Deism in the Declaration

 Posted by on 26 January 2010 at 8:00 am  History, Religion
Jan 262010

Crossposted from Politics without God.

My husband Paul Hsieh (of Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine) recently pointed me to an essay by Eric Raymond entitled Deism and the Founding Fathers. I’d definitely recommend reading the whole essay, but I wanted to except a few critical passages:

Religious conservatives are fond of replying by pointing excitedly at the references to “Nature’s God”, “Divine Providence”, and the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence.

Raymond then quotes the relevant passages of the Declaration:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights;

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Raymond then cites some other passages in Jefferson’s writings where he displays as obvious hostility to Christianity. So Raymond asks, “Of what ‘God’, if not the Christian one, was Jefferson speaking?” He replies:

The answer to this question — which also explains the references in the Declaration of Independence — is that Jefferson, like many intellectuals of his time, was a Deist. The “Creator” and “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence, and the God of Jefferson’s altar, is not the intervening Christian God but the God of Deism.

Deism was an early attempt to reconcile the mechanistic world-view arising from experimental science with religion. Deists believed in a remote sort of clockmaker-God who created the universe but then refrained from meddling in it afterwards. Deists explicitly rejected faith, revelation, religious doctrine, religious authority, and all existing religions. They held that humans could know the mind of God only through the study of nature; in many versions of Deist thinking, the mind of God was explicitly identified with the laws of nature.

Thus “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God”; in Deist thought these concepts blurred together. The phrase “endowed by their Creator” could be rendered accurately as “endowed by Nature”. In modern terms, this is an entirely naturalistic account of human rights.

That’s exactly right. Finally, Raymond notes:

Jefferson’s “altar of God” quote and the references in the Declaration of Independence are easy to misconstrue today because Deism did not long outlive the Founding Fathers. In their time it functioned as a sort of halfway house for intellectuals who rejected traditional religion but were unwilling to declare themselves atheists or agnostics. As the social risk of taking these positions decreased, Deism waned.

Given the bravery of the early Americans in opposing the British Empire, I doubt that intellectual cowardice was the reason for their deism. I suspect — although I’ve not much researched the subject — that they accepted some version of the Argument from Design. Absent a solid grasp of the fact that physical laws are the necessary expression of the identity of entities and absent an explanation for the great diversity and complexity of living organisms, the Argument from Design would seem quite plausible. It’s still flawed, purely on philosophic grounds, but the mistake was understandable in the 18th century. Deism was the rather benign result of that mistake.

Today, people have far less excuse for believing in God’s existence on such grounds, as the scientific and philosophic objections to the Argument from Design are well-known and devastating. They have no excuse for leaping from such arguments to claims about the truth of Christianity. The Argument from Design, even if sound, could not lend the slightest bit of support to the myths and dogmas of Christianity.

For more, see my three podcasts on the Argument from Design: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Part 4 is forthcoming.

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