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Deism holds more meanings than one word should be asked to bear. Generally, to the point of almost being meaningless, it refers to the notion that reason plays an important role in determining religious knowledge. By this definition the pre-Socratic philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics, Cicero, Lucretius, Buddha, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad all qualify to varying degrees as Deists. With more historical precision the term embraces the religious philosophy of the Enlightenment. But there is a wide range of meanings here too. To religious traditionalists, Deists were effectively atheists. To atheists and materialists, Deism represented a half-realized understanding of the universe. For those who would not have balked had the word been applied to themhardly anyone in the eighteenth century self-identifies as a "Deist"it signified belief in a God who could be known by naturally given reason rather than solely by revelation.

But even among this last group the word contained many antinomies. Some Deists upheld the authority of the church; others aggressively criticized customary religious thought and practice. Some used reason to develop more rigorous methods of biblical criticism; others argued that rather than texts, reason in nature offers the proper route to religious truth. Almost all Deists denied God's providence; but a few retained the vestiges of providentialism by virtue of their reasoned belief that God maintained an active, judging presence in the universe. Deism held positive meaning both for moderate Enlightenment figures and those who belong more properly in what the historian Margaret Jacob twenty years ago called the "Radical Enlightenment"; it held negative meanings for traditionalists as well as nonbelievers. The object of this entry will therefore be to explain this word's various meanings more fully by looking closely at how and in whose hands those meanings changed over time.

Early History

The word déiste carried a negative valence in its first appearance in the Lausanne reformer Pierre Viret's (15111571) Instruction chrestienne (1564). Viret recognized a difference between Deism and atheism, if only in seeing the latter as the superlative of the former, but by déiste he was likely referring to a group of Lyonnaise anti-Trinitarians rather than those who would later be identified by their rejection of Christian revelation. The word's emergence in the mid-sixteenth century was, whatever its precise referent, not accidental. Much like early modern skepticism, Deistic ideas were fueled by four major changes associated with the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: the ongoing recovery of works from antiquity; European encounters with non-European cultures; the confessional conflicts, both conceptual and material, that followed the Protestant and Catholic Reformations; and the spread of experimental science. All had the effect of destabilizing certainties and encouraging some men and women to recover fundamental truths from doubt. And all contributed to the context in which cultural conservatives hurled "Deist" as a term of abuse in their various attempts to confute heterodox ideas and restore unsettled epistemological foundations.

The effects of these four destabilizing changes shaped the earliest expression of arguments that prefigure Enlightenment Deism, which were published in De veritate (1624) by the English ambassador to France, Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (15831648). Herbert argued that "common notions" would ultimately lead men and women of any religious upbringing to worship God piously, avoid sin, and intuit divine justice. Reason given to us by nature, in other words, could rescue belief from skepticism. The argument seemed flimsy to René Descartes (15961650) and Pierre Gassendi (15921655), much as in a later form it would strike Hume as entirely empty. But the notion that we all have the capacity to understand religious truth regardless of culture and tradition became a compelling central assumption of later Deists.

British Deism

The high point of Deism began in Britain in the wake of the civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century. The conflicts of the 1640s and the republican experiment of the 1650s opened up a social and cultural space in which the nature of government, God, gender, and virtually every other worthwhile topic under the sun were called into question. Countless tracts printed after church and state censorship collapsed in the early 1640s assailed religious authority and gave primacy over religion to reason. When this period of kingless rule ended in 1660 with the return of Charles II (16301685), the religious experimentalism and enthusiasm of the 1640s and 1650s came to be associated by many with social and political instability. But Deistic ideas were nevertheless out of the bag. The splintering that would later be evident within the ranks of Deistic thinkers reflects this ambivalence about the midcentury crisis and its larger meaning. On the one hand, moderate Deists, who borrowed conservatively from the various radicalisms of the 1640s and 1650s, sought to maintain a balance between reason and religion in order to make religion less intense, more sociable, and more conducive to social and political stability. On the other hand, radical Deists with more undiluted intellectual links to the midcentury's most extreme ideasatheism and materialismwere less bothered by the religious consequences of the rigorous application of reason to revelation.

The paragons of moderate Deistic arguments were the Enlightenment's two discursive founders: Isaac Newton (16421727), born the year civil war broke out, and John Locke (16321704), the intellectual product of the nexus of puritan selfhood, parliamentary government, and experimental science. Newton ascribed supreme importance to his investigations into natural phenomena because they brought him closer to the God who set the universe in motion; how active God was in his creation would continue to be a divisive issue for Newtonians. Locke captured in the title of his The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures (1695) his basic idea that rational interpretations of our perceptions can lead to the fundamental truths expressed in the Bible. Those same changes we noted with respect to skepticism were also at work here. Both men embraced experimental science and had a stake in securing the stability of the nation after the revolutions of 1688 to 1691, which, like the conflict four decades earlier, also stemmed from religious divisions. And if the influence of ancient ideas was showing early signs of waning, Locke was intensely interested in cultural variation, which led him to seek basic truths about the human mind that held in varied cultural conditions.

Almost as soon as Newton and Locke defined their moderate brand of Deism, radicals began to apply reason to religion more strenuously. A "Deist controversy" in printed tracts and sermonic literature erupted with the publication of Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) by the Irish-born Protestant convert and likely son of a Catholic priest, John Toland (16701722). His work appeared not accidentally a year after censorship became a nonissue after the lapsing of the Licensing Act of 1695. Toland drew from radical thinkers such as Spinoza, Gerrard Winstanley, Epicurus, and Giordano Bruno (none of whom should be classified as a Deist), but he was also the logically extreme product of Newton and Locke. Newton and Locke had argued that by reason we come to a closer understanding of the fundamental truths of Christianity; Toland deduced that if a religion's reasonableness could not be established, one had license to explore bettermore reasonablereligious or even nonreligious options.

