An Agnostic’s Take on Deism v. Atheism

In terms of deism v. atheism, as an agnostic I’d say that deism is the more appealing position. If atheism is true, afterall, then the universe doesn’t, in any ultimate sense, really cohere, and that’s a sad thought (to think that we live in a random chaos containing chance patches of order, and not a cosmos).

But deism has its big problem as well: if deism is true, it means that a mind preceeded matter but (oddly) never actually speaks to us about what it was up to in creating a universe, or what we, as humans, should do while we’re in it.

Alternately, if theism is true, it means that God both creates and speaks, but all the religions that claim to have received a revelation from God are unconvincing to me (to put it politely).

So I guess I’m still holding to my ridiculous tight-rope walk with agnosticism.

And to what is the rope tied that keeps me balanced and not dropping into the abyss of nihilistic despair? I would say that it is an intuition that somewhere, out there beyond the rope that I can see, there lies an ontological mystery—a big truth that I would be pleased to discover, and comforted to face. Reinhold Niebuhr called this primary religion and associated it with optimism. In the meantime, I sustain myself on little truths and diversions, and try to explain myself to those curious about what I’m doing up here in so absurd a situation.

Below is the first stanza of Percy Bysshe Shelly’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” (1816). This is what I mean by having occasional hints and glimpses of an ontological mystery that seems to reside, to echo Gerard Manley Hopkins, “deep down things.” And I would add that Percy Bysshe Shelley was an atheist: 

The awful shadow of some unseen Power

      Floats though unseen among us,—visiting

      This various world with an inconstant wing

As summer winds that creep from flower to flower,—

Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,

          It visits with inconstant glance

          Each human heart and countenance;

Like hues and harmonies of evening,—

          Like clouds in starlight widely spread,—

          Like memory of music fled,—

          Like aught that for its grace may be

Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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11 Responses to An Agnostic’s Take on Deism v. Atheism

  1. Mike says:

    >Alternately, if theism is true, it means that God both creates and speaks, but all the religions that claim to have received a revelation from God are unconvincing to me (to put it politely).

    I am not sure of your background and familiarity with Christianity or Judaism. The Bible has been the only satisfying explanation of purpose for me. Before I read and began to understand the Bible as an adult, I was put off by the hypocrisy of the Christian Church. Then I came to see Bible characters not as perfect models, but as real flawed people just like me. And only when I knew enough of the Bible to see it as one cohesive story from cover to cover did any of the individual stories make any sense.

    We were created for fellowship with God. I believe that God created us with a longing for that fellowship with Him, and that each person must answer that call some way. The Bible tells how God revealed Himself to man throughout history. He used history to demonstrate that on our own, we sin and fall short of perfection. Only through relationship with Jesus can we be restored to relationship with God.

    Jesus performed miracle after miracle in His time on earth. No one in history disputes this claim. His followers believed in Him enough to die in His name. Not for glory, or wealth, or privilege, but to follow His example. But as Abraham said to the rich man, not even if Lazarus returned from the dead with a message from God will some believe.

    I believe because the Bible makes sense to me. I can understand how an omnipotent God could order His creation for us to have free will, and choose to love Him. It make sense to me that so many of our daily cares and concerns don’t matter to an eternal God. That Jesus came to deliver a spiritual message, and that no further revelation is necessary. That our greatest command is to love God with everything we’ve got, and love our neighbor as ourself. And everything else will work itself out.

    Sorry to ramble on, but I would love for you to learn more so that you could make a leap of faith to believe. If I can help you learn more in any way, please let me know.

  2. “So I guess I’m still holding to my ridiculous tight-rope walk with agnosticism.”

    I’m hearing stories of the absurd (Camus, Sartre?), and I know you know them and Nietzsche (viz the despair of one thrown into a materialist universe).

    Agnostic is a valid position, and we are often assailed by believers in theism on our left, and believers in atheism on our right.

    I myself waver at times, and applaud your attempt to hold onto a little hope 🙂

    Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

  3. mary says:

    Are you familiar with Richard Norman’s essay, “The varieties of non-religious experience?” It can be found in the journal, Ratio XIX, 2006. Here’s the abstract:

    “I want to consider the suggestion that certain essential components of human experience are by their nature distinctively religious, and thus that the atheist is either debarred from participating fully in such experiences, or fails to understand their real nature. I am going to look at five kinds of experience:

    • the experience of the moral ‘ought’;
    • the experience of beauty;
    • the experience of meaning conferred by stories;
    • the experience of otherness and transcendence;
    • the experience of vulnerability and fragility.

