The purpose of this article is to consider a brief examination of past and present religious, scientific and philosophical thought with a view to understanding Deism and in turn Deism's understanding of the world. Also within this context to examine what the purpose of life itself might be with particular reference to lessons given to us by Nature.
The first examination I want to present the reader with is how the world has been understood in philosophical terms. Basically speaking philosophers have discussed the nature of the universe with regards to two distinct and separate entities. These they have called Mind and Matter. Matter can be understood as that which is physical. Mind can be understood as that which is non-physical such as thoughts, feelings, perceptions, consciousness etc. For the purpose of philosophy Mind also encompasses that which would be regarded as Spirit, Soul, God or other such metaphysical entities.
There are generally two main types of philosophical view points that can be derived from these terms and they are these:
Materialism and Idealism. Let us look briefly at these two philosophical view points:-
This is the belief that Matter is the only material of which the world is ultimately composed. That is there is no such entity such as God or Spirit that is separate from matter or that brought matter into existence - therefore God or a Creator does not exist. Any such instances of mind that do exist in the world such as human or animal thoughts, consciousness or feelings etc only exist as a derivative of matter - that is they are made up by chemical compositions and other physical function of the brain. Once this brain ceases to exist, i.e. dies, so will the mind of the being that hosted it. There is no immaterial consciousness such as a soul that survives after death. This physical life and reality is the only one that exists.
This is a view point held today by atheists and many, although not all, scientists. This viewpoint usually asserts that the Universe is eternal and was never created - it just is.
This is the viewpoint that the universe is ultimately made up only of Mind and that Matter, (physical reality), is a manifestation of it. The view point postulates that the world was created by Mind, also called Spirit or God and that life may - or may not - continue on a spiritual plane after physical death.
This is obviously the classical viewpoint of most religions and spiritual paths. The only spiritual path that does not appear to believe this is Buddhism which usually believes the world to exist independent of a creator, but most Buddhists would not describe themselves as materialists in the classical sense either.
The Idea of God
For brevity in this article I am going to call the Creator of the universe God although this entity/force has been represented and is represented in many different words such as spirit, Mind, the creative force, Allah, the Supreme Architect, the First Cause etc.
Why and How Did the Notion of God Come Into Existence?
There are two ways in language that God can be conceived of and these are God as an objective reality and God as an idea - that is how human beings subjectively think of God. For the purposes of this article I am going to call God Him - although I believe the concept is beyond gender. I will not submit to Political Correctness in calling God Her it It.
God may or may not exist as an objective reality, (as a Deist I trust He does), but the idea of God has existed in virtually every culture known to mankind. Even within the Buddhist tradition local "deities" have come into existence in line with the belief of the ordinary folk much to the frustration of some of the Buddhist hard line monks and teachers. And also much to the frustration of present day materialist scientists and militant atheists God continues to be believed in world wide. This then poses a problem for the militant atheists and materialist scientists who hoped that once Science as a system of thought for explaining reality had been taught to people that belief in God would decline. Therefore they sought to explain why people still cling to the concept of God.
The Historical Explanation
According to the scientific theory of evolution as proposed by Charles Darwin all life evolved from a common ancestor over millennia so man in his infancy was a very primitive and ignorant creature. Cast alone in what appeared to be a very chaotic and frightening world at times man sought explanations as to why things happened and looked for ways to make the world safer.
Being ignorant of Science man invented God or the Gods. God or the Gods were seen as all powerful Beings who controlled man's world. Seeking comfort and safety, (natural human desires), man attributed to God the power to intervene in the affairs of the world by various means of supplication - thus, God in essence could be bribed to benefit man's purposes. This could be done in a number of ways such as through prayer, sacrifice, shamanism, ritual etc.
Materialistic scientists hoped that when the apparent randomness of events in the world could be explained, predicted and controlled through Science that the belief in God as an entity would cease because there would be no further need for His intervention. Science would take care of man and God, as Nietzsche said, would be dead. This has clearly not proved to be the case.
The Psychological Explanation
God is regarded by materialist psychologists as a delusion that is held by emotionally immature individuals. God is conceived of to be a Father or Mother figure or even an Imaginary Friend who can comfort and protect the supposedly immature individual who is deemed not to have progressed mentally beyond childhood. That is that they have failed to mature psychologically into full adulthood, to take full responsibility for themselves and to desist from relying upon delusions for comfort and control about a Being that does not exist.
Interpretations About the Notion of God
There are principally three ways of interpreting the idea of God and they are Theism, Deism and Pantheism.
