When Deism met Religious Naturalism
In my youth, I questioned validity of an omnipotent supernatural god of human form who created the world but was separate from it. In Sunday-school I would ask who created god and got unsatisfactory answers about god being created by another god (a strange Christian doctrine of monolatrism) and that my question was irrelevant because the “God of this World” is the only god we should concern our selves with. Nothing about their “God” or their scriptures made sense to me. Though I couldn't articulate it then, I felt there was something sacred about the natural living-world around me and wished to have genuine conection with it. After reading The Bible, The Quran, The Teachings of Buddha, and The Bhagavad Gita, non of them fully satisfied my need to connect with the world; instead they seemed to ask me to distance myself from the world. Then I discovered Thomas Pain's The Age of Reason, I embraced deism as the core of my world-view. Overtime, deism became less important as my sense of the natural-living world broadened. Yet, it maintains a treasured place as a keystone in developing my world-view.
Deism once played an important role during The Enlightenment. Many founders of The United States where deists, including:
- Benjamin Franklin,
- George Washington,
- James Madison,
- Thomas Jefferson
- and Thomas Pain.
Other historical figures are also considered deists, such as:
- John Locke
- Napoleon Bonaparte,
- Victor Hugo,
- Thomas Edison
- and Mark Twain.
When discussing deism within historical context it took the form of a belief in God as a creator of the world whom acts much like a clockmaker who designed and constructed the natural living-world and then stepped away from the creation and doesn't intervene in the world. To most people today, this is the working definition of deism. However, the above beliefs is only one reflection of deism. Since the idea of deism is no longer prevalent in our society the clockmaker analogy gets filed away as a historical artifact most people associate with deism. Yet deism is far more complex than that simple analogy and it didn't dissolve with the fading of The Enlightenment. Instead, deism merged with other philosophies, such as pantheism which states god is nature and the universe. The American transcendentalist writers (most noted: Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman) explored humanity in rational context with the living-world and came to conclusions which parallel both deism and pantheism. The definitions of pantheism affirming god is the universe, and the deist clockmaker analogy are oversimplifications which often get filed in the common vocabulary and not given much thought except by those who hold such beliefs.
There is a key feature of both pantheism and deism which gets overlooked and that is a reliance upon human reason and observation in contrast to revealed truths of scripture common in many religious traditions. Deism is a broader spectrum then the clockmaker analogy allows with many variations which have continued separate from, but often overlapping, pantheism. In more modern times some of the public figures expressing deistic and/or pantheistic beliefs are Albert Einstein, musician Nick Cave, and physicist Paul Davies. At its core, Deism declares that human reason and personal observation alone can indicate there is a sacred source of creation (often called god).
Overtime, the use of god in deist discourse has diminished due to efforts to distinguish itself apart from theism. Theism derives ideas of god from scriptural sources and often give it personal human qualities. The deist concept of god does not have human qualities and doesn't engage in personal ways with humanity. In the penning of the US Declaration of Independence, the statement "...the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them..." reflected the deist view of god. Surviving currents of deism do not find the clockmaker analogy as useful as the classical deism of The Enlightenment. As deism began merging with other religious philosophies it adapted its concepts. This trend has led to different variations on the deist theme of human reason and observation leading to an understanding of god or the sacred source of the universe. There are possibly three major currents of thought which identify with deism today:
Pandeism is, as the word suggests, a blending of pantheism and deism. This blending has existed in one form or another since the two philosophies first encountered each other. Physicist and philosopher Robert G Brown published a theorem of pandeism in 2009. Brown writes, "If God exists, then God is identical to the Universe. That is, the theorem is a statement of conditional pandeism. If God exists at all, God must be absolutely everything that exists.” he argues that if the defining nature of god is complete knowledge of the universe than god is the universe itself, for only experiencing itself as the universe could god have omnipotence. During an interview with Larry King discussing Steven Hawking conclusion that the universe needs no creator, Deepak Chopra said “ . . . at least 10 to the power of 500 universes could possibly exist in super position of possibility at this level, which to me suggests an omniscient being. The only difference I have, was God did not create the universe, God became the universe.” giving a transcendental quality to the god of pandeism.
Panendeism combines deism with penentheism which distinguishes it self from pantheism by stating that the universe exists within god but is not the completeness of god. In recent times, a handful of websites have emerged discussing penentheism. Panendiesm.org quotes Sir Issac Newton's words, “God is one and the same, God always and everywhere. He is omnipresent not only virtually but also substantially; for action requires substance.... In him all things are contained and move, but he does not act on them nor they on him. God experiences nothing from the motions of bodies; the bodies feel no resistance from God's omnipresence.” Larry Copling defines pandeism as “"The doctrine that all reality exists within Deity (God), which first set the laws of "Process Evolution" [...] in motion, allowing It's Creation to self-evolve in varying degrees of complete freedom; a process that continues to this day." Both these statements illustrates a god who is actively creating from within itself. In 2001 Copling wrote an essay, A New Direction for Spirituality, which he describes a relationship with pantheistic deity through spiritual practice as communication.
Process Deism is often spoken about along side Panendeism. It Is a deistic approach to ideas of process theism first described by Alfred North Whitehead and expanded upon by others who view god as having some eternal characteristic but is equally affected by temporal reality. Processes deism critisizes process theism as being more concerned with philosophical reflections. Thus, through human reason and observation process deism seeks god within the creative qualities of the universe.
During my life I began with classical deism and moved through all three forms mentioned before. During my involvement with neopaganism I felt uneasy about the superstition and supernatural elements of wicca/witchcraft and became more comfortable with the philosophical bent of druidry and the scholarship of reconstructionism. Overtime, I distanced myself from the supernatural elements of neopaganism and became involved in Unitarian Universalism. I found religious humanism agreeable to my naturalistic sensibilities when I found secular humanism about as rigid as traditional theism but on the opposite spectrum. I found I still needed the natural emphasis I sought in neopaganism and returning to the land itself met those needs. I later discovered bioregional animism descriptive of my personal experiences relating with the land around me and I became more serious about exploring ecology as a source of religious experience.
Around the same time I became aware of religious naturalism. I found religious naturalism's ability to affirm and celebrate the inherent value of the natural-living would without supernatural interpretations complemented animism and gave me substance to fill in the framework of religious humanism. Human reason and observation had always been the primary ways in which I gave meaning to the world around me. At heart I still considered myself a deist and understood animism from that perspective. Reviewing the ideas of process deism I became more interested in process theology and wondered how it related to religious naturalism. I found my answer in the writings of fellow UU and religious naturalist, Karl E Peters. In the book Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology, and God, Peter's expresses an idea of god as the creative evolutionary process. His work got me to thinking about how polytheism could fit into naturalistic processes theism and began writing on my theory of naturalistic polytheism.
I look back to my love afar with deism and notice how implemental it is in my ability to give meaning to the world around me. Even though I might not identify as strongly with it as I once did, the value of human reason and observation helps form strong bonds with the world around me. I attribute my reliance on research to complement and inform introspection to the lessons of deism. Though it is more subtle, deism is as much a part of my world-view and personal religion (call it postpaganry if you like) as is bioregional animism, religious humanism, unitarian universalism, and religious naturalism.