More than anyone, Toland gave Deism a deconstructive edge. He questioned the authenticity of the New Testament and argued that the Jews were originally Egyptians, while also controverting Britain's legally institutionalized anti-Semitism. Toland himself became, by his own neologism, a "pantheist," but his ideas were picked up by others who shared his Whig politics, animosity for priestcraft, and gifts for persuasive writing. Another son of a cleric, Matthew Tindal, undercut biblical authority when he wrote that "it's an odd jumble to prove the truth of a book by the truth of the doctrines it contains, and at the same time conclude those doctrines to be true because contained in that book" (p. 49). William Wollaston used Lockean logic to solve the conundrum of whether or not God can create a mountain he cannot destroy"God cannot be unjust or unreasonable in any one instance"while another Lockean, Anthony Collins (16761729), reasoned that Christianity was a mere sect, a self-fulfilling Old Testament prophecy that the passage of time gave global prominence (Wollaston, p. 205). Even the pious skeptic Thomas Woolston claimed in the spirit of radical Deism that the supposed miracles of Jesus were, if actually anything other than pure fiction, the products of wizardry rather than divinity.

These authors and utterances did not go unchecked or un-challenged. The moderate Deists who more closely followed Newton's and Locke's intentions, particularly the late-Stuart "latitudinarians" Richard Bentley (16621742), Benjamin Hoadly (1676-1761), John Tillotson (16301694), and Samuel Clarke (16751729), upheld religious belief through a combination of rationality (directed against religious enthusiasm more than the Bible), faith, and reliance on textual authority. High-and low-church traditionalists alike more critically saw Deism as one of many heterodox ideas that threatened the fundamental meaning of the church, if not religion itself, while from a very different point of view the diehard skeptic David Hume (17111776) viewed it as a "license of fancy and hypothesis" in a realm of philosophical thinking he thought should be devoid of religious belief (1779, 94).

Around the time the minister John Leland (16911766) published his four-volume Principal Deistical Writers that Have Appeared in England in the Last and Present Century (17541756), an antagonistic work that nevertheless largely determined the canon of Deists, the controversy had cooledbut not before Deism "cross-examined religion naturalistically, socially and psychologically" (Porter, p. 122). "If Mankind had never Sinn'd, Reason would always have been obeyed, there would have been no Struggle for Dominion, and Brutal Power would not have prevail'd," wrote the protofeminist Mary Astell (16661731), longing for the world's return to a more reasonable state (Astell, p. 97). Edmund Burke may have rhetorically asked, Who reads Toland, Tindal, Collins, and so on? But William Wollaston's Religion of Nature Delineated (1724) sold 10,000 copies while radicalizing the already Deistic religious outlook of the printer who set the type for its third edition, Benjamin Franklin. Equally important, Deism became, via Newton, Locke, and their followers, the de facto religion of science, which encouraged the rationalization of religion among scientific practitioners in the British Isles, North America, and Europe's learned academies.

Deism in Europe

British Deists widely and intensively read European authors such as Spinoza, Balthasar Bekker, Descartes, Gassendi, Pierre Bayle, Faustus Socinius, and Bruno. European Deists of the next generation in turn bought clandestine French translations of British Deistic works that circulated among European texts in the underground book trade. Many of those trade networks originated in the liberal and tolerant Dutch Republic, a refuge for freethinkers that, along with Britain, forged the early Enlightenment. Journals like De Haegse Mercurius (16971698) defended Toland's Deism in the late seventeenth century; French-language presses, safe from the French censors, spread Newtonian science and theology to readers all over Europe; and later in the century Masonic lodges and other voluntary organizations disseminated Deistic thinking throughout civil society. The epitome of Dutch (radical) Deism was the Traité des trois imposteurs (1719; The Treatise of the Three Impostors), authored, in the international language of the time, most likely by the lawyer Jan Vroese. On the basis of textual criticism, inquiry into first causes inspired by scientific thinking, and attention to cultural variety across the globe, the Traité made the case that Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad were ordinary men who exploited common ignorance in order to legitimate their prophecies: "Christianity like all other Religions is no more than a crudely woven imposture, whose success & progress would astonish even its inventors if they came back to the world" (quoted in Jacob, 2001, p. 109).

Less iconoclastically, Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 16941778), the agent and nonpareil of the Anglomania that swept Europe in the 1730s and 1740s, virtually propagandized moderate British Deism as he strove to find the laws governing nature as well as God, the unity behind cultural variety, the right balance between enthusiasm and unbelief, and the compelling evidence that a God existed who could terrify the high and mighty. Deism via Voltaire in turn spread as far as Poland by way of the poetry of the satirist Bishop Ignacy Krasicki and the libertine Stanislaw Trembecki. Denis Diderot (17131784) and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (17171783) assimilated British Deism in their Encyclopédie (17511772) and made an impressionabout more than just Deismon Russia's Catherine II. Even Rousseau's idiosyncratic and deeply influential deification of nature is unthinkable without Lockean Deism, notwithstanding Rousseau's cynicism about what society does to nature in the long term.

More radical French Deism also had influences more diverse than Newton and Locke. Henri de Boulainvilliers (16581722) came slowly to a Deistic position mainly by way of Baruch Spinoza (16321677). The Marquis d'Argens (17031771) drew from Spinoza, as did the Huguenot champion of religious toleration, Pierre Bayle (16471706). The shadowy, anti-Voltairean Themisuel de Saint-Hyacinthe (16841746) read Spinoza but lived in religious exile in the Dutch Republic amid Anglophiles such as Albert-Henri de Sallengre, a Dutch citizen of Huguenot origins with English connections through whom Saint-Hyacinthe would have come to know both British Deism and science. It is inaccurate to label the idiosyncratic Spinoza a "Deist" according to contemporary conceptions of the word. The same holds true for the atheist-atomists Epicurus and his Roman mouthpiece Lucretius. But Spinozist and Epicurean writings nevertheless simmered along with British Deism in a stew of heterodox ideas that European free-thinkers consumed with various appetites that were themselves determined by a complex mix of personality, cultural dispositions, and social and political conditions.

