Theists and deists: The ways people believe in God.

Most pagans do believe in God, y’know.

Theist /'θi.ɪst/ adj. Believes in the existence of God or gods.
2. Believes in one God, a personal being, the universe’s creator, who interacts with its creation.
[Theistic /θi'ɪst.ɪk/ adj., theism /'θi.ɪz.əm/ n.]
Deist /'di.ɪst/ adj., n. Believes God exists, specifically as a creator who doesn’t supernaturally intervene in his universe.
[Deistic /'di.ɪs.tɪk/ adj., deism /'di.ɪz.əm/ n.]

If you believe in gods, you’re a theist. People tend to bunch theists into different classifications, depending on how many gods they believe in, and how. Both religious and irreligious people (and the Christian term for the non-religious is “pagan”) alike fall into these slots:

  • Monotheist: Just the One God, thanks.
  • Polytheist: Multiple gods. Sometimes two, a good and bad god, in a dualistic system. Sometimes three, among heretic Christians who really misunderstand the trinity. Sometimes a whole pantheon.
  • Henotheist: Multiple gods, but they only deal with the one, so functionally they’re more monotheist than polytheist. The other gods are off limits, bad, or have their own realms which don’t involve us any.
  • Pantheist: The universe is God. (People often assume Hindus are polytheist, ’cause of all their gods, but really they’re pantheist.)
  • Nontheist: No god.

There’s a certain category of theist called deist, a person who believes in God… but believes this God largely leaves us humans alone, so in return we largely leave him (or her, or it, or them if you’re polytheist) alone.

This God created the cosmos. Made the Big Bang go bang. Maybe directed evolution so humans would arise; maybe didn’t. Probably provided us some form of afterlife, so when we die we don’t simply cease to exist. May expect us humans to be good… or maybe he doesn’t care. See, pagans don’t believe in organized religion, so they don’t accept anyone else’s views—not Christian, nor Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, nor anyone—as to what God’s like. Nor do they believe we can deduce what he’s like from nature, either. Their conclusion: God’s unknowable.

Deism insists God’s too foreign, too transcendent, too far beyond figuring out… other than assuming he’s good. Generally deists agree God’s good. (Won’t always agree what they mean by “good,” but still.) Since God’s good, we should be good. Concentrate on that. Be selfless and noble and rational and generous, and strive for all those other humanist ideals.

But as for what God’s like: Don’t know, so don’t fret. He’s too different. Probably not at all interested in what we’re going through, ’cause we’re too puny and petty to be worth his worry. If he cares about us at all (and maybe he does) he’ll sort us out somehow. If he doesn’t… well, what can we really do about it? Best to just live our lives. Be good. But otherwise don’t worry about God.

I know: This apathetic attitude towards God sounds an awful lot like a nontheist’s apathetic attitude towards no God and no religion. Both groups definitely have apathy in common. But the big difference becomes obvious once deists and nontheists drop apathy. When deists finally decide to take their beliefs about God seriously, they tend to fall into a religion. Whereas when nontheists decide to take their beliefs in no God seriously, they pick fights with theists.

Deism then and now.

There’ve always been deists. But deism as a movement didn’t appear till the 1600s, when various western nations quit making it illegal to be non-Christian or irreligious. People who grew up Christian, who quit once they became adult, chose to reject what Christians had to say about God, but didn’t throw out the idea of God. Like most of humanity, nontheism simply didn’t work for them. But deism did.

I once had a nontheist history teacher attempt to explain (condescendingly, as you’ll see) why these folks didn’t just become nontheist like him. Seems they couldn’t drop the God-idea till they had an adequate explanation for how life on earth arose without him. But once Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, people had a plausible non-divine explanation for creation, and were finally free to ditch their deism.

