Deists are atheists!!! – the strange claim of Jonathan Meddings
This last week has seen an interesting exchange of ideas stimulated by a recent opinion piece John Dickson wrote on the ABC Religion and Ethics page concerning the ‘atheist joke’. Jonathan Meddings at the Young Australian Skeptics responded and then I wrote a further response. Jonathan has added to the conversation with his reaction to my piece which helpfully clarifies a number of his points.
The most stunning claim that Meddings makes in his piece (which I think explains much of the confusion) is to assert that deists are in fact atheists!!! I confess I had to re-read the statement several times to ensure what I was reading was actually correct. Meddings states that…
Deism is not a form of theism. Then he says it again, ‘I didn’t imply that deists are atheists. I stated it outright. Deists are, by definition, atheists regarding all the gods of religion.’
This is very strange for deism IS a form of theism. The dictionary definitions he uses demonstrates this. The Oxford English Dictionary says that deism is, “belief in the existence of a supreme being, specifically of a creator who does not intervene in the universe.”
Who or what is this ‘supreme being’. Surely it is some kind of ‘god’? Who or what else could it be? In fact the very word ‘deism’ comes from deus, the Latin term for god.
The key difference, as I stated, and which Meddings seems to agree, is that deists don’t believe in a personal or knowable god. Indeed the entry on “Deism” in The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization. 2011 describes Deism as: a rationalistic, critical approach to theism with an emphasis on natural theology. The Deists attempted to reduce religion to what they regarded as its most foundational, rationally justifiable elements.” This is exactly what I described in my original post. Further, the Encyclopedia Britannica states that ‘historically, a distinction between theism and Deism has never had wide currency in European thought.’
Deism is a form of theism in that it believes in the existence of a supreme being. And it seems that Meddings agrees in the most puzzling and contradictory statement of his post, “Deists are not theists. Theists simply share the belief with deists that there exists a creator of the universe.” I’ll re-state my point – deism is a form of theism in that it believes in the existence of a supreme being.
The crucial distinction between theism and deism is not the ‘existence’ of this supreme being but ‘knowledge’ of this supreme being. Both deism and theism claim the existence of this supreme being – and hence both deism and theism stand opposed to ‘absolute’ atheism because (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) atheism is: disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods. Absolute atheism rejects the existence of this supreme being and this is why the original atheist ‘joke/argument’ doesn’t work. Any theistic framework, be the ‘god’ knowable or unknowable, implies a certain metaphysical structure of the universe which is fundamentally different from atheism. i.e. both deism and theism claim that the universe was created by an ‘unmoved mover’, atheism does not. Both deism and theism accept the result of natural theology, atheism does not. This is why Meddings is wrong to claim that deists not being “absolute atheists” is ‘close enough.’ They are not close enough – there is a massive, supreme being in the way, and this is why you can’t get to atheism by subtraction.
Finally, Meddings’ closing comments regarding revelation are misleading. He claims the joke is designed to make the listener realise that “that belief in their god is based upon an argument for revelation, making them no different to any other theist believing in any other god.” This is not true, for implicit in Meddings’ assertion is that all arguments of revelation of all gods are all equal and that they all have no value. Unfortunately he misses and dismisses the revelatory claims of Christianity without any examination. Contrary to Meddings’ claims history has shown there is a way to resolve the conflicting claims of religion. It is through the one who comes and claims to be ‘the way the truth and the life’ and lives an extraordinary life, death and resurrection consistent with this claim.
It is true it is wise to be humble, but it is better to acknowledge and follow truth when it is presented.