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Zissou's avatar

Do the British understand what "deism" is?

Asked by Zissou (2962points) December 20th, 2017

A couple of times, I’ve come across the word “deist” used by educated Britons as if it were simply the antonym of “atheist”, which is just incorrect usage and not a dialectal difference. I’m guessing most comparably educated Americans either know what “deist” means or don’t have the word “deist” in their vocabulary at all.

Maybe the idea of deism is more familiar to Americans because of its connection to the Founding Fathers and debates about the separation of church & state. Or maybe the examples of misuse that I came across were not representative.

Anyway, just curious.

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14 Answers

zenvelo's avatar

Examples, please, otherwise I think you might not be understanding what you are complaining about.

Given the history of Deism and its development in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries, I would posit that more Britons understand it than do Americans, who more likely confuse it with Theism.

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zenvelo's avatar

@Zissou I agree the author of that little screed misuses the term.

flutherother's avatar

I’m in the UK and I never use the word “deism” nor have I heard it being confused with theism. I’m curious as to who used the word incorrectly as I would have thought anyone using these words would know their meaning.

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Demosthenes's avatar

Perhaps I can understand the confusion, though I have never come across it personally until viewing the article you’ve just linked to here. The words sound similar, granted; one is the Latin word for “god” combined with -ism, the other, the same with the Greek. Yet more often I find “Deism” capitalized, which should help clear up any assumption that it is a synonym of “theism” (and a synonym of “theism” is not, in any source that I can find, an acceptable definition of “deism”).

Zissou's avatar

^The way that source defines theism raises the question, what is the difference between theism and monotheism? Other sources define theism in terms of belief in a god OR gods, making theism a more general category of belief that includes polytheism and monotheism as subcategories, which makes sense etymologically. But in practice, the arguments about theism vs. atheism that I have seen have in fact mostly been about about God with a capital G, i.e. monotheism.

My question, though, is how do the British (mis)understand these terms? The person I quoted in the link above should know better, which makes me wonder if maybe there is some sort of dialectal drift going on after all.

Demosthenes's avatar

@rojo That definition says that theism is the belief in “only one God”, but then goes on to cite Hinduism as an example of theism, so the number of gods must not be included in the definition (i.e. “theism” is a general belief in a deity as opposed to atheism, or a belief in a personal god or gods, as opposed to deism). Also, the source seems to indicate that “deism” is an older term, but both terms seem to have arisen around the same time in the late 17th century. Not clear exactly which one is older.

(Interesting to note that “atheism” seems to be an older term than both “theism” and “deism”).

flutherother's avatar

Is your source very old? Until 1700 deism meant opposed to atheism, later it was the opposite of theism. Source

LostInParadise's avatar

This is the dictionary definition In the most general case theism and atheism are opposites. Theism can include belief in more than one god.

Deism, as I understand it, was for atheist wannabes. Many of the American founding fathers were deists. They only needed God as an explanation for how the Universe could have such complexities as living organisms. Deism lost popularity when the theory of evolution explained how complexity can come into being.

Britishguy2018's avatar

To start with, the British people are not one entity. We are all different. For example, some British people are interested in gardening whilst others prefer going to the cinema. This is true when it comes to the subjects that British people are interested in. Some are interested in history and politics; others music, plumbing, science, art, electrics, DIY or biology, for example. This question is related to theology—the study of religion—and philosophy.

It is certain that many Britons know what deism is, such as myself. From my understanding, deism is the belief that a transcendent (outside of space-time dimensions) God or gods created the universe and then left it to its own devices, so God/gods do not intervene in the world today. Britons who have an interest in theology or philosophy will know this.

There have also been British deists, such as Antony Flew ( In the past, there has also been Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Charles Blount and John Locke. ( Surely these British deists would understand what deism is!

In conclusion, the British people are not all the same and have different interests. Those whose interests lie in philosophy and theology would know about deism, as would British deists such as John Locke and Charles Blount.

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