|5 years ago :: Feb 08, 2009 - 12:42PM #1|
(There have been a number of questions about Deism here, what it is, what it means, and why anyone would want to be one. I give you one Deist's take.)
Read any good, objective definition of Deism, and it will tell you that Deism is the belief in God based on reason, nature and experience. That is an excellent definition. Now, what does that really mean?
If you are a Deist, that definition probably makes sense, because that is how you feel, but when you try to explain this definition in detail to someone who is not a Deist, you may find the task to be a bit difficult. Even for someone who has been a Deist for a while, it is hard to use one simple definition to account for the wide variety of beliefs you find among people who call themselves Deists. And if you try to explain why Deists believe so many different things, you may begin to wonder yourself. Why do all these people consider themselves Deists in the first place? How do Deists live their lives any differently than people who believe something else? What does being a Deist mean, and why would you want to be one?
Deists are too often defined by what they reject, rather than by what they accept. That is one way to define Deism, but it is not the best way. Many come to Deism after rejecting their former beliefs. They start looking for something that can help them make some sense out of their lives, something to believe in to replace the belief system they turned away from. They start reading about and hearing about Deism, and they see a good fit. They jump on the bandwagon. But after a while, criticizing other religions gets old. It is just not very constructive. And if the Deist community does not offer more than this, many of these people drift away from Deism. Just look at the number of people registered on discussion boards, and then look at how many are actually active. I believe that Deism must offer more if it is to thrive as a belief system.
Why do Deists believe so many different things? That is not so hard to explain. Deism has no tenets or dogma. There are no Deist clergy telling us how to behave or think. There are no sacred texts. There is no authority anywhere telling Deists what they must think. Deists are expected to figure it out for themselves. How could Deists ever think alike? Deists have early classical Deist authors to study, they have websites to visit, and they have discussion groups where they can read and exchange ideas about Deism, but they have no "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots". Deists reach their own conclusions.
So it is not so hard to figure out why Deists, subtly or dramatically, differ in what they believe. What is probably harder to understand is why people who believe so many different things still call themselves Deists.
One of the persons who has had a profound influence on me as a Deist is David Pyle. Some of the things he said have stuck with me for a long time. He felt that Deism is not only a religion; it is a religious methodology. As we have noted, Deist beliefs vary widely. We have no dogma that we are required to believe. So one common denominator among Deists is the way we arrive at what we believe. The way we come to believe defines us more than what we believe. We are reasoning seekers, and we tend to seek the truth in similar ways. According to David, we Deists tend to look at things in the following ways:
1. We never accept anything as truth if it does not make sense.
2. We have faith primarily in our abilities to reason.
3. We accept inspiration that we personally experience, but we view the inspiration (or revelation) of all others with skepticism.
4. We tend to believe mostly what we can defend in debate with fellow seekers.
5. We accept the possibility, actually the probability, that we may be wrong, and we are willing to modify our beliefs when we are wrong.
6. We search for wisdom everywhere, but we use that wisdom primarily to inspire our own thoughts.
7. To us, the most important ideas and thoughts are our own.
8. We strive for self-honesty. We cannot reason if we cannot be honest with ourselves.
9. We realize that not everyone can walk the same path we do, so we try to learn from the paths others take.
10. We try always to remember that we will never achieve perfection in our beliefs, and if we ever think we have, that is the surest sign that we have not.
You can believe just some of these things or all of these things and still be a Deist either way. When it comes right down to it, how you make sense out of things may more important than the conclusion you reach. As you gather more evidence, your conclusions may change. Our approach to life's questions is based on reason. That is why Deism is belief in God based on reason: reason, nature and experience.
The "nature" part of the definition of Deism is different for each of us. Some find spirituality in the wonder, beauty, awe and power of nature. Others believe natural laws extend beyond just the physical laws that modern science has discovered. Some Deists emphasize human nature as a key element in understanding Deism. Each of us must choose what we believe to be reasonable. We must choose what makes sense in light of our worldviews.
If everything was perfectly logical and reasonable, Deists would probably end up believing similar things, but Deists have another characteristic that helps define us as Deists. We cannot find a perfect argument to prove that God exists. So we believe that God exists without being able to prove that God exists, so we must bridge that gap with faith. This is, to Deists, a sensible faith, a faith that is based on reason, but it is faith, not proof. It is not a blind faith. It is a faith coupled with doubt. Deists accept almost nothing based on blind faith, but we can become comfortable with reasoned faith.
Deists accept doubt as a part of our faith. We arrive at our beliefs through reason, but we have also seen people who use reason and rationalization to justify all sorts of bad things, up to and including genocide. So an element of doubt must necessarily accompany our faith-based reasoning. This makes sense to a Deist. We are not perfect, and we don't have all the answers.
Deists must not forget to include experience as a factor in our belief in God. All of us have different experiences that have shaped our worldviews. We come to Deism through different experiences, and that gives us different perspectives. Deists arrive at different conclusions because we have different natures and experiences. We couldn't all end up believing the same thing. Thinking for ourselves is what makes us Deists, not by conforming to someone else's definition of what a Deist is or what a Deist believes.
And all of this adds up to why we want to be Deists. We don't have ceremonies or rituals or even churches or regular meetings. Deists tend to be solitary practitioners of their religion. Simple things can be spiritual activities for a Deist: any phenomenon of nature such as a rainstorm or a sunny day, reading a book or a website, meditating or contemplating a work of art. Deists don't need icons or mantras, although they are perfectly welcome to contemplate them if that is what suits their natures. Believers in other religions can study a single sacred text for a lifetime. Deists are more likely to consume dozens of books per year on science, nature or any subject that helps liberate their minds. We are similar, but we are all individuals. Each Deist is unique.
I am a Deist for a reason. For me, Deism is a way of making sense out of life. Deism is my religion, part of my philosophy, and it makes up a significant portion of my worldview. I would not be complete without Deism in my life. I look at things through the lens of reason. If something does not make sense, I try to make sense out of it. If something is done without reason, I am probably not going to support it. I have become a better student of human nature. And I try to learn from not only my own experiences, but the experiences of others. I don't know if I am a better person, but I am trying, and the path I follow is clearer to me.
I am a student not only of Deism, but of Stoic philosophy. I do not find all of Stoicism reasonable or acceptable, which is probably to be expected. I am, after all, a Deist. But I do want to share one small point. The Stoics believed that if you want to be happy, you must be virtuous, and if you are virtuous, happiness will be the natural result. But Stoicism has no arguments for those who are not interested in happiness. If you do not seek the happiness that is the product of a well-lived life, Stoicism has nothing to offer you. If belief in God through reason, nature and experience is not what you are interested in, then Deism is probably not for you. If you find Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism or something else is a better choice for you, then by all means, choose the path that works for you. A Deist would wish for you nothing else.
|4 years ago :: Aug 31, 2009 - 4:02PM #2|
This is an excellent post, thanks cclendenen! I particularly liked David Pyle's 10 Deist ways of looking at things; they make a very good general description of the Deist's approach to seeking religious "truth."
Addressing the typical perspectives that underlie a Deist approach to faith seems to actually get more to the heart of what Deists have in common. The faith is not so much about the nature of the objective or metaphysical world (God, our place in the Universe, etc.), as about the subjective view of the universe and how it can be approached and comprehended.
Faith in one's own ability to understand the nature of divinity through reason and experience makes the Deist, not any particular set of notions about what the nature of divinity is.
A very nice, insightful post.