Deism is a theological theory concerning the relationship between a creator and the natural world. Deistic viewpoints emerged during the scientific revolution of 17th-century Europe and came to exert a powerful influence during the 18th-century Enlightenment. Deism stood between the narrow dogmatism of the period and skepticism. Though deists rejected atheism, they often were called "atheists" by more traditional theists. There were a number of different forms in the 17th and 18th centuries. In England, deists included a range of people from anti-Christian to non-Christian theists.
For deists, human beings can know God only via reason and the observation of nature, but not by revelation or by supernatural manifestations (such as miracles) – phenomena which deists regard with caution if not skepticism. Deism is related to naturalism because it credits the formation of life and the universe to a higher power, using only natural processes. The classical deism of the 17th and 18th centuries is a form of natural theology and denies that that power has any continuing involvement with the world. Modern deism may also include a spiritual element, involving experiences of God and nature.
The words deism and theism, originally synonyms in English, both derive from words for "god": the former from Latin deus, the latter from Greek theos (θεός). By the 17th Century the English terms were starting to diverge, with deism referring to the new form of belief. The term deist first appeared in its new sense in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621).
Deism is usually thought of as having taken root first in England and subsequently spread to mainland Europe. But the term déiste appears in French, in the new sense, as early as 1564. Pierre Viret, a Swiss Calvinist, wrote of deism as a heretical development from Italian Renaissance naturalism, resulting from misuse of the liberty conferred by the Reformation to criticise idolatry and superstition.
Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583–1648) is considered the "father of English deism", and his book De Veritate (1624) the first major statement of deism. Deism flourished in England between 1690 and 1740, at which time Matthew Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730), also called "The Deist's Bible," gained much attention. Later deism spread to France (notably through the work of Voltaire), to Germany, and to North America.