It is an interesting experience for me to intentionally write an article about Deism, a bit of a “return to my roots” you might say. For the last several years I have not primarily identified as a Deist, although my understanding of God has always been a Deistic one. Deism as it has been defined by its detractors and its promoters has seemed too limited to contain all that is my theology. I am a Deist, and I’m more than that.
In the days when I was actively involved in the United Deist Church, Dynamic Deism, and the Deist Alliance, I wrote an article about labels… about how tied up we can get over what “label” we want to place upon our theology. I wrote that the word “Deism” is a shorthand for a specific category of beliefs, just as “Christianity” denotes a wide variety of beliefs and practices. Such labels get us into a general ballpark of where someone rests theologically, but can never define a whole group or even an individual. To know someone’s theology, you must be in relationship with them.
I believe that Deism rests around three core truths. Each of these is a positive statement about reality, and exists independent of any other religious tradition or idea. These three core truths are:
God does not act in the universe in ways that contradict natural law.
What we need to know of God can be found in the universe itself (General Revelation).
Thomas Paine saw this, as did Ethan Allen, Constantine Volney, and many others of the founders of Deism in the modern west. Shadows of this thought can be seen in every religious tradition, in Buddhism, in Christianity, in Islam, and in Sikhism… because these core ideas transcend the cultural and religious contexts they arise in.
And, no matter how much some of my Deist colleagues might argue against this, each of these is a Faith Statement. None of these truths can be proven through reason. Each can find much tangential support through human reason, however that is not the same thing as proof. This is not a bad thing… for faith does not mean to believe something to be true when it is not. Faith in this instance means to trust in a truth that transcends final proof. To trust even in the accuracy of human reason is in itself an act of faith.
We human beings are creatures of faith… because we are limited beings. We developed faith as a survival mechanism to live in a universe that we could never fully comprehend. We can never have access to all knowledge, so we have faith that such knowledge as we have is sufficient for our purposes. We can never have perfect reasoning, because human nature belies perfection. Truth can never be final, because we humans can never be final. The difference between a Deist’s faith, and faith as it is commonly conceived, is that the Deist is called to forever remember these limitations. We are called to forever test those things in which we hold faith. It is in this way that Deism is meant to be a Dynamic faith.
There is no greater patron saint of Deism today than Thomas Paine, and I give homage to him. At 20 years old, encountering Age of Reason changed the course of my life, and gave me a way through some of the deepest and darkest of times. And yet, I believe that Thomas Paine set three negative trends into motion within the movement of Deism that we have yet to recover from… and that if Deism is ever to be more than a fringe religious idea we must step away from the example of Paine.
We must step away from defining ourselves by what we are against rather than what we are for.
We must step away from understanding Deism as a private, personal religion.
We must cease defining all of Deism by our own personal and particular set of beliefs.
Paine meant well, and in his time his expression of the core ideas of Deism in terms of an individualistic and contrarian religion made sense. It was a time of rebellion against cultural norms, against political powers, and against the oppression of the individual and of the self. Paine found in Deism another expression of the rebellion against tyranny that had been the foundation of his life. Paine also found himself living in a time when the lines between the state and the church were much fuzzier than they are today, in which the churches that later became Unitarian and UCC were sponsored by tax-dollars, and had much more political influence than they do today.
I know that some might see parallels in this to today, but the reality is there are several magnitudes of difference. No matter how influential some religious denominations might be today, it is but a single strand in a gown compared to then. For Paine, the influence of the Church upon the commons was a paramount concern, and it only made sense that he would set about an attempt to deconstruct that edifice as a part of his exploration of Deism.
I am also the last person who will claim that the battle for the separation of church and state has been won… far from it. As a military chaplain candidate, I have seen the influence some more conservative Christian denominations have over aspects of my nation’s military. Part of my own call to that Chaplaincy is to address that influence by education and awareness… to remind my colleagues regularly that their role is not to promote their religious faiths, but to protect the free exercise of religion in the military. In order to be in the place to do that reminding (and to serve soldiers and their families) I have made my own compromise with being a state-sponsored clergy person. (I am a Post MFC -Candidate for the Unitarian Universalist Ministry).
