Efforts to minimize the role of deity during the enlightenment were largely spearheaded by French thinkers known as philosophes, such as Diderot (1713-1784), Voltaire (1694-1778), and Montesquieu (1689-1755). These philosophes were writers and publicists who read abstruse scientific treatises and books by theistic scientists like Newton and Galileo, and re-wrote them in the vernacular. In these re-writings the philosophes downplayed the role of deity and eliminated references to a higher power while elevating human reason and scientific experimentation as the great arbiters of truth. As a result, Western European science became prideful of its scientific accomplishments and few scholars were willing to recognize the influence and handiwork of the Almighty.
One can imagine how the theist pioneers of modern science might have felt about the secularization of science. Science historian Brian Silver gives us some idea. Regarding the enlightenment, he wrote, "Newton neither foresaw nor intended any of this. He was not the John the Baptist of [i.e., the one who prepared the way for] the enlightenment, and he would not have been at home with its ideals." I am certain that the same could be said for other theists like Boyle, Descartes, and Galileo.
As the influence of deity was being removed from science, some scholars filled the void by championing a watered down belief system known as deism. Bruce R. McConkie described deism as "the partial acceptance of God, that is, deists profess to believe in him as the Creator of the world . . . but they reject the idea that he rules over or guides men during the interval between the creation and the judgment." In other words, deists believe that the Lord is a disinterested creator whose only involvement with humanity occurred during the creation. They assert that after the creation he left the world to run on its own according to natural laws that he had established. He is like a watchmaker who, after building a watch and setting it to work on its own, has no continual involvement with its function.
Why is deism popular today? The answer is that it allows us to recognize a supreme creator while preserving the notion that natural laws are the only forces at work in the world. Thus we can go on with science and focus on natural law-driven processes without having to consider the possibility of other forces. This fits nicely with our modern understanding of science as being concerned with natural, not supernatural forces. Sounds good, right?
While believing in a creator is better than believing in none at all, there is a downside to deism. Because it rejects divine involvement, deism denies the mission of the Jesus Christ, thus rejecting the Savior’s atonement. Consider also that if, as deists claim, the creator does not reveal himself to his creations, then he is unknowable. The belief that he is unknowable has led to some obscure deistic conceptions about God. For example, according to one deist, the creator is “the ground and source of our sense of wonderment, of power, of powerlessness, of light, of dark, of meaning, and of bafflement. . . . It is the god of mystics of all cultures and creeds. We look out into the sea of mystery and speak his name. His name eludes all creeds and theories of science. He is indeed the ‘dread essence beyond logic.’” I think it would be difficult communing with such a god.
Other deists equate God with nature, a belief known as pantheism. A 17th century scholar who promoted this view was Benedict Spinoza. Spinoza’s phrase “Deus sive Natura,” or “God or Nature”, suggests that the creator is nature, the structure of the cosmic order, operating according to blind universal laws and devoid of divine purpose. “Spinoza’s God . . . [can]not be spoken to, [does] not respond if prayed to, [and is] very much in every particle of the universe.” Similar pantheistic-style beliefs have influenced scientists such as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. Is it any wonder, then, that deists view the creator as a detached and impersonal entity? Certainly it would be difficult communing with such a god, but then again, why pray when no one is really listening?
Finally, because scientific deists are not big on prayer, they are unlikely to petition the creator for assistance in their endeavors. How many missed opportunities has science encountered? I wonder where science would be today if most scientists humbled themselves in prayer and asked for help? We will never know. Equally important is the issue of ingratitude. The creator is the main benefactor of scientific knowledge and discovery, yet deists who don’t realize this are unlikely to give thanks for breakthroughs. In the true spirit of the enlightenment, they think that science and reason did it all. Joseph F. Smith put it this way:
In all the great modern discoveries in science, in the arts, in mechanics, and in all material advancement of the age, the world says, "We have done it." The individual says, "I have done it," and he gives no honor or credit to God. Now, I read in the revelations through Joseph Smith, the prophet, that because of this, God is not pleased with the inhabitants of the earth but is angry with them because they will not acknowledge his hand in all things.
In the next post we will take a look at scientific atheism.