How do atheists see the relationship between atheism, deism, and theism?

Atheists seem to be rather casual in lumping all religious positions together. I often read pieces that fail to make clear distinctions between theistic and deistic beliefs. Please elaborate on this and why one is so much more threatening than the others.

Posted: December 4th 2007


For me, it’s a historical question. But first, to definitions:

Atheists don’t believe in the existence of a god

Deists believe in a god who created the universe and then let it run on its own

Theists generally believe in a interventional god – one who is present in the world – as a generality, though there are many versions of theism.

If you go back a few hundred years – say, to the 1700s – you will find a number of deists, and a number of theists, and not that many atheists.

One of the central problems with atheism was that nobody had a good idea of how the universe got created, so you had a lot of learned gentlemen (and the rare learned gentlewoman…) who were deists.

In the past 100 years or so, with the advent of modern cosmology, that problem with atheism has vanished – at least in the eyes of many people – and those people have become atheists, and deists are a very rare breed, at least in my experience.

So, in general it doesn’t make sense to talk about deists because deists are hard to find.

The other reason is that atheists and deists have very similar world-views, and only differ on how the universe was created.

Theists, however, have fundamentally different views from both atheists and deists, so that’s where most of the discussion lies.

Posted: December 9th 2007

See all questions answered by Eric_PK

jonecc www

Theists seem to be rather casual in not noticing the range of atheist discussion on the subject. If you read The God Delusion, for instance, you will find a long discussion of various forms of religious belief, including deism.

Fringe beliefs aren’t our main focus, though. Our main focus is on the mainstream. This is for two reasons. The first reason is that most religious people believe in a personal God that answers prayer and has a purpose for each of us, in an afterlife, and in a particular text, and these are the beliefs we take issue with.

Secondly, it is mainstream religious practice which is responsible for most of the social problems we see in religion. People who believe that God made the world but is uninvolved in it, or that the beauty of the universe is some kind of deity in itself, or that the universe is made out of mind which is struggling to be reunited with itself, or whatever, are in our opinion making unwarranted claims. However, they don’t normally want to stone gay people to death, or impose the role of homemaker on women, or apply the death penalty for apostasy, or take over states and run them as deocracies, or teach their children about hell, so our level of interest in them is correspondingly lower.

Posted: December 5th 2007

See all questions answered by jonecc

SmartLX www

Atheists aren’t the only ones who can fail to make that distinction.

Definitions first. A deist believes in a watchmaker; a god who is solely the Creator and hasn’t intervened since. A deist is technically a theist, but theism has come to mean belief in an interventionist god or gods. In other words, a theist believes a god participates in our daily lives, and a deist thinks it doesn’t.

That’s the usual way of it. Unfortunately, some deists believe the Creator set up the whole plan in the beginning, and prescribed each of us a special purpose. Here’s Robespierre of the French Revolution, founder of the deist Cult of the Supreme Being:

Is it not He whose immortal hand, engraving on the heart of man the code of justice and equality, has written there the death sentence of tyrants? Is it not He who, from the beginning of time, decreed for all the ages and for all peoples liberty, good faith, and justice? He did not create kings to devour the human race. He did not create priests to harness us, like vile animals, to the chariots of kings and to give to the world examples of baseness, pride, perfidy, avarice, debauchery, and falsehood. He created the universe to proclaim His power. He created men to help each other, to love each other mutually, and to attain to happiness by the way of virtue.

This sort of deism uses its god’s prescience to portray it as being involved in daily affairs in advance, and can lead people to self-righteousness as easily as theism.

Modern religious apologists often use deist arguments for a Creator as arguments for their own religion. Dinesh D’Souza, for example, uses the fine-tuned universe argument and the First Cause argument ad nauseum. These arguments cannot establish the truth of any particular theist religion as they’re completely non-specific, but they’re mainly used as an anti-atheist measure because an atheist doesn’t even believe in a Creator.

When someone just uses deism as the explanation for the universe and its wonders and then believes there is no divine plan, it’s generally safer but it still bugs me for two reasons.

Firstly, theists like D’Souza can solicit deists’ agreement on deist arguments like the above, and then jump from a more plausible deist god to their own personal gods with no further logic. Atheists and deists will call them on it, but other theists might not.

Secondly, deism is still a poor explanation for the universe because how do you then explain the Creator?

Posted: December 4th 2007

See all questions answered by SmartLX


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