Deistic ideas also pervaded the German Enlightenment. The Prussian "philosopher-king" Frederick II may have ultimately been a disappointment to Voltaire, but he nonetheless facilitated the spread of heterodox religious thinking by making the Berlin Academy of Sciences an entrepôt for French, British, and Dutch thought as well as the homegrown Deistic ideas of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716) and Christian Wolff (16791754). What Kant would later call onto-, cosmo-, and physicotheology were all indebted to the writings of Deists, even if later "neologians"rational theologians who upheld the possibility of truth in revelationdeliberately distanced themselves from radical Deism. But that should not obscure the fact that later eighteenth-century theologians such as Johann Salomo Semler (17251791) were as unrelenting in their textual criticism of the Bible as Woolston and others had been decades earlier.

In the more radical tradition, Hermann Samuel Reimarus's posthumously published Apologie oder Schutzschrift für die vernünftigen Verehrer Gottes (17741777; Apology or Defense of the Rational Worshipers of God) dispelled revelation as unreliable, miracles and mystery as fictional, and the New Testament as fraudulent. But like the British Deists by whom he was influenced, he also made as strong a case against atheism. Gotthold Lessing (17291781), who among other things published Reimarus's Apologie, took the small step from Deism to religious toleration in his dramatic poem Nathan der Weise (1779; Nathan the Wise), which gave equal treatment to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But the case was made more forcefully by the inspiration for Lessing's Nathan, the German-Jewish freethinker Moses Mendelssohn (17291786), who, instead of arguing for the dissolution of the distinctions among the Mosaic religions, made the case that all were equal but still meaningful and should be accommodated by an enlightened state. Meanwhile, the primacy of reason over revelation was underscored by Immanuel Kant (17241804). Kant started out maintaining the neologian position on revelation, but in later life he argued that the Bible should be judged rather than judge, that churches had value only insofar as their ends accorded with a rationally derived course for human progress, and that claims to have experienced divine revelation could never be admitted by reasonable people.

The Legacy of Deism

What also makes Deism the unofficial religious philosophy of the Enlightenment is its expiration at the close of the eighteenth century as the French Revolution turned from the apparent culmination of Deism to reaction against heterodoxy. In fact the word and concept were already showing signs of waning among British and European elites by the time the century had reached its fourth quarter. Hume wrote unsparingly in his posthumous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) that belief cannot in any way be rationally defended. Even that stark judgment of the French materialists that matter in motion in a godless universe was a sufficient foundational principle for both science and morality became less repulsive to many philosophers and scientists.

We know less about Deism as a popularly held belief. Bookstore inventories and detailed wills reveal that Deistic ideas could penetrate all levels of European and North American society. There were no Deists churchesalthough Deism was briefly institutionalized in revolutionary Franceand therefore we have no attendance sheets on which we can count rank-and-file adherents; but many of the ideas associated with Deism also made their way into popular forms of religious thought and practice. Eighteenth-century British dissenters academiesschools for non-Anglicansencouraged the spread of heterodox ideas alongside critical thinking and prominently featured Newton and Locke in their curricula. John Jebb's church in late-eighteenth-century London was Deist in all but name. Some religious denominations, such as Presbyterianism, became Unitarian under the pressures of, among other things, the biblical criticism pioneered by Deists. But Deism in Britain, North America, and Germany was also targeted as early as the mid-1700s on the popular level alongside other forms of intellectualized religion by much more numerous Methodists, traditionalist Anglicans, and Pietists, who stressed God's active role in our earthly lives.

In America a prominent handful of elites in the later 1700s identified themselves as Deists. Benjamin Franklin proudly and publicly recollected reading the Boyle lectures as a youth, in which "the arguments of the Deists which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutation" (p. 63). Thomas Jefferson put Deism into practice when he took a cue from Tindal and wrote the separation of church and state into the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty (1786), which sounded an echo the next year in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. If the final lines of the Declaration of Independence invoke an un-Deistic "firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence," "the laws of nature and of nature's God" in that document's more memorable opening paragraph get to the corein a telling sequenceof a definition of Deism. But the late embrace of these ideas in America did not forestall their antagonistic reception. The British-born American patriot Thomas Paine was the target of deep animosity when in The Age of Reason (17941795) he trivialized the personal experience of divine revelation. As early nineteenth-century America witnessed a return to traditional Christianity, even onetime Deists like George Tucker of Virginia, in contrast to Jefferson, came to view religion as a form of social control that the state should subsidize.

Since Deism has no defining textual or customary point of reference, its legacy is as difficult to follow with precision as its meaning. Its most direct descendent in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries may be the scholarly study of religion, but here the parentage is mixed. F. Max Mueller (18231900) and E. B. Tylor (18321917), for example, both owe their scientization of religious studies to the rationalism of the atheistic Hume and Spinoza as much as to Newton and Locke. Its legacy is more widely dispersed in modern variants of all three Mosaic religionsReformed Judaism, Unitarianism, and the Baha'i faith, for exampleas well as in hybrid forms of intellectualized religiosity that borrow more consciously from Buddha and Confucius than from Tindal and Toland. One recent study has even connected Deism to the rise of Philippine nationalism by way of José Protasio Rizal's Enlightenment education at the University of Madrid in the 1880s and later attacks on the Catholic Church.

Deism's greatest legacy may be the principle of religious toleration written into the constitutions of the world's democracies. A survey of the early-twenty-first-century political landscape might suggest a disjunction between constitutional theory and practice. But that makes these ideas and their legacy more interesting than they have been since before the beginning of the nineteenth century, as religious conflict and toleration have become as culturally significant as they were during the destructive confessional struggles that defined early modern Europe.

See also Agnosticism ; Atheism ; Enlightenment ; Religion .



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Blount, Charles. The Oracles of Reason In Several Letters to Mr. Hobbs and Other Persons of Eminent Quality and Learning. London, 1693.

