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Deist Spirituality Explained 

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Deism flourished in the 1700s and its major figures included Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson.  In the eighteenth century, it was common to consider modern deism (meaning eighteenth century deism) and ancient deism as being one tradition.  The ancient deists were Socrates, Plato, Pythagoras, Epictetus and other Greek and Roman sages who believed in God but did not accept the religious traditions of their time.  These sages examined and questioned the religious beliefs of their contemporaries and rejected the ones they saw as irrational.  These sages emphasized reason and were often the leading thinkers of their day in math, government, science, and art as well as theology.  They focused on following God’s will in their daily life and helping others to do the same.

The leading spiritual deists of the eighteenth century saw themselves as heirs to the ancient deism of the Greek sages because they were doing the same thing as the ancient sages: examining their societies’ religious practices and rejecting the ones that did not make sense.   Based on this, it can be said that there was one long tradition of spiritual deism extending from Socrates and Pythagoras to the eighteenth-century deists.  Nevertheless, the eighteenth century deists were emphatic that deism was not a Western phenomenon.  In fact, they often praised China as being a deist-led country.

The seventeenth and eighteenth century deists attacked the religious establishment of their day, and the priests and ministers responded by saying anyone who did not believed in their version of Christianity was Godless and going to hell.  Moreover, from every pulpit in Europe and America, the deists were attacked as irreligious infidels who believed in a distant, uncaring God.   Unfortunately, this charge has stuck and even scholars who study deism continue to define a deist as one who believes in a distant, uncaring deity.  My detailed research into the eighteenth-century deists proves they were advocating what is now called being spiritual, as opposed to being religious.   They rejected all organized creeds set up by the Christian establishment.  They rejected all ceremonies, rituals, and sacrifices as having no inherent spiritual efficacy or power.  Instead, they emphasized each person needed to have an inward purity of the heart and mind and not just perform external actions.  They emphasized following God’s will and doing spiritual practices to develop a closer relationship to God.  They emphasized keeping lower desires in check so that one could be focused on following God’s will.  They often prayed to get closer to God, and some believed God sent them messages and signs. 

Deists were very influential in France right before and during the French Revolution.  Deism was blamed for the failure of the Revolution, and thus at the end of the 1700s, it lost much of its popularity.  A new way of looking at reality, Romanticism, became the dominant cultural movement in Europe and America.  Romanticism was led by artists such as Beethoven, Blake, and Wordsworth.   Its leading American proponents were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.  Romanticism emphasized feelings, imagination, and a yearning for Oneness with God or nature.  Instead of deism’s emphasis on being like God in creating more happiness in the world, Romanticism fostered a spirituality based on merging with the Oneness.  Romantic spirituality emphasized following one’s feelings and intuitions, the power of the imagination to create reality, and Buddhism and Hinduism.  Romanticism denigrated critical thinking and reasonably adjusting to the practical demands of the world.  

This may seem like ancient and useless cultural history that only intellectuals care about.  But it has tremendously influenced our world because most of the popular forms of contemporary spirituality are descendants of Romanticism and share its worldview.   Any kind of New Age thinking is based on a Romantic worldview.   So is any kind of prosperity consciousness or positive thinking as well as deep ecology, and non-traditional shamanism.   Popular spiritual teachers such as Deepak Chopra, Ken Wilbur, Miguel Ruiz, Eckhardt Tolle, James Redfield, and Neale Donald Walsch all share the basic worldview of Romanticism.  (I critically examine the teachings of all these people here.) 

Romantic spirituality is exciting: it promises fast, wonderful and even magical changes.  It promises an entirely different and exciting way of being if we just get out of our old patterns of thinking and acting.   Deist spirituality is nowhere near as exciting and alluring as it does not promise any instantaneous changes where the whole world is different.  It does not believe in quantum leaps in consciousness, or a New Heaven and New Earth, or a New Age.  It does say that you can connect up with the wonderful energy of God flowing through you and this energy will make your life so much more worthwhile, meaningful, and joyful.  But this energy only lasts as long as you stay connected to your flow in life and that requires attention and focus as well as critical thinking, rationality, and adjusting to the realities of living in the world.               

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© Joseph Waligore