I’m an a-theist, but am also an a-deist. At the level of discussion, I enjoy arguing with both theists and deists. But, contrary to what you might think, I’ve no problem with deists.
By and large, theists who ask, “Do you believe in God,” do so as if their definition of God is the same for everyone. (The capitalization is a give-away, since Christians call their god “God,” that is, as a name rather than one of a, uh, species.) Capitalizing also reflects Christians’ monotheism; it wouldn’t do to have several gods named God. Deists might reply that they, too, believe in God and, moreover, that their God is also a singleton. Deists could believe in multiple gods, I suppose, but who’s ever heard of polydeism?
So what is the difference? There’s more going on here than just a religious disagreement. Nothing is noteworthy about simple disagreement; after all, “God’s Truth” comes in a myriad of favors, some sparking wars. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Baha’i, and a few other faiths are built firmly on theism and would collapse if their adherents became deistic. Pretty important difference. Deists seem to be as convinced in the deity as theists and can easily fly under the radar, since they aren’t atheists or agnostics.
A number of America’s founders were deists. Unlike me, an atheist, they did not shy away from speaking of God just as loudly as theists, even if often with poetic license. Thomas Paine’s deism got him all but eliminated from our all-star founders list. “That dirty little atheist,” Theodore Roosevelt called him. Although he is said to have created the name “United States of America,” and is lauded by some as ideological father of modern democracy, only six attended his funeral. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson and other deists pulled it off, beloved to this day even though most of today’s Christians wouldn’t want their daughters to marry one.
So why, if I don’t take issue with deists, am I invested in their cause? The reason is simple. Although deists can’t see how our universe including us could have come about without a creator-intelligence (agreeing about that with theists), their conclusion on the matter doesn’t cause them to push others around. There may be some whose personalities dispose them to be bullies, but their ideas of God will not.
Their God is not a punishing (or rewarding) deity, does not impose extensive lists of ludicrous “sins,” leaves humans to use their intelligence to construct a morality that serves human welfare rather than slavish God-pleasing, and would never punish the innocent for the acts of the guilty. In other words, their God—though powerful and possibly omniscient—gave the universe its start, then got out of the way.
I think the reasoning that leads to deism is only conjecture, but unlike religions that accompany theism, it does no damage. It is not relevant to leading our lives any more than would figuring out the mystery of dark matter. That makes it an enjoyable topic to debate, not a repository of ancient ignorance wielded as dicta.
Religious persons are eager to expound on the necessity of an intelligent creator, but even if they are right (it is possible), their position is not necessarily pertinent to religion, as they assume it to be. Even certainty of a creator leaves unsettled whether he, she, or it has the characteristics any one of hundreds of religions dogmatically assume (see “What’s God have to do with religion?” on this blog, Dec. 21, 2013). Moving from deism to theism requires the resolving of a myriad of competing choices among the deity’s (or, indeed, deities’) characteristics for which no evidence is available. Beliefs of bronze age tribes, it should not need to be said, is not evidence.
In the choices of living a life, there is no discernable difference between deists and atheists. A god that chooses not to interfere in or in any way relate to our lives is like the Andromeda Galaxy, a wonder and delight, but that is all. Deism, like atheism, invites us to tickle our fine brains with finding the meaning of life. Theism already has the answer, it claims, and invites not thought but obedience, not continued struggle to produce an ethical and gratifying world but suppression of human intelligence.