Theism is the belief in a personal God distinct in nature from the world but active within it. This is the kind of God that followers of the "revealed" religions believe in and this kind of God can forgive sins, answer prayers, perform miracles and generally demands to be or at least likes being worshipped. The "revealed" religions are those who believe that the nature and will of God is "revealed" through books and /or prophets. The major religions of this kind are Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Deism holds that God's nature and activities are quite separate from anything in the world and God does not answer prayers, forgive sins, perform miracles or needs to be worshipped. God is not generally thought of in a personal sense.
In Deism faith is not necessary since Deists experience God given Reason and know that through the study of God's creation, Nature, and its derivative, Science, man can come to know God more. Since evidence exists through Nature and Science as to the existence of God, faith in his existence is not necessary. Deists trust in God rather than have faith in him and the only prayer a Deist might say is one of thanks. While Deists do not worship God in the Theist sense they are grateful and appreciate those things God has given such as life and gifts, such as Reason, and believe that exercising these gifts is one of the greatest ways they can show appreciation to their Creator.
This belief holds that God has no distinct existence apart from the world or Universe. In other words all things are God including people and rocks etc. If there is a spiritual realm separate from material existence that also is God. Much "New Age" thought is essentially pantheistic and as one might suppose with such a notion the beliefs within it can be very vague and diffuse. According to strict pantheism even events like the Holocaust etc was God but many pantheists prefer not to think their philosophy through to its logical conclusions.
The Two Ways Claimed to "Know" God" Faith and Reason
In considering faith and reason and their role in religion I am mainly going to concentrate on the history of the West and of one of the "revealed" religions, Christianity. This is not because other religions and regions of the world are not important, but the West and Christianity are what I know best. I have no doubt though that what I say about the West and Christianity will have parallels with other religions and regions.
As explained earlier in this essay, early man lived in a chaotic and dangerous world. Seeking to effect some control over this world man "invented" religion and various Gods to explain the events in the world e.g. the weather, why the crops failed, disease etc. Naturally within these religions arose a class of persons who had more knowledge of this God/Gods than the ordinary people and they were chosen to interpret the will of the Gods. These people would be the priest class and would wield much power. There would be other people attributed with gifts to know the will of God such as prophets and these laid claim to knowing Gods will through "revelation". In a pre-literate and uneducated society where the vast majority of people lived in fear and had no access to this hidden knowledge/gift the priests and prophets claimed to have, the priests and prophets wielded great power. Terrifying people with visions of hell in the hereafter, they controlled the peasantry for centuries. However occasionally an exceptionally intelligent man or woman might come along who questioned their beliefs and so the priest class became essentially political and joined kings and courts to wield power through prayer and torture. Heretics were burned at the stake and the common people forbidden access to the Bible which was written in Latin.
Then came the Reformation which pushed through reform of the Church. The Bible was translated into English and other mother tongues. Protestantism arose and people started to question the power of the established church - the Roman Catholic Church. Scientific instruments were invented and through observation and recording accurate details, (the start of the Scientific method), the real place of the Earth in the universe was established/reestablished. In contrast to what was taught by the Church, it was discovered that the Earth revolved around the Sun not the other way around. These early Scientists were persecuted by the Church as they were a threat to the Church's power. Many were tortured and killed. However a new way of looking at the world came to be established - the Scientific Method. This way of looking at the world rested on Reason, not on Faith.
Reason and the Scientific Method
The Scientific Method is basically a way of testing what is real in the world through the following steps: - (and I will give an example)
Ask a Question
Can people walk on (liquid) water?
Do Background Research
Interview a wide representative sample of people. Ask them if they have seen anyone walking on water. Everyone answered "No".
Construct a Hypothesis
People cannot walk on water.
Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
Get several people at different places in the world to attempt to walk on water at different times under different weather conditions over a year.
Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion
The data showed that no-one in any time or place or condition during the experiment was able to walk on water. The conclusion is that on the balance of probabilities that it is impossible for people to walk on water.
Communicate Your Results
Publish the results. Until proven to the contrary the experiment is certain enough for the impossibility of people being able to walk on water to be considered a fact.
Faith and Walking on Water
Two thousand years ago people now dead wrote in a book called the Bible that they saw a man called Jesus walk on water. They claimed that this was a miracle and God had reversed the laws of nature to allow this to happen.
A child goes to Sunday School and tells the priest who is telling him this story that such a thing is impossible. This intelligent little boy has been told in all other subjects to test everything e.g. he learns that mathematics and English must obey certain laws and he must observe these etc. The more he uses his Reason in these subjects the more he gets things right and gets praised.