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Collins, Anthony. A Discourse of Free Thinking. London, 1713.

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Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography and Other Writings. Edited and with an introduction by Kenneth Silverman. Harmondsworth, U.K., and New York: Penguin Books, 1986.

Hume, David. Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. London, 1779.

Leland, John. A View of the Principal Deistical Writers that Have Appeared in England in the Last and Present Century. London: B. Dod, 17541756.

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Nathan the Wise. Translated by Edward Kemp. London: Nick Hern, 2003.

Locke, John. The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures. London, 1695.

Paine, Thomas. The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine. Collected and edited by Philip S. Foner, 2 vols. New York: Citadel Press, 1945.

Reimarus, Hermann Samuel. Reimarus, Fragments. Edited by Charles H. Talbert, translated by Ralph S. Fraser. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1985.

Samuel, Moses. Moses Mendelssohn: The First English Biography and Translations. Introduction by James Schmidt. Bristol, U.K.: Thoemmes Press, 2002.

Spinoza, Benedictus de. The Collected Works of Spinoza. Edited and translated by Edwin M. Curley. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Tindal, Matthew. Christianity as Old as the Creation; or The Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature. London, 1732.

Toland, John. Christianity Not Mysterious; or, A Treatise Showing, That There Is Nothing in the Gospel Contrary to Reason, Nor Above It, and That No Christian Doctrine Can Be Properly Call'd a Mystery. London, 1696.

. Letters to Serena. London: Bernard Lintot, 1704.

. Reasons for Naturalising the Jews in Great Britain and Ireland. London, 1714.

Voltaire, F. M. Letters concerning the English Nation. Translated by John Lockman. Dublin: George Faulkner, 1733.

Wollaston, William. The Religion of Nature Delineated. London, 1724.

Woolston, Thomas. Six Discourses on the Miracles of our Savior and Defences of His Discourses. New York: Garland, 1979.


Bedford, R. D. The Defence of Truth: Herbert of Cherbury and the Seventeenth Century. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1979. Comprehensive work on the "first English Deist."

Betts, C. J. Early Deism in France: From the So-called "Déistes" of Lyon (1564) to Voltaire's "Lettres philosophiques" (1734). Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 1984. The most detailed English study of French Deism; deals well with the complexities of the word's definition.

Bonoan, Raul. "The Enlightenment, Deism, and Rizal." Philippine Studies 40 (1992): 5367.

Byrne, Peter. Natural Religion and the Nature of Religion: The Legacy of Deism. London and New York: Routledge, 1989. Maintains that Deistic ideas about natural religion laid the groundwork for modern religious studies.

Champion, J. A. I. The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken: The Church of England and Its Enemies, 16601730. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Deals mainly with anti-clericalism but shows, among other things, that even the most radical Deists had a religious impulse, which was filtered through notions of civil society.

Clark, William. "The Death of Metaphysics in Enlightened Prussia." In The Sciences in Enlightened Europe. Edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Simon Schaffer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Dzwigala, Wanda. "Voltaire and the Polish Enlightenment: Religious Responses." Slavonic and East European Review 81 (2003): 7087.

Hazard, Paul. The European Mind, 16801715. Translated by J. Lewis May. London: Hollis and Carter, 1953. A still-essential study of European intellectual history, with a chapter dedicated to Deism.

Israel, Jonathan. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 16501750. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Should be called "Spinoza's Enlightenment." But in following Spinoza's influence of major and minor European freethinkers, this work is important.

Jacob, Margaret C. The Enlightenment: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 2001. Excellent collection of documents on Enlightenment religion, prefaced by a clear and concise introduction.

. The Newtonians and the English Revolution, 16891720. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1990. Puts forward an important and compelling argument about Newton's as well as Locke's concerns with social and political instability and therefore deals at length with rational religion.

. The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons, and Republicans. London and Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1981. The original and still essential work that situates Deism among the ideas of the "radical Enlightenment"; excellent coverage of Toland and Freemasonry.

Lund, Roger D., ed. The Margins of Orthodoxy: Heterodox Writing and Cultural Response, 16601750. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Important collection of essays related to Deism.

Marshall, John. John Locke: Resistance, Religion and Responsibility. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994. The most engaging and rigorously contextualized recent work on Locke's politics and religion.

May, Henry Farnham. The Enlightenment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Still the standard work on this subject and good for further exploration of Deism in America.

Page, Anthony. John Jeeb and the Enlightenment Origins of British Radicalism. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Interesting study of the Cambridge cleric and London reformer.

Popkin, Richard H. The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Continues to be the standard work on Skepticism; frames well the causes of the skeptical crisis and contains a useful section on Herbert.

Porter, Roy. The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2000. Will be the unrivaled synthetic study of the British Enlightenment for years to come; brilliantly written with an excellent chapter on rational religion.

Roche, Daniel. France in the Enlightenment. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Provides essential background for understanding Deism in France.

Sullivan, Robert. John Toland and the Deist Controversy: A Study in Adaptations. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. Good on the slipperiness of the definition of "Deism."

Sullivan, Roger J. Immanuel Kant's Moral Theory. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989. A lucid interpretive guide through Kant's theories of religion.

Matthew Kadane

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DEISM. A form of religious nonconformity upholding the view that human beings can know the truths of theology by rational methods, deism excludes any appeal to supernatural or revealed experience. Although some scholars have found anticipations of deism in various Greek and Roman schools of philosophy, deist ideas strictly speaking originated in early modern Europe. Coined as a term of derision in a Calvinist tract published in 1564, deist lost its pejorative sense over the course of the seventeenth century and was embraced by a wide range of thinkers before and during the Enlightenment. At the same time, deism encountered severe criticism both from defenders of conventional faith and from more skeptical and rigorously rational schools of thought.

