Deism is a term used to denote certain doctrines evidenced in thought and
criticism that manifested themselves principally in England in the late 17th
century but grew well beyond England and past the seventy year time frame
of most intense deistical productions.

Deism, in its every manifestation, was opposed to the current and the
traditional teaching of revealed religion. Its spirit of criticism aimed at the
nature and content of traditional religious beliefs, and substituted for them a
rationalistic naturalism that subsequently appeared in the course of religious
thought (there have been French and German deists as well as English;
Pagan, Jewish, or Moslem deists as well as Christian might be found).

Deism—spurred forward by the new life of the empirical sciences, the
enormous enlargement of the physical horizon in astronomy and geography,
the philosophical doubt and rationalistic method of Descartes, the
advocated empiricism of Bacon, and the political changes of the
times—adopted a standpoint of independent criticism, so it is difficult to
class together representative writers into forming any definitive “school,” or
to group together the positive teachings contained in their writings as any
one systematic expression of concordant philosophy. The Deists were then
what nowadays would be called freethinkers; and they can be classed
together simply in the main attitude that they adopted, viz. in agreeing to cast
off the trammels of authoritative religious teaching in favor of a free and
purely rationalistic speculation.

In the main, deism is an application of critical principles to religion, but it
also offered—as a substitute for revealed truth—that body of truths that can
be built up by the unaided efforts of natural reason. The deistical tendency
passed through several phases, and all the forces possible were mustered
against its advance (some productions were publicly burned, and bishops
and clergy of the Establishment were strenuous in resisting it). One phase
was that of a critical examination of the first principles of religion. Another
phase was criticism of the moral or ethical part of religious teaching. Lastly,
there was the stage in which natural religion as such was directly opposed to
revealed religion. The term Deism (Lat.
Deus, God) has, in the course of
time, come to signify 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

As the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke is preeminently an English one, it is
to English Deists that reference is usually made when there is a question of
Deism. In France, men like Voltaire, and even the Encyclopædists,
exemplify a tendency of philosophic thought having very much in common
with what in England ended in Deism.

In the nascent United States, the late stage “rational religion” of Deism
appealed to influential intellectuals of the times, such as Benjamin Franklin,
Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson, who are generally united in their
thinking about fundamental laws of nature and morality, rejecting Christianity
but retaining a belief in a Creator (a more rational and intellectual God, not
the one of miracles and revelation to which humans might appeal for
blessings or comfort). It was out of a combination of Deism and reason that
recognition of a society composed of a free people who could not be
compelled to accept or live by any given set of worldviews was to emerge.

Sources: “Deism,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913 (Web version); “Deism: The Religion
of Reason,” in
Tradition and Revolt, 1967; “On Teaching About Religion: Separation of
Church and State,” in
Freethought Across the Centuries, by Gerald Larue.

Teaching About Religion
in support of civic pluralism