Is Deism Capitalized?
Posted by Adam Graham on May 8, 2005
I got a letter from Kenneth Wright of the United Deist Church had a problem with my most recent column, writing:
It is Deist and Deism. Both terms are to be capitalized as are
Christian and Christianity. Both terms describe religious groups and are
thus proper nouns.
Well, I’d never seen deism or deist spelled that way. Deism has always been understood more as a philosophy. Stoic or stoicism aren’t capitalized, neither are communist or communism, while Communist Party would be capitalized and Deist Church. Dictionary.com has “Christianity” capitalized and “deism” in lower case.
Of course if one is referring to a member of the Deist Church, I’d have to think it’d be proper to capitalize it “Deist,” but if we’re referring to a figure who holds to the philosophy without actually belonging to any organization, I’d think they’d be a small “d” deist. I also think confusing Ben Franklin with modern Deists would be a mistake. Deists tend to be anti-religion, while Franklin was not. He didn’t personally commit to it, but he was very helpful to George Whitefield in spreading the Great Awakening.
When I checked the dictionary, I was quite surprised by the American Heritage Dictionary definition of deist:
The belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation.
That definition of deism leaves us in quite a quandry because the words of Franklin, Jefferson, and even Thomas Paine both indicated a belief in a God who ruled in the affairs of men.
I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men.-Benjamin Franklin
I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.-Thomas Jefferson
I have as little superstition in me as any man living, but my secret opinion has ever been, and still is, that God Almighty will not give up a people to military destruction, or leave them unsupportedly to perish, who have so earnestly and so repeatedly sought to avoid the calamities of war, by every decent method which wisdom could invent.-Thomas Paine
What seems to be the case is that while they don’t believe in Christ as savior, they also don’t believe God is absent from mankind. Either modern deism has simply diverged from its historical roots to become even more radical (as has happened with Unitarianism), but the American Heritage Dictionary suggests they weren’t deists. The definition of theism on the other hand:
Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world.
I’d say that more describes the view of Jefferson, Franklin, and perhaps Paine in the modern world than deism.
Now, back to that pesky capitalization issue. When I’m talking about modern people, I’m willing to capitalize it and Atheist. I’m willing to do this because Atheism, Humanism, and Secularism generally don’t like being viewed as a religion or a religious viewpoint. They want to be rational above it all, but irreligious domination and tyranny is just as possible (and in our current situation, more likely) than any religious group persecuting people in modern America. However, I don’t think unless the Founders belonged to a particular church that deist should be capitalized.