The rise of deism in western society

April 14, 2007 by aaron

During the Age of Enlightenment, western society examined itself through religious texts; it found that the religious doctrines of the past lacked unchanging principles and most of them hearkened to a more mystical mindset and flew in the face of scientific thinking. For some, this demonstrated that the religious texts themselves were flawed: it was in this mindset that the concepts of deism — a religious belief that if there is a god, he is not involved in the day-to-day affairs of human lives, and any human attempts to create rules and rituals concerning this god are corrupted by human nature — were first accepted as, partially, acceptable in mainstream thought. ((It was never accepted by the majority, but in certain intellectual circles it was.)) In Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason he advocates deism because its concepts allow for religious thought and morals based on the belief in a god and afterlife while still allowing society to not be “hemmed in” by religious doctrine. These ideas were especially important during the Age of Enlightenment because scientific advances and societal changes were invalidating thousands of years of religious dogma.

While Thomas Paine was referred to as a “a dirty little atheist” by Theodore Roosevelt, he did not disbelieve in a supreme god as the creator of everything: he believed that man could not be trusted with religion; therefore, any religions texts written down by humans were also contaminated by them. ((“His historians, having brought him into the world in a supernatural manner, were obliged to take him out again in the same manner, or the first part of the story must have fallen to the ground.”)) Paine also argued that “it is a contradiction in terms and ideas to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second hand,” so rather than believing in adhering to a particular religious doctrine, he believed, as stated by Thomas Edison, “[that the] Bible was the open face of nature, the broad skies, the green hills.” Paine believed that “[his] own mind is [his] own church” and required no religious texts to indicate how he should live nor did he require four thousand year old scrawlings to dictate his morality. He believed that morality comes from within. ((“I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”))

We can see the rise of deism in western societies by taking America as a middle-of-the-road country. ((Yes, I know that most of us consider America to be very religious, but it really isn’t 100% true.)) The majority of Americans today also tend towards these ideas— the recent Baylor Religion Survey conducted by the Gallup Organization found that 88% of those living in America believe in a God. Of that 88%, 75% absolutely believed totally and 13% believed that it was probable that a God exists; however, a Gallup poll in 2006 found that only 43% of residents actually attended religious services more frequently than “almost weekly.” While these numbers could be indicative of any number of causes, the most obvious is a lack of belief that attendance in religious services, as required in religious texts, is required to live a moral life. Americans are beginning to see that weekly church services and a devout belief in god does not make men infallible and those who profess themselves to be religious leaders can have flaws whose consequences reverberate within an entire religion. While many Americans profess to believe in God, or the concept of a god, most see rituals as meaningless and the countless stories in the bible as stories meant not literally, but as a way to demonstrate morals.

These new tenets are demonstrated by the continued relaxing of America’s attitude towards other religions ((Of course, we must exclude religious animosity caused by non-religious events.)) and sects of Christianity, but the continued idea that atheism is the cause of most of societies ilks. The majority of Americans still value a belief in a god, but what god and how one worships the god is less important as long as the principles in the religion intersect with American cultural values and teach people moral behavior. The separation of religious morals from religion is not new: in the 1830’s Horace Mann argued, as part of the Board of Education for Massachusetts, that teaching religion in schools was not required to teach religious morals, but America’s separation of religious morals from religious belief has always had cycle and peaks and valleys based on events of that and the previous generation. However, it seems that religious doctrine is again giving way to scientific thought—evidenced by the continually changing tactics of those who want religion taught in classrooms—similarly to the way this occurred during the Age of Enlightenment.

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