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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > D > Deism


(Latin Deus, God).

The term used to denote certain doctrines apparent in a tendency of thought and criticism that manifested itself principally in England towards the latter end of the seventeenth century. The doctrines and tendency of deism were, however, by no means entirely confined to England, nor to the seventy years or so during which most of the deistical productions were given to the world; for a similar spirit of criticism aimed at the nature and content of traditional religious beliefs, and the substitution for them of a rationalistic naturalism has frequently appeared in the course of religious thought. Thus there have been French and German deists as well as English; while Pagan, Jewish, or Moslem deists might be found as well as Christian.

Because of the individualistic standpoint of independent criticism which they adopt, it is difficult, if not impossible, to class together the representative writers who contributed to the literature of English deism as forming any one definite school, or to group together the positive teachings contained in their writings as any one systematic expression of a concordant philosophy. The deists were what nowadays would be called freethinkers, a name, indeed, by which they were not infrequently known; and they can only be classed together wholly in the main attitude that they adopted, viz. in agreeing to cast off the trammels of authoritative religious teaching in favour of a free and purely rationalistic speculation. Many of them were frankly materialistic in their doctrines; while the French thinkers who subsequently built upon the foundations laid by the English deists were almost exclusively so. Others rested content with a criticism of ecclesiastical authority in teaching the inspiration of the Sacred Scriptures, or the fact of an external revelation of supernatural truth given by God to man. In this last point, while there is a considerable divergence of method and procedure observable in the writings of the various deists, all, at least to a very large extent, seem to concur. Deism, in its every manifestation was opposed to the current and traditional teaching of revealed religion.

In England the deistical movement seems to be an almost necessary outcome of the political and religious conditions of the time and country. The Renaissance had fairly swept away the later scholasticism and with it, very largely, the constructive philosophy of the Middle Ages. The Protestant Reformation, in its open revolt against the authority of the Catholic Church, had inaugurated a slow revolution, in which all religious pretensions were to be involved. The Bible as a substitute for the living voice of the Church and the State religion as a substitute for Catholicism might stand for a time; but the very mentality that brought them into being as substitutes could not logically rest content with them. The principle of private judgment in matters of religion had not run its full course in accepting the Bible as the Word of God. A favourable opportunity would spur it forward once more; and from such grudging acceptance as it gave to the Scriptures it would proceed to a new examination and a final rejection of their claims. The new life of the empirical sciences, the enormous enlargement of the physical horizon in such discoveries as those of astronomy and geography, the philosophical doubt and rationalistic method of Descartes, the advocated empiricism of Bacon, the political changes of the times--all these things were factors in the preparation and arrangement of a stage upon which a criticism levelled at revelational religion might come forward and play its part with some chance of success. And though the first essays of deism were somewhat veiled and intentionally indirect in their attack upon revelation, with the revolution and the civil and religious liberty consequent upon it, with the spread of the critical and empirical spirit as exemplified in the philosophy of Locke, the time was ripe for the full rehearsal of the case against Christianity as expounded by the Establishment and the sects. The wedge of private judgment had been driven into authority. It had already split Protestantism into a great number of conflicting sects. It was now to attempt the wreck of revealed religion in any shape or form.

The deistical tendency passed through several more or less clearly defined phases. All the forces possible were mustered against its advance. Parliaments took cognizance of it. Some of the productions of the deists were publicly burnt. The bishops and clergy of the Establishment were strenuous in resisting it. For every pamphlet or book that a deist wrote, several "answers" were at once put before the public as antidotes. Bishops addressed pastoral letters to their dioceses warning the faithful of the danger. Woolston's "Moderator" provoked no less than five such pastorals from the Bishop of London. All that was ecclesiastically official and respectable was ranged in opposition to the movement, and the deists were held up to general detestation in the strongest terms. When the critical principles and freethought spirit filtered down to the middle classes and the masses, when such men as Woolston and Chubb put pen to paper, a perfect storm of counter-criticism arose. As a matter of fact, not a few educated and cultured men were really upon the side of a broad toleration in matters of religion. The "wit and ridicule" by which the Earl of Shaftesbury would have all tested meant, as Brown rightly notes, no more than urbanity and good nature. But Shaftesbury himself would by no means allow that he was a deist, except in the sense in which the term is interchangeable with theist; and Herbert of Cherbury, by far the most cultured representative of the movement, is noted as having been the most moderate and the least opposed of them all to the teachings of Christianity.

