are a kind of expression of God himself. Panentheism is compatible with either view, since God is something over and above the universe.

I bring all of this up because I have run into some cognitive dissonance with two of my most cherished interlocutors. My favorite spiritual thinker, Steve Bohlert, prefers to use the term “panentheism” in his work, and especially in the book that I recently reviewed. My philosopher friend, Bill Vallicella, explores deism in his article “Concurrentism or Occasionalism?” with results that have also caused me pause. I consider thus the following:

Steve Bohlert emphasizes the bhakti tradition that develops through Chaitanya, Bhaktivinoda Thakur, and Lalita Prasad Thakur. The strength of panentheism here is that God becomes accessible in everything that surrounds us and yet, because God is more than merely the universe itself, worlds of experience and reality are potentially available as possibilities for the upward surge of the soul. We can have personal relationships with God both in this world and in another world entirely.

Bill Vallicella, in his trenchant article, contrasts deism with other views (conservationism, concurrentism, and occasionalism) for the sake of exploring different theories about how God and causation relate to each other. In the article, he writes that deism affirms that “God is an initiating but not a sustaining cause: he created the universe or the initial segment thereof in principio but ever thereafter it has managed to exist on its own. On this minimalist view, God is (I) one cause among many, and (ii) a cause not involved either directly or indirectly in the causality of other causes.” Since I tend to view God as being constantly related to causality and the existence of things and their interactions, the deistic view here seems to thin for me.

I find myself tending toward the panentheist understanding. So now I consider the motivations that have led me to use “deism.”

I have isolated two motivations--one philosophical, one cultural. The philosophical motivation is that I don’t believe in the existence of literal miracles in the physical, space-time world in which we reside. Deism is the only position that makes that position clear and unambiguous. The cultural motivation is that deism is associated with the great American patriots like Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison who were able to fashion our great system at least partially under the influence of deism.

Panentheism is perfectly compatible with the view that God does not perform miracles; I, however, wish to make it clear that whereas I am willing and able to believe in God, I am not particularly interested in miraculous accounts or in New Age phenomena. This is best expressed by “deism.“ Yet I am willing to believe that there is another level of reality in which the most astounding and amazing things are possible, including knowledge of God made accessible to our souls, which is otherwise unthinkable. This is better expressed by “panentheism”, especially since deists usually deny, or are generally dismissive of, the idea of life after death in another sphere of reality.

Yet I am willing to think that God “tugs” our imaginations in some way. Perhaps religious experiences and visions have something to do with this. Perhaps some of the best religious books are also influenced by the Divine. It is in this sense that I am happy to entertain the possibility of miracles, if “miracles” is here the correct word.

At the end of this essay I feel that I feel happiest with a panentheism that has a deistic cast. I now think that I may, at least for a while, alter the name of my blog . . .


  1. Being a non-philosopher (retired businessman) who nonetheless philosophizes, I appreciate it when a real philosopher provides clarity to their thinking. You must be a good teacher, sir.

  2. Thank you for your kind words. Many blessings to you!

  3. I think the name of your blog is fine. After you change the name, will you change it to something else every time you learn and grow more? In my blog I just stick in a subtitle so I don't have to change the name every year as I grow older and wiser.

    Recently I've been refocusing on just one line of thought on deism, namely the religious beliefs of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson equated Deism with monotheism. To Jefferson Deism simply meant the belief in a single God. He wrote and used the term the "“the deism and ethics of the Jews." In another place, I can't find the exact quote, sorry, he referred to "the Deism of Jesus." In another he said that he called himself a Rational Christian or Deist. I keep finding it easiest to just consider Deism to be a general belief in a single God, and to not consider revelations.

    The problem with revelations is that by definition they are not natural. They are miracles. Because miracles are not natural by definition, standards of truth cannot apply to miracles. Is something from the mouth of a prophet true or not? Nature and truth are effectively the same thing. So the teachings of a prophet are not necessarily true in nature because they supposedly come from a source the precedes and defines nature. Revelations can be true in a human sense.

    Religion implies an irrational belief in things beyond nature that may affect nature, but because they are unnatural in character they can never be proved or disproved.

    So for me Deism is more of a philosophy, or a way of coming closer to natural truth, that considers nature is the creation of a single supernatural Creator (a God), and without considering revelation. Deism is more of a philosophical starting point in other words, and not a religion.