Sounds clever, but when you look at the stats, this pagansplaining gets revealed as really sloppy history. Darwin’s books didn’t raise the number of nontheists, but deists. Too many churches at the time demanded the only way to interpret creation was with young-earth creationism. If their members suspected God created our ancient-looking universe any longer than six millennia ago, a lot of ’em felt the only course left to them was to quit church and join the deists—’cause at least the deists let ’em ask questions and think. And this sort of brain drain in our churches is what regularly happens whenever Christians get too non-negotiable about negotiable beliefs. If the only way you can believe in God is to turn off the brain he gave you, you’re doing Christianity wrong. But that’s a much longer side rant; back to deism.

Nowadays when people use the term deist, they mean people who were involved in the deist movements of the 1600s–1800s. Some of ’em presume deism faded out. The word largely did. But talk to pagans and you’ll find an awful lot of them are deist: They figure there’s a God out there somewhere. Just not here; certainly not performing miracles; certainly not speaking to televangelists. They expect to encounter God in the afterlife. But never this life.

Of course, whenever a deist has a God-experience—when they see a miracle, see angels or the supernatural, start to pray from time to time, or encounter something which they’re pretty sure God was involved in—they step away from deism. God’s not distant; he’s near. Whether the Holy Spirit takes these folks even further into Christianity (or whether they stumble into one of the other religions) remains to be seen. Some never go any further than experimentation with the supernatural, ’cause they’re not comfortable with venturing further. (’Cause maybe God might expect something of ’em. They certainly don’t want that.)

Not all deists shun organized religion. The earliest deists grew up in church, and recognized the value of having a support system and moral instruction. Some of ’em kept right on going to church… but their churches dropped the Christianity, and became pagan. The Unitarian churches (who ditched the belief in the trinity) and the Universalist churches (who ditched the belief in hell) have since combined, and teach all sorts of morally improving things from all sorts of religious traditions.

There are certain Christians who are called “Christian deists.” They’re not really deist. They share some similarities: Deists believe God’s distant, doesn’t interact, and is largely unknowable. Well, some Christians imagine God turned off the miracles, has no revelation for his people beyond the bible (i.e. no more prophecy), doesn’t care to interact with his people during the present dispensation, and that’s how things’ll be till Jesus returns. But even though they wrongly believe God went away, they certainly don’t believe God’s unknowable: They’ve got Jesus, churches, bibles, teachers, and various ways to learn about God. A proper deist insists none of those things are valid—that we’ve got nothing, and we’re on our own.

Theism versus deism.

Likewise there are certain self-described deists who claim they do know a little something about God. Properly speaking, they’re not really deists either. They’re still theists; they believe in God, same as most people. But if they no longer think God’s unknowable, where’d their knowledge come from? Obviously they’ve adopted a religion.

Might be an eclectic religion: They’re cobbling together a do-it-yourself belief system, made up of all the ideas which appeal to them. Not all of them come from organized religions. Look at any eclecticist who’s put together a Pinterest page of religious memes, and you’ll find they come from all over the place. Some come from Christians. Some from Hindus. Some from Simpsons episodes. Some from the back of Starbucks cups. Some from celebrities who are likewise figuring things out as they go.

Deists have a tendency to not remain deist for very long. ’Cause a functioning human brain is lousy at figuring, “God’s a mystery I can never solve, so I’m never gonna try.” It’s gonna try. That’s what brains do. Even though people insist God can’t be deduced, our brains are gonna start filling in the gaps of our knowledge with our personal preferences. Over time this “unknowable God” is gradually, unconsciously (and incorrectly) gonna look more and more like us. Hey, unless we realize we’re doing it, it’s just what we humans do. Christians included.

Once a “deist” starts treating God like they know him, instead of insisting they don’t ’cause they can’t: They left the deist category behind. Still believe in God, so they’re theist. In some cases they’ve glommed onto so many Christian ideas about God, it’s only a matter of time before they embrace Jesus. In others, they have such a jumble of ideas they’re as lost as ever. Either way, the apathy’s gone, and replaced by some form of theistic religious beliefs. They’re not deist anymore.