One phase through which deism may be said to have passed was that of a critical examination of the first principles of religion. It asserted its right to perfect tolerance on the part of all men. Freethought was the right of the individual; it was, indeed, but one step in advance of the received principle of private judgment. Such representatives of deism as Toland and Collins may be taken as typical of this stage. So far, while critical and insisting on its rights to complete toleration, it need not be, though as a matter of fact it undoubtedly was, hostile to religion.

A second phase was that in which it criticized the moral or ethical part of religious teaching. The Earl of Shaftesbury, for example, has much to urge against the doctrine of doctrine of future rewards and punishments as the sanction of the moral law. Such an attitude is obviously incompatible with the accepted teaching of the Churches. Upon this follows a critical examination of the writings of the Old and New Testaments, with a particular regard to the verification of prophecy and to the miraculous incidents therein recorded. Antony Collins performed the first part of this task, while Woolston gave his attention principally to the latter, applying to Scriptural records the principles put forward by Blount in his notes to the "Apollonius Tyanæus". Lastly, there was the stage in which natural religion as such was directly opposed to revealed religion. Tindal, in his "Christianity as old as the Creation", reduces, or attempts to reduce, revelation to reason, making the Christian statement of revelational truths either superfluous, in that it is contained in reason itself, or positively harmful, in that it goes beyond or contradicts reason.

It is thus clear that, in the main, deism is no more than an application of critical principles to religion. But in its positive aspect it is something more, for it offers as a substitute for revealed truth that body of truths which can be built up by the unaided efforts of natural reason. The term deism, however, has come in the course of time to have a more specific meaning. It is taken to signify a peculiar metaphysical doctrine supposed to have been maintained by all the deists. They are thus grouped together roughly as members of a quasi-philosophical school, the chief and distinguishing tenet of which is the relationship asserted to obtain between the universe and God. God, in this somewhat inferential and constructive thesis, is held to be the first cause of the world, and to be a personal God.

So far the teaching is that of the theists, as contrasted with that of atheists and pantheists. But, further, deism not only distinguishes the world and God as effect and cause; it emphasizes the transcendence of the Deity at the sacrifice of His indwelling and His providence. He is apart from the creation which He brought into being, and unconcerned as to the details of its working. Having made Nature, He allows it to run its own course without interference on His part. In this point the doctrine of deism differs clearly from that of theism.

The verbal distinction between the two, which are originally convertible terms--deism, of Latin origin, being a translation of the Greek theism--seems to have been introduced into English literature by the deists themselves, in order to avoid the denomination of naturalists by which they were commonly known. As naturalism was the epithet generally given to the teaching of the followers of the Spinozistic philosophy, as well as to the so-called atheists, deism seemed to its professors at once to furnish a disavowal of principles and doctrines which they repudiated, and to mark off their own position clearly from that of the theists. The word seems however, to have been first employed in France and Italy about the middle of the sixteenth century, for it occurs in the epistle dedicatory prefixed to the second volume of Viret's "Instruction Chrétienne" (1563), where the reforming divine speaks of some persons who had called themselves by a new name--deists. It was principally upon account of their methods of investigation and their criticism of the traditional Protestant religious teaching that they had also come to to be called rationalists, opposing, as has been pointed out, the findings of unaided reason to the truths held on faith as having come from God through external revelation. Whether it was by ignoring this altogether, or by attempting actively to refute it and prove its worthlessness, rationalism was the obvious term of their procedure. And it was also, in very much the same manner, by their claiming the freedom to discuss on these lines the doctrines set forth in the Bible and taught by the Churches, that they earned for themselves the no less commonly given title of "freethinkers."