The prehistory of deism is perhaps best encapsulated in the writings of the Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 b.c.e.43 b.c.e.). In various philosophical dialogues, including De natura deorum and De legibus, Cicero emphasized that divinity and its works can be known through the application of reason and, indeed, that reason itself constitutes the true divine spark or seed within humanity. Drawing heavily on an eclectic Romanized stoicism, Cicero articulated a coherent account of a rational religion, leading at least some scholars to proclaim him the "father of deism." Moreover, because Cicero's writings (including De natura deorum ) enjoyed a large audience in later antiquity as well as medieval and Renaissance Europe, they may have inspired some thinkers associated with a more self-consciously constructed school of deist thought during early modern times.

The origins of deism properly speaking, especially in England, cannot be separated from a range of other nonconformist movements during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Unitarianism, anticlericalism, Erastianism, Arminianism, and Socinianism. Generally speaking, the early thinkers associated with deism were engaged in a broad revolt against authority. Among the leading figureswho did not, however, consistently identify themselves as deistswere Edward Herbert of Cherbury (15831648), Charles Blount (16541693), and John Toland (16701722), all of whom were at the forefront of European religious nonconformity and freethinking. In their wake came a number of lesser deists whose commitments to the doctrine varied widely. The deists shared in the British trend toward nonconformism by challenging central premises of enforced unity of belief, by doubting the rational demonstrability of major tenets of Christian theology, by asserting the distortion and perversion of religious faith by clerics and ecclesiastical institutions, and by establishing the complicity between church authorities and secular rulers in maintaining religious conformity in the interests of the powerful.

Deists starting with Lord Herbert had argued for a set of natural and universal principles common to all religions; to the extent that any system of belief embodied these tenets, it had a presumptive claim to validity. They praised expressions of religiosity that reflected those elements consonant with natural human worship of divinity. The common principles (laid down in Lord Herbert's 1624 treatise De Veritate ) embraced acceptance of a single supreme God; insistence upon the worship of that God, achieved in particular by virtuous and pious deeds; expectation of remorse and contrition for one's sins; and acknowledgment of both temporal and extra-temporal divine dispensation of rewards and penalties. Such precepts are universally accessible by human reason, rendering revelation of secondary or derivative significance. Consequently, deists also subscribed to the principle that human nature was the same and inalterable throughout the world.

One of the favorite themes of the seventeenth-century deists was the postulation of a sort of urreligion, a primitive piety that had been erased by the introduction of formal religious worship. In his De Religione Gentilium (1663; Religion of the Gentiles), Herbert declared that before religious rites, ceremonies, scripture, and so on were created, the worship of God occurred in an entirely rational manner. For Herbert and his successors, religion as practiced by contemporary human beings, burdened with unnecessary accretions, departed greatly from original, natural belief. Superstition and idolatry, complex systems of guilt and its expiation, and the creation of a professional priesthood all marked religion's distance from true reverence for the divine.

Thus, deism did not merely defend the authority of human reason in religious matters, but it also proposed a brief against the system of power that conventionally supported institutionalized religion. Two important claims made by the deist case against religion should be highlighted: that priests manipulate superstition and ritual to implant a fear of God in human beings, and that the authority of churches rests upon a spurious claim that priests are uniquely competent to interpose themselves between human beings and divinity and to dictate to people (against their natural inclination and reason) how they shall live. Deists thereby equate religion with the creation of human misery, conflict, and immorality.

The British deists explained the course of institutional religion (modern as well as ancient) in terms of "priestcraft," that is, the erection and dissemination of false ideas, practices, and superstitions in order to enhance the interests of priests themselves. Blount asserted that theological doctrines were propagated in the most mysterious and obscure manner not because truths about divinity were complex, but in order to confuse and therefore control the laity. Toland went so far as to say that the distinction between religions resulted from the machinations of priests, designed to serve their baser worldly ambitions. Much of the substance of deistic anticlericalism was directed toward debunking the trappings of priestly superiority that cloaked less esteemed motives.

In the place of organized and ritualized religious practices, the deists recommended natural worship, best performed by sound moral action. Herbert and Toland both maintained that the means of salvation might be sought in the rational practice of virtue, piety, and faithfulness. Subsequent deists regarded this position as a defense of the purity of "heathen vertue" as distinct from the idolatry of more recent times. In the deist view, heathens were perhaps less encumbered by the cheats of religion than latter-day Christiansand certainly no more so. Hence, the practice of natural worship might be guided more by "heathen vertue" than by the more recent teachings of Christian (or Islamic or Judaic) religion.

Scholars have commonly ascribed a connection between religious nonconformity in England and republican political conviction. To what extent the bond between the two is judged necessary or inextricable remains an open question. Some authors with openly deist sympathies also subscribed to Toryism and royalism. Hence, it may be the case that the connection between deism and republicanism was in fact looser than scholarship often claims.

Although England may perhaps be regarded as the cradle of deism, the writings and ideas of the early deists spread to the Continent and infected some of the leading figures of the early Enlightenment. While France, for instance, had its share of nonconforming thinkers during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuriesPierre Charron, Michel de Montaigne, René Descartes, and Pierre Bayle among themdeism received perhaps its most visible and influential statement there from Voltaire (16941778). Both in France and during an exile to England, Voltaire encountered deist thinkers and began to propound their views. Voltaire himself used the term theist, but the nomenclature is inconsequential. He advocated a notion of natural religion based on reason, defending the existence of a single God but assailing priestcraft and ecclesiastical corruption.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), who was profoundly influenced by Voltaire's important statement of deism, the Lettres philosophiques (1734; Philosophical letters), seems to have adapted deist views in his own Émile (1762). But Rousseau's version of deism was less rationalistic, and less politically charged, than Voltaire's. Rousseau postulated a divine goodness that degenerated in human hands when artificially represented through rites and ceremonies. He called on his readers to adopt a natural religion by finding God in their own hearts and imitating the pure justice that the deity instills in every member of humankind. Conscience, according to Rousseau, was the greatest teacher of religious truths and the most faithful way of honoring God.

