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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Religulous and the Founding Fathers

Bill Maher is actually a fairly insightful individual when it comes to social issues or politics, and he does have a regrettably accurate view of some aspects of modern Christianity. I say "regrettably" because I have to admit that he is right in some of what he says about theists these days. A significant percentage of theists at least seem to be deluded sheeple clinging to demonstrably false claims.

However, that doesn't mean that he is always right. In his documentary, Religulous, he talks about the Founding Fathers and whether they established America as a "Christian nation." In order to support the claim that they did not establish such a nation, he offers three quotes, seen in the video below:

Again, those three quotes were:

"Lighthouses are more useful than churches." - Benjamin Franklin

"This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it." - John Adams

"Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man." - Thomas Jefferson

In offering these three quotes, Maher steals a page out of Dawkins playbook by using quotes that are either  taken wildly out of context, or which simply do not exist.

Benjamin Franklin actually never uttered the words, "Lighthouses are more useful than churches." This sentence cannot be found in any of his writings or correspondences. It is generally agreed that this is a paraphrase of a sentiment written in a letter to his wife shortly after he survived a shipwreck. To his wife, he wrote:
"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."
Here we see a much more accurate view of Benjamin Franklin's beliefs, more of which can be read HERE.

To be fair, John Adams did actually utter the words used by Maher in the documentary, but Maher takes them far out of context. Adams only meant these words hypothetically, and not as being representative of his own beliefs. This is made more than clear when we read the words in 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 in it!!!" 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."
When read in context we see the actual opinion of Adams, and what is likely the opinion of several other of the Founding Fathers. He was rightfully disgusted by the history of religion and Christianity, but he also understood that we would be worse off without it. In Adams' view, religion doesn't prevent this world from being paradise, it prevents it from being Hell. More on John Adams view of Christianity can be read HERE.

Thomas Jefferson is the real Wild Card here. He did say (most) of the words that Maher quotes, and they do accurately reflect his feelings of Christianity, but again, the context is enlightening. The quote is an abbreviated form of his words in a letter to Dr. Joseph Priestley, in 1801. He writes:

"DEAR SIR, -- I learnt some time ago that you were in Philadelphia, but that it was only for a fortnight; & supposed you were gone. It was not till yesterday I received information that you were still there, had been very ill, but were on the recovery. I sincerely rejoice that you are so. Yours is one of the few lives precious to mankind, & for the continuance of which every thinking man is solicitous. Bigots may be an exception. What an effort, my dear Sir, of bigotry in Politics & Religion have we gone through! The barbarians really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the times of Vandalism, when ignorance put everything into the hands of power & priestcraft. All advances in science were proscribed as innovations. They pretended to praise and encourage education, but it was to be the education of our ancestors. We were to look backwards, not forwards, for improvement; the President himself declaring, in one of his answers to addresses, that we were never to expect to go beyond them in real science. This was the real ground of all the attacks on you. Those who live by mystery & charlatanerie, fearing you would render them useless by simplifying the Christian philosophy, -- the most sublime & benevolent, but most perverted system that ever shone on man, - endeavored to crush your well-earnt & well-deserved fame."

Thomas Jefferson actually considered Christianity to be the most sublime and benevolent philosophy that had ever shown on man. Knowing this, we can now plainly see what he meant when he called it perverted. He was not using the word in the sense of being "characterized by sexually abnormal and unacceptable practices or tendencies," even though that does seem to fit some denominations today. Rather, he meant it in the sense of "having been corrupted or distorted from its original course, meaning, or state."

In other words, he meant "perverted," not "perverse."

His view that Christianity was truly "sublime" and that it had been corrupted is further evidenced by the way he spoke of other Christians in his day. Refusing to even acknowledge their faith, he referred to them as "Platonists." In a letter to Charles Thomson, January 9, 1816, he wrote about a "wee-little" book of his, known as the Philosophy of Jesus:
"I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus; it is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book, and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said nor saw. They have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great reformer of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were he to return on earth, would not recognize one feature." 
Jefferson's Philosophy of Jesus was one of his first efforts to produce his own version of the Bible, taking only the actual teachings of Jesus and compiling them together. Of Jesus' philosophy, Jefferson says, "A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen." He clearly thought very highly of "real" Christianity. In fact, it is somewhat amusing to note that when he referred to himself as a "real Christian," he underlined it for emphasis.

The emphasis not only draws attention to his affection for Christianity, but also to his disdain for modern Christians. He says they "draw all their ... dogmas from what [Jesus] never said nor saw," and that if "[Jesus] were ... to return on earth, [He] would not recognize one feature."

This is the definition of "perverted," not "perverse." Jefferson clearly did not view Christianity as something terrible or evil, but rather as the "most sublime & benevolent ... system that ever shone on man." Though it had been twisted and turned into something else by modern Christians. More on Jefferson's view can be read HERE.