There are notable distinctions and divergences among the English deists as to the whole content of truth given by reason. The most important of these distinctions is undoubtedly that by which they are classed as "mortal" and "immortal" deists; for, while many conceded the philosophical doctrine of a future life, the rejection of future rewards and punishments carried with it for some the denial of the immortality of the human soul. The five articles laid down by Lord Herbert of Cherbury, however, with their expansion into six (and the addition of a seventh) by Charles Blount, may be taken--and especially the former--as the formal professions of deism. They contain the following doctrines:

Blount, while he enlarged slightly upon each of these doctrines, broke one up into two and added a seventh in which he teaches that God governs the world by His providence.

This can hardly be accepted as a doctrine common to the deists; while, as has been said, future rewards and punishments were not allowed by them all. In general they rejected the miraculous element in Scripture and ecclesiastical tradition. They would not admit that there was any one "peculiar people", such as the Jews or the Christians, singled out for the reception of a truth-message, or chosen to be the recipients of any special grace or supernatural gift of God. They denied the doctrine of the Trinity and altogether refused to admit any mediatorial character in the person of Jesus Christ. The atonement, the doctrine of the "imputed righteousness" of Christ--especially popular with orthodoxy at the time--shared the fate of all Christological doctrines at their hands. And above all things and upon every occasion--but with at least one notable exception--they raised their voices against ecclesiastical authority. They never tired of inveighing against priestcraft in every shape or form, find they went so far as to assert that revealed religion was an imposture, an invention of the priestly caste to subdue, and so the more easily govern and exploit, the ignorant.

As deism took its rise, in the logical sequence of events, from the principles asserted at the Protestant Reformation, so it ran its short and violent course in a development of those principles and ended in a philosophical scepticism. For a time it caused an extraordinary commotion in all circles of thought in England, provoked a very large and, in a sense, interesting polemical literature, and penetrated from the highest to the lowest strata of society. Then it fell flat, whether because the controversy had lost the keen interest of its acuter stage or because people in general were drifting with the current of criticism towards the new views, it would be difficult to say. With most of the arguments of the deists we are nowadays quite familiar, thanks to the efforts of modern freethought and rationalism to keep them before the public. Though caustic, often clever, and sometimes extraordinarily blasphemous, we open the shabby little books to find them for the most part out-of-date, commonplace, and dull. And while several of the "replies" they evoked may still be reckoned as standard works of apologetics, the majority of them belong, in more senses than one, to the writings of a bygone age.

When Viscount Bolingbroke's works were published posthumously in 1754, and even when, six years previously, David Hume's "Essay on the Human Understanding" was given to the public, little stir was caused. Bolingbroke's attacks upon revealed religion, aimed from the standpoint of a sensationalistic theory of knowledge, were, as a recent writer puts it, "insufferably wearisome"; nor could all his cynicism and satire, any more than the scepticism of the Scottish philosopher, renew general interest in a controversy that was practically dead. The deistical controversy traceable to the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke is preeminently an English one, and it is to the English deists that reference is usually made when there is question of deism. But the same or a similar movement took place in France also. Says Ueberweg,

In the eighteenth century, the prevailing character of French philosophy . . . was that of opposition to the received dogmas and the actual conditions in Church and State, and the efforts of its representatives were chiefly directed to the establishment of a new theoretical and practical philosophy resting on naturalistic principles. (Gesch. d. Philosophie, Berlin, 1901, III, 237)

Men like Voltaire, and even the materialistic Encyclopædists, exemplify a tendency of philosophic thought which has very much in common with what in England ended in deism. It had the same basis, the theory of knowledge propounded by Locke and subsequently pushed to an extreme point by Condillac, and the general advance of scientific thought. From Voltaire's criticisms of ecclesiastical organization and theology, his unwearying attacks upon Christianity, the Bible, the Church, and revelation, the tendency turned towards pantheism and materialism. Rousseau would have a religion of nature substituted for the traditional forms of revelation, and bring it, as he would bring philosophy and politics, to the point of view of individualism. Helvetius would have the moral system based upon the principle of present self-interest. And thus, as in England the logical development of deism ended in the scepticism of Hume, so in France it came to rest in the materialism of La Mettrie and Holbach.

