What is a Deist?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Deism is a belief in a divine power and a form of unorganized religion. The first deist in England is often thought to be Lord Herbert of Cherbury, who in the 17th century, formulated that a supreme power, existed, should be worshiped, receive offerings of penance, and that a lasting kingdom existed after death. Lord Herbert however eschewed more organized forms of religion and instead relied on reason.

James Madison was one of the founding fathers who were deists.
James Madison was one of the founding fathers who were deists.

The early deist looked at foundational science and believed the miracles of this world could not have been created without a divine presence. Others had no difficulties believing the concept of evolution, since they did not rely on creation stories from major religions. In fact, almost every believer of this type embraces evolution wholeheartedly since it is considered a reasonable explanation for the way in which people came to be on the Earth.

Many of the founding fathers were deists.
Many of the founding fathers were deists.

A deist does not believe that creation exists without intelligent design, however, although the theory of intelligent design may not be an adequate explanation for some people. Some see their conception of a higher power as one that brought creation into being and has then taken a highly impersonal role in human affairs since. Others have a sense that a concept of God may occasionally produce miracles or work in small ways in people’s lives but that these works are not adequately understandable by reason.

Deists strongly believe in freedom of religion.
Deists strongly believe in freedom of religion.

In fact, one of the most difficult things to do is to define what a believer thinks, since the foundation of deism is a respect for a highly individualized view on a higher power. Individual views of a God are reasoned out, since almost all people who share this religion believe that reason is the greatest gift of the creator.

Benjamin Franklin was a deist.
Benjamin Franklin was a deist.

Deists have been highly influential in American politics, since many of the founding fathers of the US can be considered part of this group. These include Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison, and George Washington is usually also included. Particular emphasis for those who have this belief is the practice of freedom of religion, which allows for individuals to have their own concept of a divine power. Also, the individual is allowed to worship as he or she sees fit.

The modern deist may pray, or may choose not to. Some believe in an apocryphal end of the earth, while others do not. Some believe in the mysterious workings of a divine power that cannot be understood, while others see the supreme power as impersonal. Some argue that a view of an impersonal divine power is tantamount to atheism, or often leads people to conclude that no such power exists.

Since the world does not always function in rational ways, many believe that deism was directly responsible for a disenchantment that led to atheism. Others had their beliefs shaken by the lack of activity by the divine in the face of the many evils on the earth.

Understandably, the deist cannot have a church to attend, since this form of religion means so many things to different people. Some may worship at several churches, or claim valid various sacred texts of many different religions. Those believing in a monotheistic deity often feel that this type of worship constitutes pantheism. The deist probably cares little for criticism, since he or she does not expect others to hold the same conception of a higher power.

Thomas Jefferson, who was a deist.
Thomas Jefferson, who was a deist.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


There are multiple forms of "Modern Deism". I myself, combine what is known as Panendeism, with Spiritual Deism, and elements of Philosophical Taoism. Forms of Deism like mine would be more accurately described as relying more on reason and common sense, than science. I have been active in the various online Deism forums for many years, and can say with near certainty that no two Deists are alike in their personal beliefs.


@ysmina-- I think Einstein was a member of the deist society as well.

The great part about deism is that it helps explain how so many bad things occur on earth. Many people wonder how God can allow natural disasters, wars and other terrible events and misfortunes. Deism says that God created the universe and us but is not involved with anything else.

Since deism is a way of thinking rather than a faith, it's also compatible with the major religions. I think that many people reject deism without really understanding it. This is unfortunately, especially since deism has had such a large impact on this country and its governance system.

For me, this belief system (I don't consider deism a religion) resolves the contradiction I see between a kind God and evil people and events on earth. Deism also allows people to take responsibility for their own actions and experiences rather than thinking that everything comes from God and thus God is responsible for all our troubles or gains.


@anon181695-- I'm not sure if what you say is true but I don't think it's possible to generalize deist beliefs.

The difference in various viewpoints of deism mentioned in the article stems from the difference between classical and modern deist philosophies. They're not the same. Classical deism puts more emphasis on the Divine and intelligent design. Modern deism puts more emphasis on science. It's just a matter of which thought system one most identifies with.


I had never heard of deism before and I'm surprised that some of our founding fathers are considered famous deists.

To me, it sounds like everyone who didn't belong to a specific religion or to atheism were grouped into this third category of deists.

Did Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson ever refer to themselves as deists? Or were they given this label later on?


As I understand it, the Deist also think that God committed an immoral and corrupt act with Mary, an engaged woman.


Thomas Pain laid out just what a Deist is, and for his honesty, he was disowned, and good ol' Georgie boy left him out to dry. He died alone and flat broke. Look up the true meaning of a Deist.


This information was very helpful. I think God for what He is doing, exposing all, by separating faith from fate, Christians from religions, God's reality from man's reality.


This article says: "Understandably, the deist cannot have a church to attend[...]"

Many Deists that I know attend UU churches, since Deism and the UU are intertwined in many ways throughout their separate histories. For more info, you can visit [url removed] an article that was written by a friend of mine who has been influential on my own journey through Deism.

I'll give just one example, though: Thomas Jefferson is what many call a "Christian-Deist". He was a member, and very influential member atthat, of the Unitarian churches. The Unitarian churches are one of the organizations that later (in the 1960s, I believe) merged with the Universalists to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.

If you'd like to discuss this further, you can always email me at [email removed]. Peace!!!

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