In the 1600s and 1700s, some of the most creative and practical people realized that God was too good and loving to only let Christians into heaven. These people, who were called deists (from the Latin word deusor God), decided that God did not care if people went to Mass on Sunday, or celebrated communion, or accepted Jesus as their savior. The deists thought God only wanted people to love God and treat other people kindly and humanely.
The Christians of the time were able to uncritically accept the things that the Bible said about God. The deists, though, wondered if an all good and wise God would appear to just a small tribe of people in the Middle East. They denied a good and wise God would punish all of humanity with the curse of original sin because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve. They argued a good and wise God would never have ordered the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child of their neighbors. They could not believe that a good deity would send plagues or earthquakes to punish communities which did not worship him properly. Nor could they fathom how Jesus could be God.
The eighteenth century is often called the Enlightenment, and it is thought of as a time when the forces of tolerance, reason, and science overcame the forces of intolerance, faith, and superstition. Because the deists were leaders in questioning their societies’ Christian beliefs, the deists are seen as leading exemplars of the Enlightenment who advocated secular progress and human autonomy. Because people look at the deists through the lens of the deists being Enlightenment figures, people who read the deists only notice the parts of the deist writing that fit into their preconceptions of deism.
If we stop assuming the deists were Enlightenment figures who emphasized science and reason, we can see that the vast majority of deists were what we now call spiritual but not religious. This phrase has many different meanings depending on who is using it, but scholars of religion such as Robert C. Fuller say that one of the most important uses of this phrase establishes a dichotomy between public and private realms. These scholars assert that the term religiousis associated with the public realm in which people join institutions, participate in formal rituals, and adhere to official church doctrines. On the other hand, the term spiritualis associated with the private realm of individuals who are seeking personal experience of a deeper, sacred realm. The deists rejected the authority of creeds, churches, ministers, and bishops because they placed the locus of authority within the individual’s conscience and reason. If we think of the phrase spiritual but not religious as meaning a personal relationship with the divine outside of any established religious organizations, this phrase helps us to understand the spirituality of the deists. In this sense of the phrase, the deists were the first group of people in the modern Western world to be spiritual but not religious.
This site accents some of the most important spiritual beliefs of the deists. It discusses their deep and abiding interest in prayer. It shows that many of them believed angels or God gave messages to people or communicated with them in other ways. It also shows that many deists said they believed in miracles and revelations. Many of the deists had a spiritual but not religious conception of Christianity, which they called Christian deism. That is to say, these deists thought Jesus really only taught that if we loved God and were benevolent to our fellow humans we would go to heaven. These deists believed Jesus’ later followers had corrupted Christianity by adding many doctrines and rituals to Jesus’ original teaching. Some of the best-known Christian deists were Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Adams, Immanuel Kant, and Carl Friedrich Bahrdt.
The articles on this site were written by Joseph Waligore. He has a Ph. D. from Syracuse University and wrote his dissertation comparing the spiritual beliefs of the ancient Greek and Roman sages to those of the Buddhists and other Indian thinkers. He has published three academic articles in refereed journals on the spiritual beliefs of the deists. He is near to finishing a book on the English and American deists entitled How God Became Good: The English Deists and the American Founding Fathers. He has also started working on a book about all the Enlightenment deists.