Deists (from the Latin Deus ‘God’) argue that reason and not revelation provides the basis for belief in God. There were many different forms of Deism so any summary will not apply to all Deists however, most argued that God created the world using rational and logical processes and they presented God as the master mathematician and the supreme scientist. Many believed Christianity to be corrupt and they wanted to return to what they termed ‘natural religion’ based on reason and morality. Deists believed that if God designed the world by creating the laws of nature then by studying the processes of science human beings could understand something of the mind of God. The American Deist Thomas Paine said
‘The creation is the Bible of the Deist. He there reads, in the handwriting of the Creator himself, the certainty of His existence and the immutability of His power.’
Isaac Newton also believed that the natural world provided evidence for God.
‘How came the bodies of animals to be contrived with so much art, and for what ends were their several parts? Was the eye contrived without skill in optics and the ear without knowledge of sounds?...Does it not appear from the phenomena that there is a Being, incorporeal , living, intelligent, omnipresent, who in infinite space, as it were in his sensory, sees the things themselves intimately and thoroughly perceives them, and comprehends them wholly by their immediate presence to himself, of the which things the images only carried through the organs of sense into our little sensorium are there seen and beheld by that which in us perceives and thinks? And though every true step made in this philosophy brings us not immediately to the knowledge for the first cause, yet it brings us nearer to it and on that account is to be highly valued.’
Isaac Newton Opticks 1704
Obviously the idea that creation revealed the creator was already found within Christianity and is based on the idea of general revelation. During the post-Enlightenment period mainstream Christianity showed great interest in Natural Theology as a way of gaining knowledge of God. It was during the eighteenth century that William Paley set out his teleological argument (design argument) for God’s existence. However, mainstream Christianity used reason in addition to special revelation whereas the Deists rejected revelation entirely.
Thomas Paine said of the Bible ‘it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and for my part, I sincerely detest it.’
This meant that Deism differs significantly from traditional Christian theology. The Deists rejected the idea of a God who intervenes in human affairs and they reject special revelation as a source of knowledge for God. Thus they reject the concept of the incarnation and the idea of the Bible as a source of divine wisdom. Furthermore, a Deistic outlook is generally thought to ruled out the possibility of miracles and made supplicatory prayer (asking for things) pointless.
Consequently, although the existence of Deism shows that post-Enlightenment modes of thought need not lead to atheism, Deism itself constitutes a significant challenge to Christianity.
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