Prominent deist writers

Reference has been made above to several of the more important representatives of English deism. Ten or twelve writers are usually enumerated as noteworthy contributors to the literature and thought of the movement, of whom the following brief sketches may be given.

Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1581-1648)

Lord Herbert, a contemporary of the philosopher Hobbes, was the most learned of the deists and at the same time the least disposed to submit Christian revelation to a destructive criticism. He was the founder of a rationalistic form of religion--the religion of nature--which consisted of no more than the residuum of truth common to all forms of positive religion when their distinctive characteristics were left aside. The profession of faith of Herbert's rationalism is summed up in the five articles given above. His principal contributions to deistical literature are the "Tractatus de Veritate prout distinguitur a Revelatione, a Verisimili, a Possibili et a Falso" (1624); "De Religione Gentilium Errorumque apud eos Causis" (1645, 1663); "De Religione Laici."

Charles Blount (1654-93)

Blount was noted as a critic of both the Old and New Testaments. His methods of attack upon the Christian position were characterized by an indirectness and a certain duplicity that has ever since come to be in some degree associated with the whole deistical movement. The notes that he appended to his translation of Apollonius are calculated to weaken or destroy credence in the miracles of Christ, for some of which he actually suggests explanations upon natural grounds, thus arguing against the trustworthiness of the New Testament. In a similar manner, by employing the argument of Hobbes against the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and by attacking the miraculous events therein recorded, he had impeached the accuracy and veracity of the Old Testament. He rejects utterly the doctrine of a mediatorial Christ and contends that such a doctrine is subversive of true religion; while the many falsehoods he perceives in the traditional and positive forms of Christianity he puts down to the political invention (for purposes of power and of easy government) of priests and religious teachers. The seven articles into which Blount expanded the five articles of Lord Herbert have been noticed above. His notes to the translation of Philostratus' "Life of Apollonius Tyanæus" were published in 1680. He wrote also the "Anima Mundi" (1678-9); "Religio Laici", practically a translation of Lord Herbert's book of the same title (1683); and "The Oracles of Reason" (1893).

John Toland (1670-1722)

Toland, while originally a believer in Divine revelation and not opposed to the doctrines of Christianity, advanced to the rationalistic position with strong pantheistic tendencies by taking away the supernatural element from religion. His principal thesis consisted in the argument that "there is nothing in the Gospels contrary to reason, nor above it; and that no Christian doctrine can properly be called a mystery. "This statement he made on the assumption that whatever is contrary to reason is untrue, and whatever is above reason is inconceivable. He contended, therefore, that reason is the safe and only guide to truth, and that the Christian religion lays no claim to being mysterious. Toland also raised questions as to the Canon of Scripture and the origins of the Church. He adopted the view that in the Early Church there were two opposing factions, the liberal and the Judaizing; and he compared some eighty spurious writings with the New Testament Scriptures, in order to cast doubt upon the authenticity and reliability of the canon. His "Amyntor" evoked a reply from the celebrated Dr. Clarke, and a considerable number of books and tracts were published in refutation of his doctrine. The chief works for which he was responsible are--"Christianity not Mysterious" (1696); "Letters to Serena" (1704); "Pantheisticon" (1720); "Amyntor" (1699); "Nazarenus" (1718).

Antony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713)

