In a recent blog post at Patheos, Thomas Kidd argues that during the eighteenth century “[m]ost deists really did consider themselves serious theists, and…devotees of Jesus and his teachings” and therefore “[t]heir deism was not just a convenient cloak for atheism.” From that assumption he concludes, “The deists’ closest descendants today are not the ‘new atheists’ who have stirred up so much media chatter in recent years.” Instead, “Their closest descendants are probably liberal mainline Christians who see Jesus as their model but who eschew (or even deny) the particular, exclusive doctrines that have been associated with Christian orthodoxy for millennia.”
In defending this position Kidd overstates the Deists’ connection to Christianity in order to claim that they were theists. They believed in God, otherwise they would not have been Deists, but their god was not the theistic god of Christianity, even if they had an affinity for the moral precepts of the man Jesus as Jefferson did. (For a more in-depth discussion of Jefferson’s religious beliefs and whether or not he was a Deist see my previous post on the subject: Was Jefferson a Christian?). But once Kidd establishes their theistic credentials he believes that therefore they could not possibly have been the forerunners of the “new atheists.”
The problem with Kidd’s logic is that it rests on the assumption that ideas don’t evolve. If we are comparing the beliefs of these founders with those of today, he is probably correct that their beliefs would line up best with “liberal mainline Christians.” But if we are referring to descendants of ideas we do not mean that they are the same ideas, instead we mean ideas that have evolved out of a particular idea or tradition. And in this sense modern atheists are certainly the descendants of Deists. The rationalist and skeptical nature of Deism eventually led to the emergence of the atheist movement. If the eighteenth-century Deists were alive today they would likely be atheists. They were unable to explain the complexity of life with the evidence that they had at the time, but today they would have access to the accumulation of a wealth of evidence that explains the complexity of life without the need of a deity thanks to Darwin.