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Monday, January 16, 2012

John Adams' Hell

In yet another baffling display of poor scholarship, Richard Dawkins offers the following quote by John Adams, on page 43 of The God Delusion:
"This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it."
Adams did actually write these words in an April 19, 1817, letter to Thomas Jefferson, but here is the full context:
"Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, 'This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion at all!!!' But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell."
In other words, the history of religion may sometimes disturb us  greatly, but we need it. This world would be hell without it.

Incidentally, Dawkins uses this misquotation immediately after another false quote, allegedly from Benjamin Franklin. The full context of the Adams quote shows us quite a different view than what Dawkins would have us believe. In addition, Adams had this to say in response to Thomas Paine's criticisms of Christianity in his Deist book The Age of Reason:
"The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity, let the Blackguard Paine say what he will."
Gregg L. Frazer, in The Political Theology of the American Founding, notes that, while Adams shared many perspectives with deists, "Adams clearly was not a deist. Deism rejected any and all supernatural activity and intervention by God; consequently, deists did not believe in miracles or God's providence....Adams, however, did believe in miracles, providence, and, to a certain extent, the Bible as revelation." Fraser argues that Adams's "theistic rationalism, like that of the other Founders, was a sort of middle ground between Protestantism and deism."


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