During the reign of Frederick II the Great of Prussia (ruled 17401786), the work of the British deists was imported into Germany through more widely circulated translations and editions. Several thinkers identified themselves with the deist cause, perhaps most prominently Hermann Samuel Reimarus (16941768). His defense of deism, composed in 1754, was directed with equal force against the materialist and atheistic claims of the most extreme proponents of Enlightenment and against narrow interpretations of Christianity. Indeed, Reimarus's work embodied the intellectual problem of deism throughout Europe: the orthodox suspected that deists were secretly atheists, while the more extreme critics of deism regarded it to be insufficiently critical of religious superstition. Other German thinkers grazed on the edges of deism. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (17291781) did not fit the mold of a typical deist, but he and his friend Moses Mendelssohn (17291786) maintained views that echoed important deist themes. More significantly, Immanuel Kant (17241804) advocated a vision of Christian deism, most notably in his work Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft (1793; Religion within the limits of reason alone), that cannot be understood apart from the deist doctrines of earlier times. Kant's overriding project for the liberation of the human mind from "tutelage" through the exercise of reason coincides neatly with the deist cause.

The deists also enjoyed a substantial following in North America among some of the leading intellectual lights of the colonial and Revolutionary eras. Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the cosmopolitan Thomas Paine all identified in writings or public pronouncements with key deistic doctrines. When he was just twentytwo years old, Franklin (17061790) composed a statement of "Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion" (1728), which formed a virtual manifesto of deism and to which he apparently subscribed for the rest of his life. Likewise, Jefferson (17431826) created his own carefully expurgated version of the Bible out of snippets of the New Testament Gospels, his selections overtly informed by deistic beliefs. The quality of American deism was, however, far different from its European counterpart. The virulent attacks on priestcraft and clerical corruption so common among British and continental deists were largely absent from the American scene. Indeed, figures such as Washington and Jefferson were in public conventionally pious churchgoers even as they maintained unorthodox beliefs in private. Thus, American deism lacked overtones of anticlericalism. On the other hand, the imputed connection between republican political convictions and deist doctrines was sustained by the American wing of deism.

Ironically, evenasdeismwasspreading throughout continental Europe and North America in the later half of the eighteenth century, it was coming under serious scrutiny in its cradle, the British Isles. On one side, the form of religious enthusiasm preached by John Wesley (17031791) was directed explicitly against the rationalism of deistic thought. Wesley emphasized the personal, inward-dwelling, and supernatural aspects of religious experience that deism had consciously sought to expel. On the other side, the Scottish philosopher David Hume (17111776) ridiculed deistic teachings for their intellectual bankruptcy. Hume produced a series of tracts, culminating in the posthumously published Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779), which demonstrated how skepticism was the inescapable consequence of subscribing to deism, given the fundamental unsoundness of its logical, epistemological, and metaphysical assumptions. In England, Hume's basic stance was seconded by authors such as George Berkeley and Joseph Butler.

Deism also received a challenge in France from the even more extreme camp of atheistic materialists who constituted a large share of the philosophes and their Enlightenment fellow travelers. Jean Le Rond d'Alembert and Denis Diderot, É tienne Bonnot de Condillac and Marie-Jean Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, and most others in the leading circles of the French Enlightenment found deism to be intellectually disreputable or simply disingenuousa faint-hearted attempt to preserve the hope of salvation while dispensing with the more overtly superstitious or corrupt features of organized religion. Yet nowhere did deism completely die out. Edmund Burke's declaration of the passing of deism in 1790 was premature, as the school of thought enjoyed both intellectual support and a popular following (especially in America) well into the nineteenth century.

See also Anticlericalism ; Atheism ; Enlightenment ; Hume, David ; Kant, Immanuel ; Reason ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Skepticism: Academic and Pyrrhonian ; Voltaire .


Primary Sources

Gay, Peter. Deism: An Anthology. Princeton, 1968.

Herbert of Cherbury. De Veritate. Translated by Meyrick H. Carré. Bristol, 1937.

Waring, E. Graham, ed. Deism and Natural Religion: A Source Book. New York, 1967.

Secondary Sources

Bedford, R. D. The Defence of Truth: Herbert of Cherbury and the Seventeenth Century. Manchester, U.K., 1979.

Betts, C. J. Early Deism in France: The So-Called "Déistes" of Lyon (1564) to Voltaire's Lettres philosophiques (1734). The Hague and Boston, 1984.

Champion, J. A. I. The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken: The Church of England and Its Enemies, 16601730. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1992.

Herrick, James A. The Radical Rhetoric of the English Deists: The Discourse of Skepticism, 16801750. Columbia, S.C., 1997.

Sullivan, Robert E. John Toland and the Deist Controversy: A Study of Adaptation. Cambridge, Mass., 1982.

Walters, Kerry S. The American Deists: Voices of Reason and Dissent in the Early Republic. Lawrence, Kans., 1992.

Cary J. Nederman

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DEISM, a philosophy often termed "Enlightenment religion," was popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, France, Germany, and America. Unlike atheism, which denies the existence of God; polytheism, which recognizes the existence of many gods; and pantheism, which sees God in everything; deism recognizes the existence of a supreme being or God as revealed in Nature and perceived by human reason. While deism can be traced to the Stoics of ancient Greece, modern deism is generally traced to the writings of Faustus Socinus and other sixteenth-century Unitarian thinkers.

Deism, derived from the Latin "deus," or "God," differs from conventional Christianity, Judaism, and Eastern religions in that deism denies the necessity of any special revelation of the existence of God; likewise, it denies the sacred nature of any given text. Instead, deism requires only that the human mind apply logic and reason to come to a recognition and understanding of God, because God is innately logical and reasonable. Consequently, deism also denies the importance of sacred ritual and church tradition and the possibility of miracles, all of which it deems beyond the scope of reason and empirical possibility. Faith, according to deism, is the suspension or abandonment of reason and is therefore incompatible with a God who has created man to be a thinking, reasonable creature. Furthermore, while many deists acknowledge the wisdom and goodness of various traditional religious figures such as Jesus and the Buddha, deism denies the sacred or divine nature of these figures; for such persons to somehow share in God's divine nature would imply a favoritism or special dispensation on the part of God which deists deny as a possibility for a just and logical Creator. Man can exercise his free and rational will, according to deism; sin, defined as the failure to love others and to do good toward the furtherance of the human condition, is therefore possible. Perhaps the most pervasive image of the God of deism is that of God as "the cosmic watchmaker," one who created the universe and peopled it with thinking human beings, and then dissociated himself from his creation.

