The Three Rs and the “So What?” of Deism

A god who stubbornly refuses to intervene, might just as well be the “no-God” of atheism. So of what practical benefit is it to believe in the existence on the Deist god?

When I first visited Positive Deism, there was a tag line that went “Reason and respect in all you think, say and do” – I believe it should be credited to Steve Dowell, founder of PD. This has proved to be an excellent motto, almost a code of conduct for Positive Deism discussions – and I think it alludes to our actions as well as our thoughts and words. Steve Dowell also wrote an excellent essay which still features on the front page of Positive Deism about why Deism is a relevant and “modern religious paradigm” – a sensible belief system, we might say. More recently, we have (again) discussed the effectiveness of the “positive approach” and what might make Deism more attractive to, and retentive of, newcomers to Deism in general and Positive Deism in particular. A question that seems to pop up from time to time when these discussions are raised is “so what?” A god who stubbornly refuses to intervene, might just as well be the “no-God” of atheism. So of what practical benefit is it to believe in the existence on the Deist god?

Whilst those of us who are settled in our Deistic mode of thinking might not necessarily see the importance of this question as applied to our own situation, we have to acknowledge that it will unquestionably be an important one to those for whom (Positive) Deism is a new concept. There are undoubtedly numerous answers to the “so what?” question. As with anything in Deism, if you were to ask two Deists the question you would immediately be faced with a choice of at least three answers. With that in mind, here is my attempt to choose just one answer (your answer might be entirely different – and certainly no less legitimate).

In education the most fundamental and basic competencies to be learned have long been recognized as the three Rs. Since Positive Deism already has two undisputed Rs – Reason and Respect, I wondered if we may be able to add a third. The history of Deism has some suggestions to make, so here are a few ideas that crossed my mind.

First to appear in the annals of Deism has to be Ridicule. I have discussed this elsewhere, and ridicule has indisputable pedigree among Deists of earlier times. The problem with ridicule is it mostly doesn’t work. It does not achieve the desired outcome. It does not generally succeed in persuading someone to a more reasonable viewpoint as the 18th century English Deists discovered to their cost.

Closely related to ridicule is the old-fashioned English word Raillery. This is really what fundamentalist Christians and New Atheists do to each other when they get too close to each other. They gibe, sneer, insult and mock each other. Raillery too has played its part in the Deism of earlier generations, but it has certainly outlived its usefulness as a debating tactic.

In any case, ridicule and raillery are almost diametrically opposed to our second R – respect, so both are definitely out, I think.

How about Rationality? It is a nice, positive word, but its meaning is probably so close to Reason it might seem to be completely redundant.

Perhaps something more practical – what about Responsibility? Now that sounds a bit more like it to me. That has the potential to round out our reason and respect into a genuinely meaningful approach, not just to belief, but to life.

As Deists, we surely acknowledge the need for individual responsibility. We are responsible, for example, for developing our own reasoned view of God and reality. We no longer need to be bound by the chains of “hereditary opinion” – as my current favorite Deist past, John Thelwall put it. But we cannot cast off the chains of revealed religion and then blame those who still believe for all the ills of the world. That sounds more like the New Atheist approach. Nor can we reasonably assume that someone else has the responsibility to fix it. We have to take responsibility for fixing what we can. Obviously we cannot fix the whole world by ourselves, but perhaps we can fix at least some of what is wrong with the whole world in our own lives. And our responsible attitudes might even have a beneficial effect on our neighbors and friends. For example, if they see me taking a more responsible attitude towards my own health by regular exercise and sensible diet – might they be motivated to think about their own health? If they see me leave the car at home and walk to the shop in order to make a slight reduction in my “carbon footprint”, might that cause them to reflect on their own impact on the environment and make what reasonable adjustments they can? In the process, we get fitter and healthier, save money and live longer and ultimately happier lives as a result.

What does any of this have to do with Deism? Deism is, by definition, a rejection of the Bronze Age revelation that teaches that God will miraculously intervene by either whisking us all off to heaven at the end of our brief earthly sojourn or restoring paradise on earth for some or all, depending on one’s interpretation of scripture. If Deism is correct in turning away from faith and scripture to reason and science for answers, then our individual and collective future is in our own hands. We are, like it or not, responsible for what becomes of ourselves and our earthly home. And, as one of New Atheism’s trusted lieutenants, Lawrence Krauss points out in this Big Think video, we – our lives – are all the more precious for that fact. That was a point I was trying to get across when I once borrowed the phrase “significant insignificance” from an evangelical preacher. We are significant in our Copernican insignificance, not because we are “prized by majesty”, but precisely because we are not specially favored by the Universe. To a significant degree, we get to create our own destiny and build the foundation for the future of our kin, our species, our planet and, who knows, perhaps even beyond.

Deists, of all people, have reason to act responsibly – not because they fear the wrath of God, or because they anticipate his divine favor, but because, regardless of whether God is looking or not, they respect God’s creation.


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