Religion and Language Part I: On Deism
Sep 8, 2011

Religion and Language Part I: On Deism

This post is the first part of a three part series on the intersection of language and religion. This first part introduces the concepts and focuses on deism; part 2, on religious morality; part 3, on agnosticism.

Many of the arguments about the nature of religion, and its descriptive and normative claims about the universe, center around issues of language, semantics and the appropriate definitions of key terms like "deity". The quietist in me aims to both underline the importance of language issues as one of the central conflicts in the philosophy of religion - and the common conceptions of it - and, further, attempts to resolve some of these conflicts through a more careful approach to the semantics of religion.

If we are to make clear and precise statements about the nature of the universe - and religion makes many such claims - then there is a certain necessity towards semantics. If we are vague in our terminology it disguises what it is we are deducing and what it is we are assuming. As we will see in this series, there are many examples of religious claims and terminology that, when one makes them precise, turn out to be easily categorized into classes of assumed properties that can be shown to largely vacuous.

It may seem at first glance that the word "deity" doesn't need much defining, that we all have an intuitive concept of what a deity is. This conception is largely of the character of the anthromorphized God of millennia past, and glorified by a large body of language built up to describe God: mystical, omnipotent, spiritual, etc. Yet, this edifice of language turns out to often be empty of meaning, self-referential, and sufficiently imprecise as to used to justify nearly any claim. As I have argued previously, for instance, the word "spiritual" would appear not to have any actual meaning at all as a domain of knowledge. Further, because these words are so ingrained in our culture, it often requires care to reassess what the specific meanings of words like "deity" even could be and not be tempted by deference to the aesthetic appeals of out culture.

Numerous different and mutually compatible properties get ascribed to the word "deity". So very often, an inspection of ones religious argument turns out to simply be ascribing to the deity precisely the properties one needs to make the argument a tautology. This series finds five such common properties that are ascribed to a deity, at different times:
1) The 'first cause' deity which creates the universe
2) The deity which breaks the 'infinite regress' problem
3) The deity which indues morality in the universe
4) The deity which breaks the 'is-ought' problem
5) The deity which is outside of human logic and reason

These properties may at first seem quite unlike those that are commonly described, but I will argue how they are actually the underlying properties being assumed - even if imprecise cultural language is used - and needed to make various religious arguments. The 5th property will be taken up in part 3 which discusses agnosticism. The 3rd and 4th properties will be taken up in part 2 which discusses morality. The first two properties are related and will be considered in the rest of this post which considers one definition of deism.

I think the most common argument given in support of the existence of God, is the one that the universe needs a creator and that creator is God. Variants emphasize the complexity, the fine-tuning, the existence of life, the beauty of the universe, the human mind, or the necessity of causality in the universe and how all these things must certainly have needed something as wonderful as a God to create them. It is the "all paintings have a painter argument", often called the "Argument from Design", the Teleological Argument or the Cosmological Argument (this are typically considered separate but I list them together as the structure is similar enough for our purposes). I could go on but I am sure everyone has heard these arguments and, while very varied, I would suggest they together make up the lions share of all arguments for God. Further, they are effectively just different language for the same core claim that ascribes to God a single core property.

I will use the the term "first cause" deity for all these variants and what it truly means is that we are defining a deity to be that which causes the universe and all its complexity, beauty and alleged design. The key question is going to be this: have we done anything? Have we explained anything?

Let me temporarily grant - which in general I do not - the assumption or the heuristic that all events require a cause, and that the the universe is just such an event. If we define a deity as "that which supplies this first cause" it may seem at first glance that this explains the phenomenon. However, what we are doing is assuming a heuristic as true and then simply giving the name "deity" to the assumed phenomenon. We claim there needs to be a first cause, and then we call this assumed first cause a "deity". We haven't actually explained anything, it is just a trick of language and we could have called it anything.

It is widely thought that at the very least, this kind of first cause deism is a possible explanation for the universe. I am ashamed to say that I have even argued this proposition in the past (its possibility, not its necessity, that is) In the above light, however, I think it becomes clear that we havn't explained anything, we have only defined things. It is saying "there must be an explanation, and let us call that explanation God".

It is worth noting that all of these just push the problem up one level. If the universe is so complex, beautiful and in need of a something to cause it, then that something must certainly be just as complex, beautiful and in need of a cause itself. If we were to literally apply the above arguments we would result in an infinite hierarchy of deities. Unless, that is, we assume the second common property ascribed to deities. Namely, the property that the deity breaks such infinite regresses.

When we add these two properties - that a deity causes the universe and it breaks the infinite regress - then we at least get a single resolution to both these problems. However, it is again entirely vacuous. It is assuming that a) there is a cause for the universe and b) that this cause doesn't itself need a cause and then we simply call this assumed phenomenon a deity. This might seem like a joke, but the widely renowned Catholic philosopher/theologian Thomas Aquinas actually identified three (functionally identical) arguments for the existence of God by essentially assuming that infinite regresses in causaliy were impossible and then calling whatever breaks this infinite regress God.

One can continue on and on in this way adding property after property to our deity - as needed for whatever one wants to demonstrate about it - until one has all the properties of theistic gods such as benevolence and a son named Jesus. Any additional property one might be tempted to add cannot be justified using the preceding arguments. Even if I were to grant that a first cause deity is a coherent concept and not just a trick of language, the need for first cause doesn't justify that it is a, say, loving deity. For the theist, all their work remains ahead of them.

I call this process of adding or removing properties to the definition of a deity the Slippery Slope of Deism (as coined here in a post that discusses some of the above concepts only with less emphasis on language). It is the process that as one tries to identify what the few key properties this deity is alleged to have and tries to justify them in term, one slips into a state of either definitional vacuousness on the one end of the slope or a whole host of entirely unjustified properties on the other.

I would submit that that deism at its vacuous extreme is simply a form of pantheism. Pantheism is where we talk about the universe as if the universe is God, and doesn't offer any new metaphysical claims of its own. It is simply describing the universe using the language and terminology of religion with that language and terminology not adding to its explanatory power. The problem is that one then has all the baggage of religious terminology attached which only serves to offer confusion and the semblance of justification for versions of deism more meaningful than vacuous pantheism.

Read: Part II: On Religious Morality | Read Part III: On Agnosticism

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