Sunday, May 12, 2013

Deism

By Aaron Sherman

In a recent debate with an atheist I found myself explaining the difference between religion as an abstraction that we use to understand our world in ways which simple experimentation cannot and should not, and religion as a literal truth and map of history and the universe. I think I summed it up better than I have in the past, and I also don't think I've come out in this blog as specifically deist (though I've dropped some large hints), so let me share both with you, now:

Religions are abstract placeholders for knowledge that we do not (perhaps cannot) possess about the questions of "why" and to a lesser extent, "how" of our existence. Most believers will admit that they don't necessarily accept whole-cloth, all of their religion as absolutely true... but the truth they are seeking isn't one that requires the correct number of cubits in the measurement of an ark... or really, even in the existence of a physical ark (they leave that to the engineering discipline of boat-building).
What it requires is an introspection on the nature of humanity and its relationship to a greater truth than the measurements of a boat. If you don't accept that there are moral or philosophical truths that your ancestors and mine spent thousands of years working out and that underpin our existence, then that's fine. You're more than welcome to come to that conclusion.
It just seems to me that there's a hubris in saying that all of religion is wrong when atheist thought has really only been working on these problems for a few hundred years at most (and primarily only for the past two hundred).
On the other hand, if your thesis is that "God" (again, abstract placeholder; you might say "a moral and philosophical understanding of the universe" and disagree with me on the extent to which that can be anthropomorphized) can be reached through reason and rational inspection of the world around us, then you and I would get along just fine and I'd point out that the only difference between us is the label we apply to that concept. As a Deist I call it God. As an atheist you don't. I don't begrudge anyone their terminology as long as they don't use it as a wedge.
A side note on terminology: I'm torn about whether or not to use a capital "D" in "deist". When talking about the Catholic Church, for example, you're talking about a specific organization for which that is the proper noun. But deism is a philosophy, and some argue a religion, that can't be as easily pointed to. So I don't use a capital letter any more than I would for atheism or solipsism. I'm willing to be argued out of that position, but for now it seems the right choice.