Deism is the belief that an intelligent being created the world, but this being is no longer involved with the world or intervenes in the affairs of humankind. According to Deism, a being that could be called “God” created the world and set it in motion. But after creating the world and giving it the natural laws it needed to function, this God left the world, allowing it to function on its own. This God, who should not be understood as the God of Christianity, is like an absentee landlord or a watchmaker who no longer has any interest in the watch he created.
The founder of Deism was Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583–1648). Deism flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and reached its zenith around the time of the American Revolution. This view was popular among European thinkers such as Voltaire as well as several founders of the United States including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
In its early days, Deism was not as skeptical about traditional Christian views of God as it would become later. In fact, early on it could be viewed as a revival of the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas in which nature teaches all people certain truths about God. Lord Herbert, himself, believed that natural theology supported Christian beliefs about God. Eventually, though, Deism came to be an alternative view to Christianity. Matthew Tindal (1655–1733) published Christianity as Old as the Creation which became known as the ‘Bible of Deism.’ In this work he argued a point that would become a central thesis of Deism—reason is superior to revelation. Thus, if the alleged truths of reason contradict the Christian message, a person should trust his own reason. Deists also eventually became the pioneers of radical Bible criticism often denying the miraculous accounts in the Bible.
Joseph Butler (1692–1752) offered a refutation of Deism claiming that the truths of nature are consistent with the Bible. The radical skepticism of David Hume is also believed to have dealt a major death blow to Deism. As a movement, Deism did not survive into the nineteenth century.
Deists were initially attracted to the teleological argument for God’s existence—namely that the great complexity in the world shows evidence of a designer. Antony Flew, a former defender of atheism, said in 2004 that the complexity of the universe compelled him to believe in God. He acknowledged that his new view was similar to that of Deism.