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Deism

Early History, British Deism, Deism In Europe, The Legacy Of Deism, Bibliography

Deism holds more meanings than one word should be asked to bear. Generally, to the point of almost being meaningless, it refers to the notion that reason plays an important role in determining religious knowledge. By this definition the pre-Socratic philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics, Cicero, Lucretius, Buddha, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad all qualify to varying degrees as Deists. With more historical precision the term embraces the religious philosophy of the Enlightenment. But there is a wide range of meanings here too. To religious traditionalists, Deists were effectively atheists. To atheists and materialists, Deism represented a half-realized understanding of the universe. For those who would not have balked had the word been applied to them—hardly anyone in the eighteenth century self-identifies as a "Deist"—it signified belief in a God who could be known by naturally given reason rather than solely by revelation.

But even among this last group the word contained many antinomies. Some Deists upheld the authority of the church; others aggressively criticized customary religious thought and practice. Some used reason to develop more rigorous methods of biblical criticism; others argued that rather than texts, reason in nature offers the proper route to religious truth. Almost all Deists denied God's providence; but a few retained the vestiges of providentialism by virtue of their reasoned belief that God maintained an active, judging presence in the universe. Deism held positive meaning both for moderate Enlightenment figures and those who belong more properly in what the historian Margaret Jacob twenty years ago called the "Radical Enlightenment"; it held negative meanings for traditionalists as well as nonbelievers. The object of this entry will therefore be to explain this word's various meanings more fully by looking closely at how and in whose hands those meanings changed over time.

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