The Earl of Shaftesbury, one of the most popular, elegant, and ornate of these writers, is generally classed among the deists on account of his "Characteristics". He himself would not admit that he was such, except in the sense in which deist is contrasted with atheist; of him Bishop Butler said that, had he lived in a later age, when Christianity was better understood, he would have been a good Christian. Thus, in a preface that Shaftesbury contributed to a volume of the sermons of Dr. Whichcot (1698), he "finds fault with those in this profane age, that represent not only the institution of preaching, but even the Gospel itself, and our holy religion, to be a fraud". There are also passages in "Several Letters Written by a Noble Lord to a Young Man in the University" (1716) in which he shows a very real regard for the doctrines and practice of the Christian religion. But the "Characteristics of Men, Matters, Opinions, and Times" (1711-1723) gives clear evidence of Shaftesbury's deistical tendencies. It contains frequent criticisms of Christian doctrines, the Scriptures, and revelation. He contends that this last is not only useless but positively mischievous, on account of its doctrine of rewards and punishments. The virtue of morality he makes to consist in a conformity of our affections to our natural sense of the sublime and beautiful, to our natural estimate of the worth of men and things. The Gospel, he asserts with Blount, was only the fruit of a scheme on the part of the clergy to secure their own aggrandizement and enhance their power. With such professions it is difficult to reconcile his statement that he adheres to the doctrines and mysteries of religion; but this becomes clear in the light of the fact that he shared the peculiar politico-religious view of Hobbes. Whatever the absolute power of the State sanctions is good; the opposite is bad. To oppose one's private religious convictions to the religion sanctioned by the State is of the nature of a revolutionary act. To accept the established state religion is the duty of the citizen. Shaftesbury's more important contributions to this literature are the "Characteristics" and the "Several Letters", mentioned above.

Antony Collins (1676-1729)

Collins caused a considerable stir by the publication (1713) of his "Discourse of Freethinking, occasioned by the Rise and Growth of a Sect call'd Freethinkers". He had previously conducted an argument against the immateriality and immortality of the soul and against human liberty. In this he had been answered by Dr. Samuel Clarke. The "Discourse" advocated unprejudiced and unfettered enquiry, asserted the right of human reason to examine and interpret revelation, and attempted to show the uncertainty of prophecy and of the New Testament record. In another work Collins puts forth an argument to prove the Christian religion false, though he does not expressly draw the conclusion indicated. He asserts that Christianity is dependent upon Judaism, and that its proof is the fulfilment of the prophetic utterances contained in the Old Testament. He then proceeds to point out that all such Prophetic utterance is allegorical in nature and cannot be considered to furnish a real proof of the truth of its event. He further points out that the idea of the Messiah among the Jews was of recent growth before the time of Christ, and that the Hebrews may have derived many of their theological ideas from their contact with other peoples, such as the Egyptians and Chaldeans. In particular, when his writings on prophecy were attacked he did his utmost to discredit the book of Daniel. The "Discourse on the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion" (1724) called forth a great number of answers, principal among which were those of the Bishop of Richfield, Dr. Chandler ("Defence of Christianity from the Prophecies of the Old Testament"), and Dr. Sherlock ("The Use and Intent of Prophecy"). It was in Collins' "Scheme of Literal Prophecy" that the antiquity and authority of the Book of Daniel were discussed. The "prophecies were made to be a record of past and contemporary events rather than a prevision of the future. But the "Scheme" was weak, and though it was answered by more than one critic it cannot be said to have added much weight to the discourse". Altogether Collins' attacks upon prophecy were considered to be of so serious a nature that they called forth no less than thirty-five replies. Of his works, the following may be noticed, as bearing especially upon the subject of deism: "Essay Concerning the Use of Reason in Theology" (1707); "Discourse of Freethinking" (1713); "Discourse on the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion" (1724); "The Scheme of Literal Prophecy Considered" (1727).

Thomas Woolston (1669-1733)

Woolston appeared as a moderator in the acrimonious controversy that was being waged between Collins and his critics with his "Moderator between an Infidel and an Apostate". As Collins had succeeded in allegorizing the prophecies of the Old Testament until nothing remained of them, so Woolston tried to allegorize away the miracles of Christ. During the years 1728-9, six discourses on the miracles of Our Lord came out in three parts, in which Woolston asserted, with an extraordinary violence of language and blasphemy that could only be attributed to a madman, that the miracles of Christ, when taken in a literal and historical sense, are false, absurd, and fictitious. They must therefore, he urges, be received in a mystical and allegorical sense. In particular, he argued at great length against the miracles of resurrection from the dead wrought by Christ, and against the resurrection of Christ Himself. The Bishop of London issued five pastoral letters against him, and many ecclesiastics wrote in refutation of his work. The most noteworthy reply to his doctrines was "The Tryal of the Witnesses" (1729) by Dr. Sherlock. In 1729-30, Woolston published "A Defense of his Discourse against the Bishops of London and St. David's", an extremely weak production.

