Deism: Ancient & Modern (1)
Once upon a time it became fashionable to believe that humans evolved out of non-living materials and inch by painful inch they moved through protoplasm to organisms to sea creatures to amphibians to land mammals to full-blown humans. At first scientists rejected the idea but then (with a little help from stupid and insolent religious leaders) the notion took off. The theory of evolution—the transmutation of species—prevailed; but there were those who thought that God somehow guided the process upward. But as time went by that wasn’t received well in scientific quarters because there was nothing of a scientific nature that could prove it. The non-theists insisted that as far as science was concerned there wasn’t a God in sight.
You understand, they weren’t saying there was no God, only that if there was, there was no scientific reason to believe he was acting in the evolutionary process. As far as they could tell it was happening on its own. Scientists had begun to explain that the most amazing things were nothing more than "the way things worked". They spoke of "natural laws" and they were able to explain about orbits and magnetic fields, geological formations and the paths of comets, what infection was and the astonishing nature of "white" light. The persuasive power of their explanations increased when they were able to predict things (how did they know when Haley’s Comet would appear in the sky?) and they were able to demonstrate other things before your very eyes. They modestly insisted that they were only uncovering the truth about how things worked. They were demonstrating that physical reality included things too small to be seen with the eye but with it all they were demonstrating that you didn’t need God to sustain or guide the physical universe. The physical "laws" do quite well without his supernatural interference. Believers would say, flowers can’t make themselves and non-theist scientists would reply that that was the only thing they saw. Flowers kept making themselves.
Some very influential religious leaders took that seriously and then argued that it made perfectly good sense. The universe was like a giant clock and God was the clockmaker. A good clockmaker doesn’t have to keep messing with his clock to make it run right—he makes it, steps back and lets it tick away and it functions perfectly well without him. This became the view of many leading thinkers and it had real advantages. For example, your religion and your belief that God exists never came under threat. No one that owned a splendid grandfather clock expected to wake in the night to find that the clockmaker had sneaked into the owner’s house to adjust it. Just so, no one should expect God to sneak into his clock universe to tinker with it. No need to worry then that we couldn’t find proofs of his existence in the physical universe. It was all very simple and satisfying. Well...not quite!
That view of God put a real strain on the notion of prayer. Exactly how would that work if God does absolutely nothing in the world? What’s the point of praying if the clockmaker never "interfered" or adjusted things or related to the praying one?
It certainly put a strain on the notion of "miracles". If God created the raw material (including its "laws" which are part of raw material) and had nothing further to do with its operation, then he certainly didn’t come around tinkering with it, a miracle here, a supernatural nudge there, or a suspension or transcending of "natural law" elsewhere. He didn’t do that, so miracles had to go! Ooooh, but what of the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the resurrection, exaltation and coming again of the Christ? They all had to go!
And what of the Bible? Did God write that through humans? No, that idea had to go as well because that would be divine interference. And why not get rid of that notion, it was a troublesome matter anyway. More than that, given the clockmaker religion, it made good sense that the doctrine of divine inspiration should be dumped. Look, if man evolved then his intellect, views, culture, religion and values all must have evolved with him. The Hebrew-Christian Bible is the product of evolving humans and we can hardly expect those ancients to speak with the knowledge of Enlightenment scientists and thinkers. The Bible is pre-scientific and its religious claims and proposals reflect man’s general ignorance as well as his growth. So we can't depend on the Bible. When it tells us of a divinely guided history (say, from the election of Abraham through Israel’s election and on up to Jesus Christ) we have to recognise it for what it is—the beliefs of a pre-critical age that sometimes (not always!) talked nonsense. The cosmic clockmaker doesn’t do anything in the world so all talk about divinely guided history or divinely inspired Bibles is just so much ignorance.
And the claims that God produced floods, earthquakes, destroying winds, droughts and famines are all nonsense. Everyone now knew that God in his sovereignty (whatever that meant exactly) didn’t do such things. These were random events, just mindless happenings, they simply happened; no one caused them—least of all God.
Besides, as if more proof were needed, take a look at some of the claims the Bible makes. God ordered the slaughter of innocent children and their grandmothers? Who can believe that? What kind of God would take away a child’s grandmother—its favourite babysitter and playmate? Who would order the slaughter of witches and homosexuals and adulterers? What kind of God would claim he was raising up a fierce warrior nation to slaughter his (allegedly) elect people because they had grown tired of him and wanted to worship someone else? No, the Bible had to go and that was that.
For pity’s sake, we have to dump the Bible? Well...that was a hard pill for most people to swallow but what could they do? They wanted to hold on to Jesus Christ (or Moses) but there was nothing for it but to shape him in light of the established truth of religion and science. He became merely the finest man, a lovely human that cared for the oppressed and promoted gentleness and self-sacrifice even to the point of patiently enduring an unjust execution. And, of course, he's still dead. But his teaching was glorious—he taught us all to be nicer to each other and he confirmed what every gentle-woman or man knew in his/her bones was right and good—and knew it without divine revelation. But as far as the dogmas about him went, well they had to go. His astonishing claims, his insistence that only through him can the world have life, that he would judge the world—all that sort of stuff—that’s what his ignorant disciples claimed. He probably didn't make those claims; the disciples made them up.
So our clockwork religious leaders took from the Bible what they approved of and dumped the rest. The Bible wasn’t the judge of their views, they became the judges of the Bible. Of course they said the Bible was still the massive and throbbing centre of everything—especially since it was there that they came across Jesus Christ.
But when you insist on taking only what you think is worthwhile, people soon recognise who you really think is the massive and throbbing centre of everything.