Deism (from Deus, God) properly means the belief in the existence of a supreme intelligent First Cause, in opposition to Atheism. It is now, however, applied to that form of infidelity which professes to believe the existence of a personal God, but denies his revelation. The word Deism is, at bottom, the same as Theism (from Θεὸς, God); but a distinction in practical use has arisen between them. Des Prades calls Theism the faith of reason, which precedes all revelation; but, on the other hand, designates by Deism the faith in reason which contests revelation. In more modern times, an arbitrary distinction between the two terms mentioned has been adopted by the usage of scientific language in Germany, according to which Deism is the doctrine of God's relation to the world, which represents God as not only different, but also as separated from the world, therefore as only in an external relation to it; on the other hand, Theism would be the doctrine which represents God as holding an internal and real relation to the world. Kant makes the distinction between a deist and a theist as follows: the deist, he says, believes in a God, but the theist in a living God. "About the middle of the 16th century the title was arrogantly assumed by those who professed to believe in a God, while they refused to acknowledge any revelation of his will. They set up in opposition to Christianity what they are pleased to call 'natural religion,': but never agreed upon the articles of faith which it taught, or the practical duties which it required. Deism, in effect, is a rejection of all known religions, supplying nothing in their place, but leaving the mind to doubt and darkness. But the friends of Christianity have no reason to regret the free and unreserved discussion which their religion has undergone. The cavils and objections of the deists have been fairly heard and fully answered; but, for their opposition we should not have had such a vast mass of Christian evidences as has been collected by the pious and learned; evidences which, while they prove the truths of Christianity, so illustrate its doctrines as to be of lasting service to the cause of genuine religion and the best interests of mankind" (Eden). The ground taken by the: English deists was substantially the naturalistic, viz. that the Gospel history was the product of an invention imposed upon the world by its authors.
Lord Herbert of Cherbury (born 1581, died 1648) has been regarded as the first deistical writer in England, or at least the first who reduced Deism to a system, affirming the sufficiency of reason and natural religion, and rejecting divine revelation as unnecessary and superfluous. His system, taught in his De Veritate and De Religione Laici, embraced these five articles:
1, The being of God; 2, that he is to be worshipped; 3, that piety and moral virtue are the chief parts of worship; 4, that God will pardon our faults on repentance; and, 5, that there is a future state of rewards and punishment.
SEE HERBERT OF CHERBURY. Hobbes († 1680), deriving all knowledge from the senses, taught a lower, but more logical form of Deism than Herbert, and one less calculated to do harm, as his system obviously subverts ordinary morality. SEE HOBBES. Charles Blount († 1693) published a translation of Philostratus's Life of Apollonius Tyanceus, with the same purpose as that of Hierocles in the 4th century, viz. to contrast the character and history of Christ disadvantageously with that of Apollonius. After his death appeared his Oracle of Reason (1695), explaining the "Deists' Religion." John Toland († 1722), in his Christianity
not Mysterious (1696), asserted the capacity and supremacy of reason (anticipating the modern Rationalism [q.v.]), and also, in his Amyntor (1699), — threw doubt upon the Canonl. The theory that Christ was an ordinary man, whose followers elevated him to the imaginary dignity of a divine being, had been started by the early opponents of Christianity — Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian. It was revived by Woolston (t 1733) (q.v.), in his Six Discourses on the Miracles (1727), and by Tyndal (q.v.) in his Christianity as old as the Creation (1730). Tyndal was followed by Chubb, True Gospel of Christ (1748), and other writings, SEE CHUBB; and by Morgan, The Moral Philosopher, and other works. These views were disseminated among the higher classes in England by Bolingbroke and Shaftesbury, and at a later period, in the form of complete skepticism, by Hume and Gibbon. Among the illiterate, Thomas Paine (q.v.) was the great propagator of Deism. The progress of vulgar Deism among the higher classes was arrested by Butler's immortal Analogy, SEE BUTLER, and among the lower, to a large extent, by the rise and progress of Methodism.
In France, the English Deism was adopted and diffused by Voltaire and the Encyclopedists (q.v.); but it soon became frivolous, immoral, and, in fact, atheistic. In Germany, the same seed sprang up in the 18th century in the theories which gave rise to the modern Rationalism (q.v.). "The deistical movement, if viewed as a whole, is obsolete. If the same doubts are now repeated, they do not recur in the same form, but are connected with new forms of philosophy, and altered by contact with more recent criticism. In the present day sceptics would believe less than the deists, or believe more, both in philosophy and in criticism. In philosophy, the fact that the same difficulties occur in natural religion as well as in revealed, would now throw them back from Monotheism into Atheism or Pantheism; while the mysteries of revelation, which by a rough criticism were then denied, would he now conceded and explained away as psychological peculiarities of races or individuals. In criticism, the delicate examination of the sacred literature would now prevent both the revival of the cold, unimaginative want of appreciation of its extreme literary beauty, and the hasty imputation of the charge of literary forgery against the authors of the documents. In the deist controversy, the whole question turned upon the differences and respective degrees of obligation of natural and revealed religion, moral and positive duties; the deist conceding the one, denying the other. The permanent contribution to thought made by the controversy consisted in turning attention from abstract theology to psychological, from metaphysical disquisitions on the nature of God to ethical consideration of the moral scheme of redemption for man. Theology came forth from the conflict, reconsidered from the psychological point of view, and readjusted to meet the doubts which the new form of philosophy Ñ psychology and ethics — might suggest. The attack of revealed religion by reason awoke the defense, and no period in Church history is so remarkable for works on the Christian evidences — grand monuments of mind and industry. The works of defenders are marked by the adoption of the same basis of reason as their opponents, and hence the topics which they illustrate have a permanent philosophical value, though their special utility as arguments be lessened by the alteration in the point of view now assumed by free thought" (Farrar, Critical History of Free Thought, lect. 4).
The aim of honest deists has professedly been to maintain the doctrine of a Personal God; and they have asserted and assumed that this doctrine can be better and more surely vindicated apart from what they call the entanglements of Christian faith than in connection with them. But the history of thought, in the last century especially, shows that Deism, or belief in a Personal God apart from Christianity, gives way steadily before the assaults of Pantheism and Positivism. No robust faith has ever sprung out of Deism. The so-called spiritualistic writers of France have contended nobly (e.g. Cousin, Saisset, and others) against Materialism; but their task of upholding Theism in France has devolved now almost wholly upon Christian thinkers.
A succinct account of the English deists and their principles will be found in Van Mildert, Boyle Lecture, sermon 10; Lechler, Geschichte d. englisch. Deismus (1841). See also Leland, View of deistical Writers (new. ed. by Edmonds, Lond. 1837, 8vo); Noack, Die Freidenker in der Religion (Bern. 1853-55, 3 vols.; vol. 1 treats of the "English Deists," vol. 2 of the "French Freethinkers," vol. 3 of the "German Enlightenment"); Farrar, Critical History of Free Thought (Oxf. 1863, 8vo; repub. Boston, 1863, 12mo); Hurst, History of Rationalism, chap. 19; Hagenbach, Hist. of Doctrines, § 238; Dorner, Geschichte d. protest. Theologie (1867), p. 487; Liddon, Bampton Lecture, 1867. Compare the articles SEE INFIDELITY; SEE RATIONALISM. For the writers against Deism, SEE APOLOGETICS; SEE APOLOGY; SEE EVIDENCES.