Matthew Tindal (1657-1733)

Tindal gave to the controversy the work that soon became known as the "Deists' Bible". His "Christianity as Old as the Creation" was published in his extreme old age in 1730. As its sub-title indicates, its aim was to show that the Gospel is no more than a republication of the Law of Nature. This it undertakes to make plain by eviscerating the Christian religion of all that is not a mere statement of natural religion. External revelation is declared to be needless and useless, indeed impossible, and both the Old and New Testaments to be full of oppositions and contradictions. The work was taken as a serious attack upon the traditional position of Christianity in England, as is evinced by the hostile criticism it at once provoked. The Bishop of London issued a pastoral; Waterland, Law, Conybeare, and others replied to it, Conybeare's "Defence" creating a considerable stir at the time. More than any other work, "Christianity as Old as the Creation" was the occasion of the writing of Butler's well known "Analogy".

Thomas Morgan (d. 1743)

Morgan makes professions of Christianity, the usefulness of revelation, etc., but criticizes and at the same time rejects as revelational the Old Testament history, both as to its personages and its narratives of fact. He advances the theory that the Jews "accomodated" the truth, and even goes so far as to extend this "accomodation" to the Apostles and to Christ as well. His account of the origin of the Church is similar to that of Toland, in that he holds the two elements, Judaizing and liberal, to have resulted in a fusion. His principal work is "The Moral Philosopher, a Dialogue between Philalethes, a Christian Deist, and Theophanes, a Christian Jew" (1737, 1739, 1740). This was answered by Dr. Chapman, whose reply called forth a defense on the part of Morgan in "The Moral Philosopher, or a farther Vindication of Moral Truth and Reason".

Thomas Chubb (1679-1746)

Chubb — a man of humble origin and of poor and elementary education, by trade a glove-maker and tallow-chandler — is the most plebeian representative of deism. In 1731 he published "A Discourse Concerning Reason" in which he disavows his intention of opposing revelation or serving the cause of infidelity. But "The True Gospel of Jesus Christ", in which Lechler sees "an essential moment in the historical development of Deism", announces Christianity as a life rather than as a collection of doctrinal truths. The true gospel is that of natural religion, and as such Chubb treats it in his work. In his posthumous works a sceptical advance is made. These were published in 1748, and after the "Remarks on the Scriptures" contain the author's "Farewel to His Readers". This "Farewel" embraces a number of tracts on various religious subjects. A marked tendency to scepticism regarding a particular providence pervades them. The efficacy of prayer, as well as the future state, is called in question. Arguments are urged against prophecy and miracle. There are fifty pages devoted to those against the Resurrection alone. Finally, Christ is presented as a mere man, who founded a religious sect among the Jews. Chubb published also "The Supremacy of the Father" (1715) and "Tracts" (1730). He is also responsible for the sentiments of "The Case of Deism Fairly Stated", an anonymous tract which he revised.

Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751)

Viscount Bolingbroke belongs to the deists chiefly by reason of his posthumous works. They are ponderously cynical in style and generally dull and uninteresting, Containing arguments against the truth and value of Scriptural history, and asserting that Christianity is a system footed upon the unlettered by the cunning of the clergy to further their own ends.

Peter Annet (1693-1769)

Annet was the author, among other works, of "Judging for Ourselves, or Freethinking the great Duty of Religion" (1739), "The Resurrection of Jesus Considered" (1744), "Supernatural Examined" (1747), and nine numbers of the "Free Inquirer" (1761). In the second of these works he denies the resurrection of Christ and accuses the Holy Bible of fraud and imposture.

Henry Dodged (d. 1748)

Dodged, who wrote "Christianity not Founded on Argument", is also generally reckoned, with Annet, as among the representative deists. (See GOD; PROVIDENCE; RATIONALISM; SCEPTICISM; THEISM.)

About this page

APA citation. Aveling, F. (1908). Deism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Aveling, Francis. "Deism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Rick McCarty.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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