Deism is, at the same time, one of the least popular and most popular religious positions in the world.
Self-proclaimed deists are rare anymore. Hardly anyone claims “deism.” As a worldview, deism is that “middle-ground” between traditional God-belief and naturalism. It takes most everything that naturalists and atheists revel in, but adds a creator God. No miracles. No prophecy. No Bible. This is a religious half-way point so you do not have to look like a “godless heathen” but neither do you have to defend such academic outcasts as healings, resurrection, or prophecies. Deism was very popular in the Enlightenment and wove throughout the English, French, and American revolutions. But nowadays, people are more likely to claim theism (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.) or some sort of atheism/agnosticism. In that sense, deism is historically expendable, a stage on route to wider atheism, secularism, and naturalism. In the 20th century, deism has resurfaced in the occasional philosopher (Antony Flew), or scientist (Max Planck), but institutionalized deism, religious deism, or any widescale deistic “movements”–these never amounted to much.
Yet, in another sense, deism is perhaps the popular religious position in the world. How is that?
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
Sociologist and author Christian Smith explains this worldview in 5 claims.
1) A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
5) Good people go to heaven when they die. (see, Smith, “On Moralistic Therapeutic Deism . . . ” pg. 1-2)
Without unpacking each of these points, we can recognize facets of theism minus the more challenging distinctive features of Christianity. In this watered down version our lives are man-centered, not God-centered. Salvation is by works, not faith and grace. Miracles and divine interaction aren’t interesting topics. Christian living is about being “moral” not about glorifying God. “Goodness” is relative, shallow and far removed from holiness or righteousness. The Gospel of Self-esteem replaces the Gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, we don’t need rescue from sin and hell, so much as we need relief from too-much humility. God’s is but a cosmic janitor, a rich uncle, or a vending machine; He is not father, savior, friend, or anyone with whom we’d be personally involved or who would want to radically reorient our lives. And the prophetic and divine revelation of God in Scripture? Forget about it. This notion of “Therapeutic Moralistic Deism” moves from theological to pragmatic, and from interpersonal to instrumental. God becomes not the subject of our attention but the object of our manipulation, and we becomes the central aim of all our spirituality.
The three elements of Smith’s coinage, “Therapeutic Moralistic Deism” summarize this shift from theism to deism, holiness to moralism, and from resurrection to therapy. Implied in this revitalized deism is another shift, a fault line you might say, in the transition from conviction to apathy. You might notice, in Smith’s 5 claims, that there is no clear conviction that Jesus is THE way, THE truth, or THE life. Typical among many Christians today–note I’m not talking about irreligious people, but folks who would tend to call themselves “Christian”–among such people, Jesus is one among many gods, for all intents and purposes, since Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists (eh-hem), all worship the same god by a different name. This is Religious Pluralism, and it is a widespread belief–inimical to biblical Christianity (see John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim 2:5). If the Gospel storyline is true (see Romans 1-10), then human sin is a really big problem and nothing short of complete rebirth, entirely by God’s grace, will suffice to rescue man from himself, his sin, and its consequences. Sin is so bad, because God is so good, so holy; sinning against God is as heavy as God is holy. Since God is infinitely holy, our sin of infinitely “heavy.” The difficult doctrine of damnation is the shadow cast by the laudible doctrine of Holiness. This is a not an comfortable story to tell. The story of man’s fall into sin, his wallowing in the mud, the insult it casts on God, the mud we track everywhere we go, our inability to wash it off by ourselves, our disqualification from holy things and holy places, and our unworthy standing before God’s cleansing grace. This storyline is embarrassing, it’s tough to defend, and it’s pretty ugly till you get to the final chapters. Many of us have “cleaned it up” in our own mind since we like a lot of what Christianity offers, but we don’t like the sharp corners, the rough edges, and the ugly shadow it casts on us–it makes us look like filthy rotten sinners who don’t deserve to be saved and can’t save ourselves. But that is the tough teaching of historic Christianity. IF that biblical Christian gospel is true. Then Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is false. If Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is true, then all that emphasis on the gospel, on God-centered living, on “dying to self,” and so on, all of that is overkill. It’s distasteful excess, like too much salt on your meal. It’s detracts from the pleasant happy, this-worldly experience of Christianity. In the Gospel of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism there is no urgency to evangelize, since most faithful religious people are going to heaven. There is no great demand on YOUR life for missions, gospel invitations, or being all “Christiany” since your own self-styled views of Christ are strictly personal, private, and every else’s different, conflicting, and contraditory views are just as valid. Who are we to judge?
And so we see what may be the most deadly difference in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism–the shift from heaven to earth; a transcendent worldview to worldly views of transcendence. Instead of finding the meaning, aims, and objectives of this world cast in light of the world beyond, one casts the world beyond in light of this world. In this deism, we try to understand heaven in terms of present mortal standards of “good” and “happy.” We fail to treat this life as an investment in the future, where there are opportunities, beauties, pleasures, and meaningfulness beyond what we can yet conceive. With no great sense of heaven’s glory, we are pretty much focused on earthly pleasure, assuming that the “end times” will take care of themselves, and our “eternal fate” will be just peachy. In classical Christianity, however, the ephemeral experience of life on earth is made meaningful only as a symbol of and segue to God’s manifest presence. This life, lived in a “worldly” way is akin to thin stratches on paper; but cast across the meaningfulness of heaven, holiness and Yahweh God, these mortal scratches on the thin calendar paper of time can become WORDS! Our lives MEAN something. Our bounded meanings signify eternal realities in a saving storyline of poetic justice and beautiful resolution amidst loving discourse between a people and their God. The exclusive claims of the Christian Gospel point out that not just any scratches will do. All the wordless scribbles and doodles of the other world religions are meaningless gibberish destined to become crumbled papers in the fire.
The motivations behind therapeutic moralistic deism are sensible enough. Historic Christianity is, in many ways, unfashionable. It’s countercultural. It’s the wild-haired fundamentalist in a room of tidy liberals. But the heart of the matter is simply this. Is Christianity true? If reality is stricter, messier, and stranger than our modern molds permit, then perhaps Christianity is the truest fit. If human nature is as Scripture suggest, then the vaulting humanism behind Therapeutic Moralistic Deism must come crashing down eventually. If sin is as big a problem as Scripture suggests, then nothing short of Divine invasion can claim our lives for heaven. If the God of the Bible is real, then the God of deism is not. If death is as Scripture says, then deism might tidy up the corpse, but only Christ can raise the dead. Therapeutic Moralistic Deism is the fluffy pillow in the coffin, but Christ is the resurrection.