What Is Deism?

Classical deism imagines God as a watchmaker that created the universe and then walked away, allowing the universe functions as directed by natural laws much the same as a watch functions according to its gears ounce wound. (Pocket watch: Marina Shanti/Shutterstock; Milky Way galaxy illustration: Wikimedia Commons).

One faith has outstripped others in the number of new believers in the United States, according to a survey by the City University of New York. The faith that gained the most in popularity wasn't Islam, Mormonism or evangelical Christianity. It was the faith of many of our founding fathers: deism.

Deists do not believe in miracles, divinely inspired writings, or messengers from above. There are no angels or devils. There are no brick-and-mortar churches and no leaders.

So what exactly is deism? Classical deism believes that a God created the universe and has not intervened since. A common analogy of classical deism is that of a master watchmaker: the maker carefully creates the watch, sets it up to operate according to natural laws, winds the watch, and then steps away as the watch functions as directed by those laws.

Over time there have been other schools of thought formed under the umbrella of deism including Christian deism, belief in deistic principles coupled with the moral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and Pandeism, a belief that God became the entire universe and no longer exists as a separate being.

Benjamin Franklin

Deistic thought goes back to the 17th century when several ministers of the Church of England expressed disbelief in a number of tenets of their Christian faith that seemed to go against human reason and the laws of nature.

Deism enjoyed a resurgence among leaders of the American Revolution with some of the founding fathers expressing strong deist beliefs. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin (at right) recalled in his autobiography: "I was scarce 15 when ... some books against Deism fell into my hands ... It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them ... the arguments of the Deists ... appeared to me much stronger than the [anti-Deism] refutations. In short I soon became a thorough Deist."

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson (at right) could probably be categorized as a Christian deist, and he created his own version of a New Testament gospel which removed all traces of miraculous incidents.

Deism made major inroads into continental Europe during the French Revolution when the faith was embraced to the point that Notre Dame Cathedral was renamed "The Temple of Reason."

Deism waned in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially in America. This was probably because of the increasing study of science and the humanistic thought that went with that study and questioned the basic belief in a God.

For the last couple of decades, deism has been growing, albeit slowly. The growing reach of the Internet and an increasing interest in science are some of the reasons why.

So what's next for deism? Bob Johnson, founder of the World Union of Deists, predicts that "if given the chance, deism will bring humanity's beliefs about God/The Supreme Intelligence out of the Bronze Age. This will free us all from religious violence that produces [false] beliefs such as God favoring one group of people over another. It will make the world a much safer and more enjoyable place as it will remove a major trigger for violence that cannot be tolerated in a nuclear age."

That's a tall order. But as all watchmakers know, only time will tell.

Doug MacGowan lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published three books on the topic of historic true crime. In his free time he enjoys reading.