I believe there are three transitions that Deism must make to become a viable religious tradition in the coming decades and centuries… and I fear that the most active Deist organizations today not only do not agree, but scoff at the ideas behind these transitions. I believe that much of today’s Deist movement is locked into unproductive patterns, inspired by Paine, that serve deep seated prejudices within the human condition rather than serving humanity as a whole. Each of these transitions that I believe Deism needs to undergo is complex, and I hope only to outline them in this article. It is my hope that they inspire thought and debate among the many adherents of Deism, in their many forms and structures.
1. I believe Deism must move completely away from defining itself in relation to any other religious tradition, and instead focus on being a religious tradition unto itself.
2. I believe Deists must develop or incorporate ways to be in religious community with one another in personal, communal forms.
3. I believe Deism must move toward a stance that seeks to be inclusive and not exclusive as to admittance to the circle of Deism.
What are we for?
Thomas Paine, in the second part of Age of Reason, set a pattern that Deists have been following for the centuries since… we are more comfortable speaking about what is “wrong” with other religious faiths (particularly Christianity, but not exclusively) then we are comfortable (or capable) of speaking about what is “right” about Deism. It has seemed a good strategy, for one of the regular commonalities among Deists has been some kind of ill-feeling toward other religions. Many Deists are ex-Christians who might have some anger, hurt, or fear in their relationship to their former faith. Many Deists are individualistic to the point that any form of corporate human power is anathema. Many Deists feel disenfranchised by a culture they perceive as being dominated by these “revealed religions”.
However we have gotten there (and I went through my own phase of being angry and fearful of Christianity), this trend has led us to defining ourselves in large part by what we are opposed to. It has been a block to creating an inspiring vision of a world, of humanity, and of God that is founded on Deistic principles. By accepting that “opposing” these “Religions of Revelation” we have placed Deism in a secondary, or even tertiary place, able to be defined primarily by our relationship to other faiths. Because of this, Deism as a modern movement has found difficulty in standing on its own. Defined in this way, without the “other” we become irrelevant… a lesson to be learned from the Universalist Church of America after 1900.
This manichean understanding of Deism also has made us a magnet for people who are seeking not the inspiring vision about God and the Universe that is at the heart of Deism, but rather are seeking any excuse to define themselves in opposition to the prevailing religious traditions. Western society has come to encompass a continuing crisis of identity, both as a whole and for individuals. The pace of societal change, the impersonal nature of modern communications, and the unattainability of many of the modern sources of authority, identity, and power have created a crisis of self that exists at all levels of our culture. In that crisis of self, one of the easiest (and least productive) ways of finding an identity is by defining oneself by what they are against.
While that may provide a basis for some short term growth in a movement, defining oneself by what one opposes either becomes dogmatic, or it is incapable of sustaining the self for an extended period of time. Either you continually shrink your acceptance of anyone who is not the “other” that you oppose, or you realize how a dynamic and complex humanity belies such easy classifications as “us vs. them”.
However, what I believe is the more sorrowful aspect of this tendency in Deism is that focusing on what we “oppose” has prevented or lessened the exploration of what we are “for”… it has lessened the search for a positive and inspiring vision of the world in tune with Deism. I believe that vision is there… I believe there is an amazing, hopeful, and inspiring worldview and theology within Deism… and we have frittered away our time worrying about Christians and Muslims, Jews and Buddhists.
That does not mean we should ignore the other world religions… far from it. We should let go of our own insecurities (one of the sources of our oppositional stance) and approach these other traditions with the spirits of seekers. We Deists have much we can learn, moving from a firm Deist Theology, into an exploration of Christianity, of Buddhism, of Sikhism, of Hinduism, of Islam, and of all the world’s traditions. There is nothing preventing us from that exploration but our own fears, our own inadequacies, and our own prejudices… and Deism would become all the richer for it.
Who Are We Together?
Of everyone who has been a part of the Modern Deist Movements over the last few decades, there are probably only a few more deeply aware of the problems in building an inclusive religious community for Deism than I… and I can name most of those names. The years of working to develop the United Deist Church ultimately failed because Deists are often too independent or too untrusting to come together into anything remotely resembling a “church”. The internet has provided enough distance that some Deists have been able to build internet communities, one of which I administered for several years. The World Union of Deists has been successful at maintaining connections between Deists, but I have long stated my concerns about its focus on understanding Deism in relation to its opposition to “Revealed Religion”, which I addressed in the previous section.
