It is no secret that many of America’s influential founders and leaders weren’t Christians, but deists. Much more could be said about that statement, but I simply want to point our readers to a book that chronicles American religion – specifically the movement from Christianity and deism to atheism between 1700 and 1900. Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America by James Turner is an excellent account of those 200 years of American religion.
I’m not quite finished with it, so I won’t yet comment on it extensively. So far I’ve found it very easy to read, clearly written, and more than a little fascinating. The only gripe I have with it is that sometimes it seems that Turner doesn’t quite “get” the Reformation, nor does he seem to appreciate the nuances of Calvinism. Aside from those issues, I’m really enjoying the book. Here’s what he writes about deism – which is helpful even in our day where quite a few Americans are still deistic in their religious beliefs.
“Deism professed to be a religion founded on reason alone, composed solely of truths about God evident in the order of nature, subjecting all beliefs to the tests of reason and experience. In fact, it usually amounted to a severely stripped down version of Christianity, with all that smacked of mystery and superstition pared away” (p. 52-53).
The fundamental tenets of most Deists are “that a Supreme being exists and requires worship, that a moral life is the best worship, and that God will reward virtue and punish vice in an afterlife” (p. 52).
“Thoroughgoing Deists expunged everything unsuited to a clockwork God: anything irregular (miracles, special providences, divine revelations), anything inaccessible to reason (the Trinity, the divinity of the man Jesus, the Resurrection). Deists took rational religion with full seriousness” (p. 53).
“Alexander Pope…deified (Isaac) Newton as a demiurge of rational clarity: ‘Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night / God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and All was Light.’ …As Newton was deified, so the temptation was great to Newtonify the Deity” (p. 49).
For those of you interested in the history of American religion, you simply must get this book: Without God, Without Creed. Again, it is not overly difficult to read; you can find a used copy on Amazon for a decent price. It goes hand in hand with Nathan Hatch’s fine work, The Democratization of American Christianity. Studying the history of American religion is important. Not only does it teach us as Christians what pitfalls to avoid, it also gives us the background of many cults that exist in the United States today. Finally, it shows us why, as one author famously said, modern American religion is moralistic, therapeutic deism.