Back to Bill Maher. He uses these faulty quotes to support the idea that the Founding Fathers had a negative view of religion and did not intend for religion to play a large role in society. I'm not a historian, but I don't believe so.

In 1787, the year the Constitution was written and approved by Congress, that same Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance which outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territory and stated the basic rights of citizens in a similar way as the Bill of Rights. In the Northwest Ordinance, they emphasized the essential need to teach religion and morality in the schools, saying:
"Article 3: Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."
In other words, schools and education were to be forever encouraged specifically because people need to learn "religion, morality, and knowledge." The study of religion and morality is not required simply as an intellectual exercise,  but because it is a necessary ingredient for "good government and the happiness of mankind."

George Washington echoed this sentiment in his Farewell Address, saying:
"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity...And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
But just because they viewed religion, in general, as an essential part of public and private welfare, doesn't mean that they promoted Christianity specifically. For example, Thomas Jefferson wrote a bill in Virginia regarding "Establishing Elementary Schools" in which he writes:
"No religious reading, instruction or exercise shall be prescribed or practiced inconsistent with the tenets of any religious sect or denomination."
In other words, religion was to be taught in schools, but only religious tenets which were universal to all religions. We can only speculate what these universal tenets might be, but some of the Founding Fathers have hinted at their opinion. For example, Benjamin Franklin wrote:
"Here is my creed. I believe in one God, the Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is in doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental points in all sound religion."
From this we may gather that Benjamin Franklin considered the following to be universal religious tenets:

  1. Recognition and worship of a Creator who made all things
  2. That the Creator has revealed a moral code of behavior for happy living which distinguishes right from wrong.
  3. That the Creator holds mankind responsible for the way they treat each other
  4. That all mankind live beyond this life.
  5. That in the next life individuals are judged for their conduct in this one.
If the Founding Fathers had their way, these basic principles would be taught in schools, beginning in Elementary Schools, and they would be held as "indispensable supports" to government and prosperity.

On a brief side note, there is a somewhat controversial line from the Treaty of Tripoli which states that "the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." This is absolutely true. The United States were not founded on the Christian religion. However, "Christianity" is not "religion." While they did not intend to found a nation specifically on the Christian faith, it is more than clear that they intended for the United States to be a generally, fundamentally religious nation.

I do actually agree with Bill Maher that the Founding Fathers would be displeased by the current religious condition in America. Not because we are too religious, but because we are not religious enough. They intended for religion to be taught in schools and for it to be held as an important pillar of our society.

Instead, we live in a nation that seems to be forever on guard for new ways to erase God and religion and where any discussion of religion quickly degenerates into childish shouting matches. Under the Founding Fathers, the nation clearly lived an undeniably religious lifestyle.

Alexis de Tocqueville was a french political thinker and historian who visited America in 1831. He was so impressed by Americas government that it inspired his book, Democracy in America, one of the most definitive studies on the American culture and constitutional system that had been published up to that time. He wrote:
"On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things, to which I was unaccustomed.In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country." 
The Founding Fathers produced a nation in which religion was, unlike its modern counterpart, a force of liberation and freedom, and where religion was an important part of the lives or American citizens, regardless of race, class, economic status, or political party. This was a sharp contrast to Toqueville's description of Europe at that time. His description also closely fits modern America:
"The philosophers of the eighteenth century explained in a very simple manner the gradual decay of religious faith. Religious zeal, said they must necessarily fail the more generally liberty is established and knowledge diffused. Unfortunately the facts by no means accord with their theory. There are certain populations in Europe whose unbelief is only equaled by their ignorance and debasement; while in America, one of the freest and most enlightened nations in the world, the people fulfill with fervor all the outward duties of religion ... The unbelievers of Europe attack the Christians as their political opponents rather than as their religious adversaries; they hate the Christian religion as the opinion of a [political] party much more than as an error of belief; and they reject the clergy less because they are the representatives of the Deity than because they are the allies of government."
The nation established by the Founding Fathers was exactly how they wanted it. True, it was not a Christian country, but it was a very religious country. Religion was taught in schools, as they intended. It was a force for liberation, as they intended. It was one of the fundamental pillars of America, as they intended.

I wish mainstream Christianity was still the sort of organization that could fulfill this role in America. Even in Jefferson's day, it had been deeply "perverted" from Christ's original message. I am not arguing that we return Christianity to schools and society. Given the way most Christians think and reason now, that would be a catastrophe.

Nevertheless, the Founding Fathers did establish a religious nation. They were believers, perhaps not in Christianity, but in God. Bill Maher's quotes are misleading, and he is simply wrong.


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