So who are we together? Is Deism just a personal religious choice, one that not only has no need of a broader religious community but is perhaps anathema to such religious community? If so, then I believe Deism has come just about as far as it can… that a series of internet connections and a few newsletters are all that will ever be achieved when it comes to building community. If so, then for those Deists (like me) who do seek that larger, intentional, and in person religious community, we will continue to find it within inclusive religious traditions such as Unitarian Universalism. Other Deists I know have found that community within other traditions, such as remaining within a liberal Christian tradition or within Buddhism or Baha’i. Others have found other outlets for that communal impulse, disconnected from their religious beliefs as Deists.
I will admit, I think it far more likely that Modern Deists can move toward defining themselves by what they are for rather than against far more readily than I believe Deists will find a way to be in religious community with one another. Until we have that community to offer, Deism will not grow significantly… because the extreme individualism represented by many of today’s Deists is in the minority among humanity. Humans need one another, and seek to be in community with one another. Until Deism develops a way to be in community; real life, vibrant community… it will remain the fringe of the fringe.
What that community will look like, I will not try to say. I know that I am biased toward the model of a church based in congregational polity, (hence my involvement with the United Deist Church effort and now the UUA). I am aware that the Deists that are seeking that kind of community now are finding their way to Unitarian Universalist Churches, but they are the minority of the declared Deists out there. Perhaps these communities could be based on the model of Emerson’s Lyceum groups. Perhaps they might be based upon the Quaker idea of a “meeting”. However they might come together, I believe the primary block to Deism becoming a significant religious presence in the world is our inability to create community.
Who is in and Who is out?
Deism is a creedal religion. At its core, that creed is very simple. To be a Deist is to believe that God exists, that God does not act outside of nature, and that nature reveals to us all we need to know about God.
How you define God, what role God plays in your life, where you see God… all of these questions and many more are not answered by this basic creed of Deism. Whether a Deist can also be a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or a Pagan is also not answered by this basic creed of Deism. This creed does not define what happens when we die, and it does not define a moral code. This creed does not specify one political party or another. This creed does not specify any social stances of sociological implications of other religions that humanity might engage in.
As Thomas Paine said… God exists… and there it lies.
Yet it is human nature to want to put in place firmer bounds on the communities we belong to than are represented in this Deistic Creed. It is also in human nature to portray our specific beliefs as if they have applicability to the larger whole. In the case of those in positions of leadership or influence in any religious tradition, including Deism, there is a tendency to forget the difference between our personal beliefs and those that represent the tradition.
So, how do we define who is a Deist and who is not? How do we craft a message and a vision that is inviting to all who accept the core aspects of Deism? How do we live and breathe in a religious community with such a broad creed? How do our leaders represent that breadth with integrity, while still giving voice to their specific beliefs, values, and principles?
How we define who is a Deist has specific applicability to the other two transformative questions raised in this essay. I lay the responsibility for this transformation specifically on anyone who claims a role of leadership or influence within the Modern Deism movement. Part of this responsibility is to hold with brutal clarity the difference between your personal beliefs about Deism and the beliefs Deism has brought forth in you as separate from the core creedal tenets of Deism. It is fine if you hold beliefs about the socially redeeming value of religions that rely on divine revelation… but these values should not be equated with Deism as a whole. It is fine if you believe that Liberty should include freedom from government control (be it of healthcare, of pot, or whatever), but these beliefs should not be equated with the core creedal tenets of Deism.
All should aspire to this clarity between our personal beliefs and these core creedal tenets… but among those who represent Deism to a larger public, this separation is a necessity. Without it, Deism is too easily dismissed within human society as a parochial concern, relating to the specific interests of specific groups, rather than a statement of religious values with near universal applicability.
I believe these three transformations are necessary if Deism is ever to move into its potential as a religious gift to the human race, and yet I do not hold high hopes of ever seeing them come to fruition. I made my choice to practice my faith within Unitarian Universalism, and I have found the religious home I was seeking. I am comfortable within this faith both theologically and politically, even if I still have some cultural discomfort from time to time.
And yet, I am still a Deist (and a bit more). I still dream of the day when there might be a National Deist Organization that lives the three core tenets of Deism: The Existence of God; the Ultimacy of Nature, and the Primacy of General Revelation… I still dream of a world where such ideas are accepted truth, promoted by Deists in community with one another.
I can still dream.
Yours in Faith,