January 28, 2002, AACHAT... The Bait, the Hook, and Deism.
Deists are not atheists, they definitely believed in a god, and this has never been a secret. Even so, Atheists should count Thomas Paine and other Deists as friends and allies.
Religion has two aspects, the Bait and the Hook. There are lots of different kinds of bait. Relief from fear of death or misfortune, relief from loneliness by means of an imaginary companion, art, music, song, fellowship, emotional support and comfort, all of that.
The Hook is obedience. Humans are predisposed to learn ethics in early childhood, in the same way, and for the same reason, that they are predisposed to learn language. Both language and ethics are vitally important tools for living, for a species that survives by cooperating in groups. Because we learn it in childhood, we first learn ethics from our parents; we know what is right and wrong because our parents tell us. Morality, for a small child, equals obedience to parents. "Revealed" religion hijacks this childhood instinct, claiming to report instructions from a Cosmic Parent. The bottom line of all "revealed" religions is that everyone is morally obligated to do as the priesthood says. Their claim to authority in ethics is the source of their power. It is their method, their tool, by which they rule the Earth, as much of the Earth as believes their claim.
Priests have been allied with kings and dictators throughout history, using religion as a tool to keep exploited people quiet. "Revealed" religion has perpetrated a wholesale swindle on the human race, diverting large amounts of time, thought, and wealth to appeasing a ghost, and the ghost's local representatives. Contrary to its claim to be the source of all morality, religion has sponsored and endorsed sectarian warfare, genocide, torture, persecutions of lesser sorts, slavery, male supremacy, inquisitions and thought control; even for the obedient, it has sponsored self-censorship, self-abnegation, self-mutilation, rejection of medical care, suppression of rational inquiry and scientific education. It has perverted the field of ethics, severing it from any connection to the consequences for real people in this world, denouncing as sinful any attempt to apply human thought to moral questions.
Deism was historically important because it rejected the authority of alleged "revelation". This destroyed the authority of the priesthood, and the claimed "divine right" of kings to rule. Most governments before Deism claimed to rule by divine right; they were not always theocracies in the sense of rule by the proesthood, but all were theocracies in the sense of claiming divine favor as the source of their authority. Deism made democracy possible. It was the first theology to support separation of church and state. The American revolutionaries made the first government in history that claimed its authority came from the people, from the consent of the governed, instead of being delegated from God.
Deism could do this because it removed the Hook without denying the masses of people the Bait that they wanted so much. By various classical arguments, mostly the argument from design, Deists supported belief in a Cosmic Parent. People could hope for life after death, for cosmic justice, even for divine guidance in the form of their own intuition; they could take comfort in all the usual theistic ways. But their God would either speak directly to each person, or be silent. Nobody could claim to give divinely-ordained rules to anyone else. As Paine wrote:
"Revelation then, so far as the term has relation between God and
man, can only be applied to something which God reveals of his will to
man; but though the power of the Almighty to make such a communication
is necessarily admitted, because to that power all things are
possible, yet the thing so revealed (if anything ever was revealed,
and which, bye the bye, it is impossible to prove), is revelation to
the person only to whom it is made. His account of it to another
person is not revelation; and whoever puts faith in that account, puts
it in the man from whom the account comes; and that man may have been
deceived, or may have dreamed it, or he may be an impostor and may
lie. There is no possible criterion whereby to judge of the truth of
what he tells, for even the morality of it would be no proof of
revelation. In all such cases the proper answer would be, 'When it is
revealed to me, I will believe it to be a revelation; but it is not,
and cannot be incumbent upon me to believe it to be revelation before;
neither is it proper that I should take the word of a man as the word
of God, and put man in the place of God.'"
The constitutional guarantees of religious liberty and democratic (i.e. secular) government included at the birth of the United States were the historical high mark of the Deist's influence. Deism was effectively destroyed by David Hume, in his DIALOGUES CONCERNING NATURAL RELIGION, published soon after his death in 1776. In that work he showed that all the classical philosopher's arguments for the existence of God were empty. As with any book of philosophy, its influence was gradual. (There are still a few Deists around today.)
Hume's work left honest people to face a starker choice. Either you adopted a rational/empirical/skeptical frame of mind, in which case you would have to forego the comforts of religion, or you could believe in God and revelation and miracles and so forth (the package that the priests were selling) without any rational grounds, making a virtue of gullibility and calling it "faith". Most people have chosen the latter. Democracy and religious liberty have survived, by a combination of inertia, the reverence people give to tradition, and the support of religious liberals and other "religious minorities" including atheists. Theocratic religion has been working constantly since 1776 to whittle away and ultimately overthrow the accomplishments of the Deists, and it has been getting stronger in the last few decades.
Atheists can use everything the Deists said about "revelation". We can attack "priestcraft" exactly as they did. We can offer the wealth of art, music, fellowship, and philosophical comfort that secular culture provides. We cannot offer life after death, but we can say there is no Hell below us. Most important of all, we can offer liberty, freedom of conscience, and support for democratic government. "Free minds make free nations."