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Theism vs. Deism

Theism vs. Deism

Author: Ted Fairchild
Description:

This lesson defines and differentiates Theism, as the belief in a personal God, from Deism, the belief in a non-personal, providential deity who orders and sustains the universe, but with whom no personal relationship is possible.

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Hello. Welcome. Here we're going to discuss the concept of theism and deism. We want to identify how they are applied to religious studies, while pointing out how they might be different and, in some cases, similar. So let's start by identifying the origin of these two key terms.

Theism comes from the Greek word meaning God. It's theos. And deism comes from the Latin word Deus, which also means God. So they both refer to some kind of understanding of the relationship to the divine. Very generally, theism is usually applied to both monotheistic and polytheistic systems. And deism is most often used in reference to monotheistic systems. The term that was coined in the early 20th century is polydeism. But it's usually referred to a subcategory of polytheism. And it doesn't formally recognize the clear distinctions between theism and deism. So let's do that now.

Theism is the key term. And it's the belief in a personal god who seeks to have a personal relationship with all or some human beings. And this can be either a direct or an indirect relationship. And deism is the belief in an impersonal god who created and oversees the universe, but who neither has nor desires to have a personal relationship with human beings.

So theism is the first key term. It's the belief in a personal god who seeks to have a personal relationship with all or some human beings. This can be either a direct or an indirect relationship. And deism is the belief in an impersonal god who created and oversees the universe, but who neither has nor desires to have a personal relationship with human beings. So the key idea is personal relationship or no personal relationship. And if we look at some of the examples, we'll understand the difference.

Christianity, in general, is a theistic religion. It's a monotheistic religion based on the belief in one God who created the world and influences its processes. The direct or indirect involvement He may have with individuals depends on the perspective of different branches of Christianity. And while Christianity is considered a theistic religion, the term deism around the same time began to be applied to Christian theology. And this was the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Reason and Enlightenment. It was a time when human rationality, ingenuity, and agency were beginning to take more center stage. And in the field of religion, particularly among Protestant thinkers in northern Europe and England, the term deism was applied.

The general belief that was shared among deists was that God still functioned as an omnipotent creator. But that he was more of a grand architect or divine watchmaker. All the pieces were put in place and natural laws kept things running. These laws were being explained by Newtonian science. And the thinking went that it was up to us, with the agency of our science and reason, to explain and experiment with these laws.

One of the experiments was American democracy. And Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers of the United States had various commitment to the ideals of deism. This form of deism is slightly different from the watchmaker god of Newtonian deism in that it ascribes to a belief in divine Providence-- the idea that God is invested in and supports worthy causes that are moral and just like American independence from Great Britain, for example. And also, because it was closely associated with enlightenment philosophy, a deistic worldview, under the pen of Thomas Jefferson and others, could support the idea of religious freedom and certain forms of individualism that were important in this emerging context.

And to conclude today, we'll just mention that theism is predominantly applied to the Western monotheistic religions. But the more you explore and get into it, the more you'll see that it's not always that cut and dry. There are Eastern religions that are theistic. There are some branches of Hinduism, for example, that are theistic, while other branches are more non-theistic. There are subtleties that you'll find as you go along.

But for this overview, we'll mention Vaishnavism, a founding branch of India's indigenous Hindu religion. Followers of Vaishnavism are devoted to the personal god Vishnu, and his avatar or manifestation, Krishna. Vaishnavism has a very colorful cosmology in which Lord Vishnu's divine work and personalities are happily involved in the universe, in the world, and the lives of devotees.

So now let's summarize and review. Theism and deism are two approaches to understanding God's involvement in human affairs in individual lives. We provided two examples of deism, two kinds of deism-- Newtonian deism, which envisions god as a watchmaker or grand architect who sets things up and then allows natural laws to function as they will, and then, of course, applying our own understanding of the laws and experimentation with the laws is a big part of it. And that led into our other kinds of deism, which we refer to as Jeffersonian deism, or the idea that there's some kind of divine Providence where God is invested in worthy, and just, and moral efforts, like the American independence. And then, we looked at Hinduism as an example of theism in the East with the regard and worshipping of Vishnu and his very personal involvement in human affairs.

Notes on “Theism vs. Deism”

Images

Image of Edward Herbert, Public Domain, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Herbert_1st_Baron_Herbert_of_Cherbury_by_Isaac_Oliver.jpg

Image of Vishnu, Public Domain (Copyright expired), http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vishnu1.jpg

Terms to Know
  • Deism

    The belief in an impersonal god who created and oversees the universe, but who neither has nor desires to have a personal relationship with human beings.

  • Theism

    The belief in a personal god who seeks to have a personal relationship with all or some human beings.