Having concluded that the Calvinist conception of God resembles “a daemon of malignant spirit…chiefly copied from that of the Jews,” Jefferson finds occasion to lay out his own conception of the Deity (To John Adams, April 11, 1823). He begins by considering how we can come to know God in the first place.
[E]very Christian sect gives a great handle to Atheism by their general dogma that, without a revelation, there would not be sufficient proof of the being of a god. Now one sixth of mankind only are supposed to be Christians: the other five sixths then, who do not believe in the Jewish and Christian revelation, are without a knowlege [sic] of the existence of a god! (ibid.).
An idea he clearly finds preposterous. Having rejected the claim that scriptural revelation is the exclusive means of gaining knowledge of God (or that any religion can claim special access to the divine), Jefferson advances an alternative. People everywhere can gain knowledge of God through careful observation of nature.
I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe…it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of it’s [sic] composition. The movements of the heavenly bodies…the structure of the earth itself, with it’s distribution of lands, waters and atmosphere, animal and vegetable bodies, examined in all their minutest particles, insects mere atoms of life, yet as perfectly organized as man or mammoth, the mineral substances, their generation and uses, it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is, in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a fabricator of all things…[W]ere there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos (ibid.).
We can see how his belief in a “Creator and benevolent governor of the world” supports his belief in providential history. We also suspect his rationalism doesn’t let him concede the leap of faith involved. Meanwhile, his incessant shifting between “God” (“Creator”) and “god” (“creator”), used interchangeably, without consistency, makes us wonder whether Jefferson means for Adams to read between the lines.*
We began by considering the unconventionality of Jefferson’s religious beliefs, but have come to see him express a view, intelligent design, that looks very orthodox. Ironically, only now that we appear to have caught Jefferson at his most religiously conservative have we gained the possibility of fully appreciating him at his most progressive as he attempts to liberalize and unify America around the anti-sectarian and non-dogmatic idea of nature’s God.
*On this question of reading between the lines in writing that is presenting something in disguise, cf. Leo Strauss’s essay “Persecution and the Art of Writing.” But consider, too, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s criticism: “I doubt that Struass is right in the way he carries out his theory, for instance in his discussion of Spinoza. Dissembling meaning implies a high degree of consciousness. Accommodation, conforming, and so on do not have to occur consciously. In my view, Strauss did not sufficiently see this” (Truth and Method, 390).