Early deism grew from the increased interest in natural science exhibited in the works of Copernicus, Galileo, Sir Francis Bacon, and others. Early deist thinkers sought to apply the same principles of the rational study of nature to the study of religion. In his De Veritate (1624; "On Truth"), Lord Herbert of Cherbury set forth Five Articles of English Deists:

  1. There exists only one supreme God.
  2. Mankind's duty is to revere this God.
  3. Adoring worship of God must be practiced in conjunction with applied principles of morality.
  4. If man repents his sins and improves his behavior, God will forgive.
  5. Good works are rewarded both before and after death.

Anthony Collins (1676–1729) and Matthew Tindal (1657–1733) were prominent English deists; in France the philosophy was taken up and expanded by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and Voltaire (1694–1778). By the late 1700s, deist philosophy came to include the belief that religious authority could only be derived by the application of reason to Scripture, not by an unquestioning reliance on the inerrancy of that Scripture; the denial of the doctrine of the Trinity; the belief that the teachings of Jesus, not the writings of St. Paul, were foundational; the idea that the importance of the resurrection was in its demonstration of the possibility of immortality, not as Christ's atonement for mankind's sins; the argument against the doctrines of Calvin (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints); a faith in the innate goodness and reasonableness of humans; and the belief that all religious thought should be free rather than coerced either by fear of threats or by the promise of rewards.

Deism in America

The influence of French and English deists on America's founders was immense. The vast majority of American leaders at the time of the Revolutionary War had read the works of Tindal, Rousseau, and Voltaire, and most of these founders considered themselves deists. John Quincy Adams, Ethan Allen, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson were among this group, as was Thomas Paine, who wrote extensively on the topic. Paine's Age of Reason (1794, 1796) has often been singled out as one of the most eloquent statements of advanced deist philosophy, although his blunt attacks on the orthodoxy caused him to be considered a heretic by many of his own day.

In addition to the principles they inherited from the Greeks and their European forebears, American deists re-fined and added to the list of beliefs they shared. One of the Americans' major refinements included a practical disavowal of any group being God's "chosen" people: they espoused a direct denial of American Puritans' notion of the new nation as the setting for a jeremiadic mission. Americans held a strong yet somewhat modified denial of the occurrence of miracles, although many did recognize and appreciate what they felt were occasional but inexplicable interventions of "Providence." The founders of the United States demonstrated a strengthened and identifiably democratic insistence on the need for practical morality and an increased belief in the obligation to prayerfully adore and offer thanks for the goodness shown by the beneficent Creator. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine were especially critical of the emphasis traditionally accorded the writings of Saint Paul of Tarsus. They also strongly disavowed the subsequent traditional Trinitarian theology concerning the substitutionary theory of atonement which states that Christ as part of the Godhead was required to die in payment of the death penalty of sin borne by all mankind as a direct result of their kinship to Adam. While Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine all recognized the necessity of doing good works, none saw this as a way to purchase salvation; however, neither did they accept the idea of original sin or the proxy of Jesus's death as substitution for man's own individual sins. Rather, they believed that each man must exercise his own thought and will to act appropriately toward others and that salvation could be gained by simply seeking God's forgiveness and forgiving others in turn. Such a concept of self-responsibility and independence rang true to many of the early American inhabitants.

In a similar fashion, American deists devoutly denied the necessity of any intercessory priesthood to mediate between God and man, not only in terms of receiving salvation, but also in terms of coming to an intellectual understanding of God and the universe he created. Rather than relying on church tradition, polity, or pronouncements, deists instead averred that God's true nature was obscured by what they saw as the pretensions of a traditional clergy or canonical hierarchy. By employing the gift of reason and examining the wonders of nature in the new land in which they had settled, American deists precluded their own dependence on traditional faith, preferring instead to question the workings of the world around them. They often referred to traditional constructions of faith as "superstition" or "magic" or as a reliance on "divine revelation" and saw this as being directly in opposition to the notion of all they believed about God. According to deism, it made no sense to posit a Creator who would have given man a mind with which to think and reason but who later would have arbitrarily punished man simply for not suspending that reason in the name of faith. By extension, not only the individual deist should exercise his own will and reason in making decisions, but every man should also do likewise. Each person, then, should depend on his own reason and free will, and should also take into consideration the fact that his fellow man was doing the same. As a result, the democratic ideals of the young nation were espoused in common with deist philosophy. That is, deists expressed virtually no preference for or prejudice against any organized religion, preferring instead to live in tolerance of all faiths and to give full play to each individual's decisions and actions.

America's founders had been raised in a Christian society, generally in orthodox Christian or Calvinist families; as a result, they came to deism with a strong knowledge of Christian ideology and of the practical workings of church polity. While deism does not advocate wholesale rejection of tradition, often these men's primary departure from Christian teaching was based in their studious consideration and subsequent rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity and of traditional Calvinist dogma. The deist commitments to social justice and individual responsibility were also attractive to the leaders of the young nation, as was the concept of religious tolerance. These ideals are most clearly illustrated in the First Amendment's insistence on the free exercise of religion, but the overarching concern of deism with man's exercise of reason as a free and thinking being is foundational to most of American legal, social, and cultural experience.