Thinking the same must apply to the study of religion he tells the priest that what he is being told doesn't make sense. The priest tells the little boy that even though it doesn't make sense, the more he believes it the better the little boy will be. In fact the more improbable something appears to be and the more he believes it to be so even so much to the better. The little boy is then praised for abandoning his reason and believing something that in his heart of hearts the little boy doesn't think to be true. He is praised for his faith by the priest but the little boy decides that religion is nonsense and retains that belief as he grows up!
Many people grow into adulthood believing as that little boy did. Their experience of religion leads them to believe it is all nonsense. Sometimes they become convinced by Science that all that exists is this material world because many Scientists believe it to be so. The little boy, now an adult, possibly becomes an Atheist believing that no God exists.
According to the Scientific Method the non-existence of God cannot be proven. This is because an absolute negative such as the non-existence of God cannot be proven since to prove this one must claim to know the sum of all knowledge knowable in the Universe and no-one does know all of it. Therefore the most a person can say is that on the balance of probabilities that they believe there is no God.
However, doubts nag away at our intelligent person such as questions that materialistic Scientists to date have not answered, such as "How did the Universe come into Existence"? Materialistic Scientists say only through the Big Bang but then arises the obvious question "What came before the Big Bang"? Materialistic scientists cannot answer this question.
Other questions arise that materialistic scientists also cannot answer. Although they can explain Evolution through Natural Selection, (see Charles Darwin's works etc), they cannot explain why life itself arose; why or how organic matter arose from non-organic matter? Even more puzzling is why or how consciousness did or should arise from non-consciousness? These things of course all follow as a natural sequence of things that all scientists understand: that is they evolve - but from what originally?
In fact to non-materialistic scientists the existence of God can be postulated through the Scientific Method. Since all effects have a cause, life itself must have come into existence through a Cause. A Cause that is not caused by any other cause. In other words the First Cause. The uncaused Cause. Another name for the First Cause is God. Since God is the First Cause nothing can have come before Him and everything that exists was created by Him.
However this does not have to be an article of faith since we can study the First Cause and His laws through his Creation, Nature. We must also remember that this is all Science can ever really study. Scientists can study the laws of Nature but they cannot invent them.
If we look at Nature we see Intelligence and Design. It is true however that this Design is not perfect which leads me to a second conclusion and that is that the Design itself is still evolving. If we also look at the history of mankind we will also see that, despite the terrible tragedies of the twentieth century, that we are also evolving. Through the application of the Scientific Method on the material plane our world, (at least in the West), is better than ever before. We live longer, healthier and more comfortable lives through Science.
On a non-material level I would argue that we have still evolved in the West. I would however add at this point that I believe Western values to be good ideals to be followed. That is in the West in general we hold certain concepts to be true and self-evident. That people are created equal, that everyone has the right to justice before the law. That people should be free to practise what they believe as long as it does not hurt anyone else. That children and animals and the vulnerable should not be abused, and if they are that those doing it should be punished. That people have the right to pursue happiness. That slavery is forbidden and that the correct form of government is a democracy elected by and for the people. Ad infintum....
In the West we are so used to this way of life that we sometimes take it for granted. But historically and geographically if you investigate how most other people live and have lived you will see that we are privileged to have this mode of life. And this mode of life has come into being because individually and collectively Western civilization has evolved morally, philosophically and socially and much of the roots of this evolution can be found to have been planted during what history called "The Age of Reason" when Thomas Paine wrote a book of the same name.
In his book the "Age of Reason" Thomas Paine proposed a new religion/philosophy called Deism. In Deism he argued God could become known through Reason, Science and Nature. There would be no need for Faith or blind belief in "revealed" religions. God could be known to the individual without the need for priests or prophets simply through the application of the individual's own reason and intelligence and the study of Science and Nature, and this is what Deism does.
Deism as a religion/philosophy is evolving since it has no creeds or dogma and asks each person to investigate their knowledge of God and reality through reason. This then leads me to speculate on the purpose of life. Note I do not say meaning since meaning is an individual thing to different people - but purpose. A purpose that can be imputed through evidence.
The evidence of Nature and (Western) society in general is that we are evolving. Natural and sane parents usually want better for their children than they had. Not only materially but also in the spiritual quality of their lives. The knowledge the parents have they pass on to their children in the hope that they will expand and learn even more. This is true of sane societies also. Therefore, the purpose of life seems then to be to evolve.
If we take this on board we can decide to do this in a conscious way and if we translate this into everyday terms we could say that the purpose of every individual life is to leave the world a better place than when we came into it. With this as the purpose of life no-one could find life meaningless - there is still so much to do! And with Deism as the guiding philosophy/religion I do believe we will accomplish this and a large part of it will be accomplished by promoting the use of Reason in life and overcoming any dependence on blind retrogressive faith which is essentially the message Deism promotes.