On this day in 1776, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Colonies. It eviscerated the biblical tradition among Western nations of the Divine Right of Kings, declaring that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Jefferson was a deist who was not exactly a big fan of Christianity: he carefully cut up the bible with a razor and pasted it back together, eliminating all references to the supernatural and focusing instead on the (alleged) moral (alleged) teachings of (alleged) Jesus (alleged) Christ. The Declaration of Independence makes references to “Nature’s God” and to an unnamed “Creator”; the document also makes appeals to a “Supreme Judge of the world” and to “divine Providence.” WTF was he talking about?
An understanding of deism offers us some insight into Jefferson’s intended meaning with respect to such terms. Wikipedia actually has a pretty good description of deism:
Deism is a religious philosophy which holds that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that the universe is the product of a deity. According to deists, god never intervenes in human affairs or suspends the natural laws of the universe. Deists typically reject supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles, tending instead to assert that a god (or “the Supreme Architect”) does not alter the universe by intervening in it. This idea is also known as the clockwork universe theory, in which a god designs and builds the universe, but steps aside to let it run on its own.
Deism holds that God does not intervene with the functioning of the natural world in any way, allowing it to run according to the laws of nature that he configured when he created all things … Deism can also refer to a personal set of beliefs having to do with the role of nature in spirituality. Deism does not ascribe any specific qualities to a deity beyond non-intervention. Deism is related to naturalism because it credits the formation of life and the universe to a higher power, using only natural processes.
It is worth noting that while traditional theists can be quick to (wrongly) dub deists atheists, they may in fact be on to something. Many modern deconversion stories follow a similar trajectory:
- questioning some of the more ridiculous fact claims of Christianity (prophecies, miracles, virgin births, etc.) and/or biblical morality (slavery, women’s subjugation, genocide, etc.) and ultimately rejecting them as implausible and unjust.
- questioning the divinity of Christ, but accepting his value as a moral teacher and the existence of a supernatural being in the form of a judgmental, omnipresent Sky Daddy with whom this Christ d00d was somehow specially connected. And, if pressed, justifying these beliefs with one or more of these arguments.
- questioning whether we can really know anything at all about this Sky Daddy or what he wants of us, and ultimately concluding that we cannot. Thus we drop the Sky Daddy idea entirely and the conceit that Christ was a Super Special Snowflake, while still holding that there is nevertheless something spiritual or supernatural that has (or had) a hand in the creation of the Universe and/or the lives of humans. It is at this point that many people adopt or experiment with a less literal and rigid religious tradition that the one they started with; for example, a fundamentalist Baptist may become a liberal Christian, a liberal Christian may become a New Ager, a feminist may adopt a more goddess-centered view—and the theist becomes a deist.
- as one’s specific concept of this supernatural something drifts into something ever fuzzier and less well-defined, the believer becomes an agnostic.
- questioning whether there is any evidence at all for a supernatural something, or a supernatural anything, or indeed any reason whatsoever to posit or assume the existence of anything supernatural, and concluding that there is not. Welcome to atheism.
My own journey to atheism took a path like this, and I have seen and heard the same story (and variations of it) many, many times. (See, e.g., PZ Myers daily posts from readers on the topic “Why I am an atheist.”) This is why I suggest the theists were onto something about the deists, perhaps even more than they knew: it is not a very big leap from deism to atheism.
Thomas Jefferson lived in a time before the mind-blowing, paradigm-shattering discoveries of Darwinian evolution, DNA, carbon dating, neuroscience, the Standard Model of physics, and the enormous body of knowledge about the world that the sciences have given us. Had he lived to this day, he would have seen light shed—over and over again—on many of the greatest mysteries humankind has ever pondered, and he would have no doubt taken note that supernatural explanations were being systematically eliminated from every conceivable place where they had ever held sway. Today, modern theists (and deists) are desperate to hang on to the great mysteries of the creation of the universe, and the beginning of life on Earth. But the odds are stacked against them. If a definitive answer is ever found to explain either of those phenomena, what are the chances that it will include some kind of supernatural intervention when every single other mystery ever solved has a naturalistic explanation? For those keeping score at home, so far it’s Science: eleventy kazillion and counting; Supernatural: zero.
At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what Jefferson’s concept of god was, because the Declaration is a supremely secular document: it invests government power only in the “Authority of the good People.” But I strongly suspect that had he lived in our time he would have followed the same path so many others have, the one that leaves deism in the dust (to say nothing of slavery…). I’d like to think he would have taken one last pass through the Declaration of Independence, and given it exactly the same razor treatment he gave his bible.