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Author: Mary Elizabeth Williams
In a message delivered Wednesday via Vatican Radio, the new pontiff distinguished himself with a call for tolerance and a message of support – and even admiration – toward nonbelievers.
Naturally, a guy whose job it is to lead the world’s largest Christian faith is still going to come at his flock with a Jesus-centric message. But he’s taking it in an encouraging new direction. In his message, Francis dissed the apostles for being “a little intolerant” and said, “All of us have this commandment at heart: Do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not (a) Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can. He must. Not can: must.”
And the pope spoke of the need to meet each other somewhere on our on common ground. “This commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: We need that so much. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.” It was a deeper affirmation of his comments back in March, when he declared that the faithful and atheists can be “precious allies… to defend the dignity of man, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in the careful protection of creation.”
That’s a message that’s vastly different from Catholicism’s traditional “We’re number one!” dogma. Six years ago, the Vatican reasserted the church’s stance that while there may be“elements of sanctification and truth” in other faiths, “that fullness of grace and of truth… has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.” In other words, close but no cigar, everybody else.
There are plenty of atheists out there who will no doubt take the pope’s message with a grain of salt or even flat-out disdain. The last thing somebody who doesn’t believe in heaven could possibly need is some guy in a funny hat telling them that they’re okay in God’s eyes anyway. But maybe, whatever we believe or don’t believe, we can consider that the man is on to something when he speaks about “the culture of encounter.”
Francis notes that the apostles were “closed off by the idea of possessing the truth,” an arrogant certainty that no one group currently has a monopoly on. Where we find each other is in practicing tolerance for our differences, and in finding the commonality of our values. “Doing good,” Francis says, “is not a matter of faith.”
It’s not that faith, for the faithful, doesn’t matter. It’s that belonging to a church isn’t what saves us. It’s belonging to each other.”
From: free inquiry
By Rob Boston, Free Inquiry
“”The United States is a Christian nation.” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this statement at a religious Right meeting or in the media, I wouldn’t be rich—but I’d probably have enough to buy a really cool iPad. The assertion is widely believed by followers of the religious Right and often repeated—and, too often, it seeps into the beliefs of the rest of the population as well. But like other myths that are widely accepted (you use only 10 percent of your brain, vitamin C helps you get over a cold, and the like), it lacks a factual basis.
Over the years, numerous scholars, historians, lawyers, and judges have debunked the “Christian nation” myth. Yet it persists. Does it have any basis in American history? Why is the myth so powerful? What psychological need does it fill?
I’m not a lawyer, and my research in this area has been influenced and informed by scholars who have done much more in- depth work. The problem with some of this material, great as it is,is that it tends to be—how shall I say this politely?—’dense.’ If I were a lawyer (the kind found on television dramas, not a real one), I would present the case against the Christian nation myth in a handful of easily digestible informational nuggets. Swallow them, and you’ll be armed for your next confrontation with Cousin Lloyd who sends money to Pat Robertson.
There are essentially five arguments that refute the Christian nation myth. I’m going to outline them here and then take a look at the history of the myth. From there, we’ll briefly examine the myth’s enduring legacy and how it still affects politics and public policy today.
1. The Text of the Constitution Does Not Say the United States Is a Christian Nation
If a Christian nation had been the intent of the founders, they would have put that in the Constitution, front and center. Yet the text of the Constitution contains no references to God, Jesus Christ, or Christianity. That document does not state that our country is an officially Christian nation.
Not only does the Constitution not give recognition or acknowledgment to Christianity, but it also includes Article VI, which bans “religious tests” for public office. Guaranteeing non-Christians the right to hold federal office seems antipodal to an officially Christian nation. The language found in Article VI sparked some controversy, and a minority faction that favored limiting public office to Christians (or at least to believers) protested. Luther Martin, a Maryland delegate, later reported that some felt it “would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.” But, as Martin noted, the article’s language was approved “by a great majority . . . without much debate.” The Christian nation argument just wasn’t persuasive.
In addition, the First Amendment bars all laws “respecting an establishment of religion” and protects “the free exercise thereof.” Nothing here indicates that the latter provision applies only to Christian faiths.Finding no support for their ideas in the body of the Constitution, Christian-nation advocates are left to point to other documents, including the Declaration of Independence. This also fails. The Declaration’s reference to “the Creator” is plainly deistic. More obscure documents such as the Northwest Ordinance or personal writings by various framers are interesting historically but do not rise to the level of governance documents. When it comes to determining the manner of the U.S. government, only the Constitution matters. The Constitution does not declare that the United States is a Christian nation. This fact alone is fatal to the cause of Christian nation advocates.
2. The Founders’ Political Beliefs Would Not Have Led Them to Support the Christian-Nation Idea
Jefferson and Madison came to this opposition in two ways. First, they were well-versed in history and understood how the officially Christian governments of Europe had crushed human freedom. Moreover, they knew about the constant religious wars among rival factions of Christianity. Second, they had witnessed religious oppression in the colonies firsthand.
Remember, Madison was inspired to fight for church-state separation and religious liberty because he had witnessed the jailing of dissenting ministers in Virginia. Madison and other founders wrote frequently about the dangers of governments adopting religion; they often worked alongside clergy who made similar arguments. John Leland, a Massachusetts pastor and powerful advocate for church-state separation, said it best: “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever.”
Jefferson’s Virginia Statue for Religious Liberty, which many scholars consider a precursor to the First Amendment, guaranteed religious freedom for everyone, Christian and non-Christian. Attempts to limit its protections to Christians failed, and Jefferson rejoiced.
