Watching Us From A Distance: From Deism to Atheism

The song ‘From a Distance’ encapsulates the theological position of Deism, a belief that God merely set the world in motion and then withdrew from His creation. This belief was popular amongst the American revolutionaries. Yet, the belief system could easily be converted into Atheism and this is what occurred in the 20th century. 

The deist is a man who in his short existence has not had time to become an atheist.

De Bonald

In chapter 2 of my new book, The Exceptionally Decisive Carl Schmitt, the concept of sovereignty is discussed. As a concept, sovereignty was visualized differently depending on the epoch. When the idea of a personal God dominated, monarchy was favoured and when belief in God diminished the idea of personal intervention was de-legitimized. The sovereign appeared as a mirror of the age and this was explored most vividly in Carl Schmitt’s classic Political Theology.

According to Schmitt, it was the rise of Deism that paved the way for many of the ideologies of the modern world, which are atheistic in their outlook. In Deism, God is not the personal God, the theistic God. Instead God becomes more of a postulate or principle. He is necessary for the physical system of the universe to come into being and to be set in motion but He does not intervene and nor is He concerned with His creation. The belief developed because Enlightenment rationalists were unable to understand the world with their concept of God. Basically, with their own limited grasp of theology they were unable to account for evil in the world.

The Deist perspective was summed in a song made famous by Bette Midler and written by Julie Gold, From A Distance. God is, as the song says, distant, there is no explanation for trouble and strife in the world but we should still take delight in the wonder of the scenery we see around us.

Deism essentially meant that Man no longer could appeal to God because God was now distant. Instead the most powerful humans became like gods. It was natural for atheism, with its religion of humanity, to become popular because a God who can’t act is in reality no God at all.

With the rise of atheism, entities like the State acquired vast power and were able to marshal massive groups of men and women and hurl them against one another with ease. The horror of the 20th century, with its very extreme ideologies, and the massive power the State came to wield over the lives of citizens would not have been possible in the theocentric Middle Ages.

Colm Gillis has authored two books. His latest book is titled The Exceptionally Decisive Carl Schmitt

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