Deism's major attraction was to the well-read American intellectual of the late eighteenth century. While deism certainly never replaced orthodox Christianity as Americans' majority religion, it is telling that many of the nation's founders did indeed subscribe to this philosophy and incorporated it into the framework of the young republic. By the early-to mid-nineteenth century, deism in Europe and in America had become colored by skepticism, perhaps most notably as a result of the rapid spread of evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. It has also been argued that Romanticism was a reaction to deism and was a possible cause for its decline by the 1830s. In the late twentieth century, deism appeared to undergo something of a revival, although the lack of an organized polity or structure renders precise measurements of the number of practitioners impossible. Many contemporary deists label themselves "practitioners of no religion" or align themselves with liberal Unitarian or Universalist congregations.


Davidson, Edward H., and William J. Scheick. Paine, Scripture, and Authority: The Age of Reason As Religious and Political Idea. Bethlehem, Pa.: Lehigh University Press, 1994.

Koch, G. Adolf. Religion of the American Enlightenment. New York: Crowell, 1968.

May, Henry Farnham. The Enlightenment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

McDermott, Gerald R. Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason. Design Philip Sheldon Foner. New York: Lyle Stuart, 1989 [rprt. 1792 ed].

Rinaldo, Peter M. Atheists, Agnostics, and Deists in America: A Brief History. Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Dor Pete Press, 2000.

Walters, Kerry S. The American Deists: Voices of Reason and Dissent in the Early Republic. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.

———. Rational Infidels: The American Deists. Durango, Colo.: Longwood Academic, 1992.

Barbara SchwarzWachal

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deism. A term derived from Latin deus, meaning belief in a Supreme Being and used to describe the system of natural religion first developed in the late 17th and 18th cents. The classical exposition of deism was John Toland's Christianity not Mysterious (1696), which argued against revelation and the supernatural. Deists asserted the supremacy of reason and denied the validity of miracles, prophecy, and a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. They usually coupled this religious unorthodoxy with political radicalism and were condemned as ‘infidels’ and dangerous subversives. Paine's Age of Reason (1794) spread deism to radical working men, reinforced in the 1820s by Richard Carlile's publications. In the 1830s and 1840s popular deism was represented by Robert Owen and the Owenites; and the Owenite legacy was inherited by the secularist movement, led by G. J. Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh. The term deism was not much used after the 18th cent., and those who adopted its tenets in the 19th cent. were known as free thinkers or believers in rational religion. When Victorian liberals felt that they could no longer accept the teachings of Christianity or the institutions of the church, but were nevertheless reluctant to deny the existence of God altogether, they became in effect deists. But deism never had the influence in Britain that it had in France and Germany.

John F. C. Harrison

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Deism is the belief in a creator God who does not have any subsequent influence upon the world. Deism became influential in the West beginning in the seventeenth century, when it was seen that modern physics is compatible with an initial act of supernatural creation but appears to leave no room for subsequent interventions by God into the natural order. Although deism stands in marked contrast to traditional Jewish, Christian, and Muslim accounts of God's providential activity in the world, it is often advanced as an answer to the problem of evil: If God is unable to act in the world, God cannot be responsible for the suffering that arises within it.

See also Clockwork Universe; Evil and Suffering; God; Monotheism; Natural Theology; Panentheism; Pantheism; Theism

philip clayton

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deists (dē´Ĭsts), term commonly applied to those thinkers in the 17th and 18th cent. who held that the course of nature sufficiently demonstrates the existence of God. For them formal religion was superfluous, and they scorned as spurious claims of supernatural revelation. Their tenets stemmed from the rationalism of the period, and though the term is not now generally used, the tenor of their belief persists. The term freethinkers is almost synonymous. Voltaire and J. J. Rousseau were deists, as were Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.

See E. R. Pike, Slayers of Superstition (1931, repr. 1970); G. A. Koch, Religion of the American Enlightenment (1933, repr. 1968).

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Deism. The name of a heterogeneous ‘movement’ (it was not organized, and so-called Deist writers do not follow a single programme) of the late 17th and 18th cents., concerned to defend the rationality of religion and belief in God in the face of scepticism, or the perceived implications of Newton's laws. There is much emphasis on natural religion. Important works of Deist writers are: J. Locke, Reasonableness of Christianity (1695); J. Toland, Christianity not Mysterious (1696); M. Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730), the so-called ‘Deist Bible’.

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deism System of natural religion, first developed in England in the late 17th century. It affirmed belief in one God, but held that He detached himself from the universe after its creation and made no revelation. Reason was man's only guide. The deists opposed revealed religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Deist writings include John Toland's Christianity not Mysterious (1696) and Matthew Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730). Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot were the main deists of the Enlightenment period.

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de·ism / ˈdēizəm/ • n. belief in the existence of a supreme being, specifically of a creator who does not intervene in the universe. Compare with theism. DERIVATIVES: de·ist n. de·is·tic / dēˈistik/ adj. de·is·ti·cal / dēˈistikəl/ adj.

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deist one who acknowledges the existence of God but rejects revealed religion. XVII. — F. déiste, f. L. deus god (see DIVINE) + -iste -IST.
So deism XVII.

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deism See THEISM.

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deistassist, cist, coexist, consist, cyst, desist, enlist, exist, fist, gist, grist, hist, insist, list, Liszt, mist, persist, resist, schist, subsist, tryst, twist, whist, wist, wrist •Dadaist • deist • fideist • Hebraist •Mithraist • essayist • prosaist •hobbyist, lobbyist •Trotskyist • boniest • copyist • veriest •pantheist • atheist • polytheist •monotheist •Maoist, Taoist •oboist • egoist • jingoist • banjoist •soloist • Titoist • Shintoist •canoeist, tattooist, Uist •voodooist • altruist • casuist •euphuist • Lamaist • vibist • cubist •Arabist • faddist • propagandist •contrabandist • avant-gardist • eldest •sadist • encyclopedist •immodest, modest •Girondist • keyboardist •harpsichordist • nudist • Buddhist •unprejudiced • Talmudist •psalmodist • threnodist • hymnodist •monodist • chiropodist • parodist •heraldist • rhapsodist • prosodist •Methodist • absurdist

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