    “These seem to me to be integral features of any meaningful human life. They are aspects of what it is to be human. Some theists would simply agree with that statement. Others, however, would say that though essentially human they are also essentially religious, and that the secular humanist’s participation in such experiences is in some way defective. That is the claim which I want to consider and contest.”

    • santitafarella says:


      I’ve heard of that essay, but have never read it. On your prompting, I’ll go have a look. Thanks for the link.


      • Colin Hutton says:

        Santi –

        I had never heard of the suggestion. It sounds so ludicrous that I wouldn’t have thought it worth Richard Norman’s (I’ve never heard of him) time bothering to “consider and contest” it. However, if you do manage to get the time to track it down, and it is interesting, how about then posting it?


  4. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi :

    “…..ridiculous tight-rope walk with agnosticism……………………dropping into the abyss of nihilistic despair ” shows even more than the usual level of angst that your
    posts on this subject generally display. Linked perhaps to the HMM Day?

    From my atheist perspective the problem I would have with dialoguing with a muslim on the subject of their distinguishing beliefs is no different from the problem I would have with any religious person. They are all of them deluded. Discussion with the deluded on whether their form of delusion is more or less delusional than that of the differently deluded is unlikely to be productive – and most likely boring.

    A deist or agnostic might face a similar problem?

    Notwithstanding, I hope the day is successful. And productive for christians and muslims – if it reduces their proclivity to kill one another it reduces the chances that I get caught in the cross-fire!


    • santitafarella says:


      Thanks for the well-wishing on HMM Day.

      The things about Muslims are these: (1) there are so many of them (one in five human beings); (2) some of them are actively violent against the West; and (3) still others are anti-feminist and anti-democratic.

      In other words, however deluded agnostics and atheists perceive revelatory religion of any sort to be, it ain’t going away and it has to be dealt with (and I recognize that you agree with this).

      I’m trying personal dialogue as a strategy because I think of dialogue as a form of rapid reproduction (and hence evolution). Each time two people talk, both are changed subtley. And the two that got together are also smarter for the encounter (as in two heads are better than one). Then, when two people talk again, more change, however subtle, occurs. At some point in a process of talking, you might find that your opinion about something has genuinely shifted (or at least gotten more nuanced and intelligent). But if you’re not talking, you’re probably not learning or evolving much (or very fast).

      Dialogue is my theory of evolution by natural memetic selection. The tongue is a penis, the ear a vagina. If you put them together enough, you make new babies. And if you put them together a lot, you make new memetic species (and I think those species will be generally more rational, intelligent, peaceful, feminist, and democratic).

      Socrates was the first to say that truth is arrived at by dialogue. Add to Socrates Francis Bacon’s empiricism and you have the hope of the world: two reliable routes to getting at the truth of matters. An internet thread is a dialogic reproduction machine in typeface. I’m just proposing old-style face to face talk as well.

      Dialogue is not just empty talk. It’s a form of political action and intellectual development—a latent form of empowerment that is under-appreciated; a force for change.


  5. Edward Palamar says:

    “it means that a mind preceeded matter”

    Or it means that you, in your small place within an infinite universe, have perceived something greater which you call a mind.

    • santitafarella says:


      Do you mean that there is a version of Deism that does not designate the creator as conscious, purposeful, and intelligent—that is, a mind? In what meaningful sense would that be a deity?


  6. Adam says:

    “But deism has its big problem as well: if deism is true, it means that a mind preceeded matter but (oddly) never actually speaks to us about what it was up to in creating a universe, or what we, as humans, should do while we’re in it.”

    I think this is where God gave us intelligence and common sense so that we can tell what is good and what is bad, how to interact with others, how to settle problems without causing problems for others, etc. And this is also when God give us curiosities; always trying to figure out the secrets of this world he gave us through researches, thoughts, studies, reasonings, etc. And through these, we learn how to improve the world we live in, how to improve our lives, how to make things easier for us, etc. So, basically this world is like a playground, and we are the kids. God created the playground for us kids to, well, have fun until it’s time for us to leave it(die). But God has also gave us common sense, intelligence and curiosities over this playground, and through that we know that its good to play nice with others and it’s bad to be bullies. Through that also we will always try to improve this playground for the kids who will come to the playground in the future. In the simplest, our purpose on this world is to take good care of it while being nice to each other. And God don’t really need to directly interact with us to tell it; the intelligence and common sense that he gave us is enough for us to take care of ourselves, and he knew it.

    Of course, this is all just my opinion so there could be some loopholes since I’m just a man. And sorry for being very late. I kniw this is written years ago, but after reading it I can’t help but to share my thoughts lol. Would be nice to hear from others too. 🙂

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