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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Benjamin Franklin, Lighthouses, and Church

Benjamin Franklin was possibly the least religious of the Founding Fathers, but he was religious. Many, including Richard Dawkins, try to paint him as an atheist with a famous quote. "Lighthouses are more useful than churches."

Dawkins is not the only person to use this quotation to justify the view that Benjamin Franklin was an atheist or, at best, a deist. The quote is pretty common in the atheist community. How common, you ask?

Common enough to be profitable.

There is a problem with this quote, though. It does not exist. You will not find this quote anywhere in the works or writings of Benjamin Franklin. The quote is most likely a paraphrase of a sentiment he wrote to his wife in a letter on 17 July, 1757 after he narrowly escaped a shipwreck. The quote can be found in a footnote on page 133 of Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin (1818):
"The bell ringing for church, we went thither immediately, and with hearts full of gratitude, returned sincere thanks to God for the mercies we had received: were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint, but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a light-house."
Taken in context, the quote gives us a very different impression of Benjamin Franklin's view of God. Next are some quotes from Benjamin Franklin which actually do exist. When he stopped attending church, Franklin wrote in his autobiography:
"...Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that He made the world, and governed it by His providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter."
In 1790, just about a month before he died, Franklin wrote a letter to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University, who had asked him his views on religion:
"As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho' it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble..."
Here we may find the strongest evidence that he was not strictly Christian. Much like Thomas Jefferson, who did consider himself a Christian, Franklin considered the moral system taught by Jesus to be the best the world had to offer, but also recognized that the doctrine had been corrupted over the centuries. In addition, Franklin had no strong opinion regarding the divinity of Christ, but believed in an afterlife in which he would find the truth of the matter.

Strangely, despite being critical of Christianity's past, he still considered organized religion to be a positive social force.  At one point, he wrote to Thomas Paine, criticizing his manuscript, The Age of Reason:
"For without the Belief of a Providence that takes Cognizance of, guards and guides and may favour particular Persons, there is no Motive to Worship a Deity, to fear its Displeasure, or to pray for its Protection....think how great a Proportion of Mankind consists of weak and ignorant Men and Women, and of inexperienc'd and inconsiderate Youth of both Sexes, who have need of the Motives of Religion to restrain them from Vice, to support their Virtue, and retain them in the Practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great Point for its Security; And perhaps you are indebted to her originally that is to your Religious Education, for the Habits of Virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it."


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