In his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” Madison observed, “Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious discord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion.”
In his Notes on Virginia Jefferson observed, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Alexander Hamilton, writing in “Federalist No. 69,” speaks bluntly to the religious duties of the U.S. president: There aren’t any. In this essay, Hamilton explains how the American president would differ from the English king, outlining several key differences between the two. He writes: “The one has no particle of spiritual jurisdiction; the other is the supreme head and governor of the national church!”
3. The Key Founders Were Not Conservative Christians and Likely Would Not Have Supported an Officially Christian Nation
To hear the religious Right tell it, men such as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were eighteenth-century versions of Jerry Falwell in powdered wigs and stockings. This is nonsense.
The religious writings of many prominent founders sound odd to today’s ears because these works reflect Deism, a theological system of thought that has since fallen out of favor. Deists believed in God but didn’t necessarily see him as active in human affairs. The god of the Deists was a god of first cause: he set things in motion and then stepped back.
Although nominally an Anglican, George Washington often spoke in deistic terms. His god was a “supreme architect” of the universe. Washington saw religion as necessary for good and moral behavior but didn’t necessarily accept all Christian dogma. He seemed to have a special gripe against Communion and would usually leave services before it was offered.
Washington is the author of one of the great classics of religious liberty—the letter to Touro Synagogue (1790). In this letter, Washington assures America’s Jews that they would enjoy complete religious liberty—not mere toleration—in the new nation. He outlines a vision not of a Christian nation but of a multi-faith society where all are free to practice as they will:
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. . . . All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.
John Adams was a Unitarian. He rejected belief in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, core concepts of Christian dogma. In his personal writings, Adams made it clear that he considered the concept of the divinity of Jesus incomprehensible.
In February of 1756, Adams wrote in his diary about a discussion he had had with a man named Major Greene. Greene was a devout Christian who sought to persuade Adams to adopt conservative Christian views. The two argued over the divinity of Jesus. When questioned on the matter, Greene fell back on an old standby: some matters of theology are too complex and mysterious for human understanding.
Adams was not impressed. In his diary he writes, “Thus mystery is made a convenient cover for absurdity.”
Jefferson’s skepticism of traditional Christianity is well known. Our third president did not believe in the Trinity, the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, original sin, and other core Christian doctrines. Jefferson once famously observed to Adams: “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”
Although not an orthodox Christian, Jefferson admired Jesus as a moral teacher. He even edited the New Testament, cutting away the stories of miracles and divinity and leaving behind a very human Jesus, whose teachings Jefferson found “sublime.”
Perhaps the most enigmatic of the founders was Madison. To this day, scholars still debate his religious views. Some of his biographers believe that Madison, nominally Anglican, was really a Deist. Notoriously reluctant to talk publicly about his religious beliefs, Madison was perhaps the strictest church-state separa- tionist among the founders, opposing not only chaplains in Congress and the military but also government prayer proclamations. As president, he vetoed legislation granting federal land to a church as well as a plan to have a church in Washington care for the poor. In each case, he cited the First Amendment.
4. Shortly After the Constitution Was Ratified, Conservative Ministers Attacked It Because It Lacked References to Christianity
Ministers of the founding period knew that the Constitution didn’t declare the United States officially Christian—and it made them angry.
In 1793, just five years after the Constitution was ratified, the Reverend John M. Mason of New York attacked that document in a sermon. Mason called the lack of references to God and Christianity “an omission which no pretext whatever can palliate.” He predicted that an angry God would “overturn from its foundations the fabric we have been rearing and crush us to atoms in the wreck.”
Conservative pastors continued whining well into the nineteenth century. In 1811, the Reverend Samuel Austin thundered that the Constitution “is entirely disconnected from Christianity. [This] one capital defect [will lead] inevitably to its destruction.”
In 1845, the Reverend D. X. Junkin wrote, “[The Constitution] is negatively atheistical, for no God is appealed to at all. In framing many of our public formularies, greater care seems to have been taken to adapt them to the prejudices of the INFIDEL FEW, than to the consciences of the Christian millions.”
These eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pastors knew that the Constitution was secular and granted no preferences to Christianity. They considered that a defect.
5. During the Post-Civil War Period, a Band of Politically Powerful Pastors Tried Repeatedly to Amend the U.S. Constitution to Add References to Jesus Christ and Christianity
Nineteenth-century ministers knew that the Constitution was secular and that the nation was not officially Christian. They sought to remedy that through an amendment that would have rewritten the preamble to the Constitution.
The drive was led by the National Reform Association (NRA), a kind of early religious Right organization that sought an officially Christian America. This NRA had ambitious goals. It sought laws curtailing commercial activity on Sunday, mandating Protestant worship in public schools and censorship of material deemed sexually explicit or blasphemous. (Thanks to the NRA, freethought societies of this period often had difficulties mailing periodicals to supporters. The U.S. Postal Service was under constant siege by the NRA.)
The NRA was successful in many of its legislative endeavors, but it was never able to secure passage of the Christian nation amendment. The group’s proposed preamble read as follows:
We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government, and in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the inalienable rights and blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to ourselves, our posterity and all the people, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.
Congress did consider the amendment, but the House Judiciary Committee voted it down in 1874, declaring its awareness of the dangers of putting “anything into the Constitution or frame of government which might be construed to be a refer- ence to any religious creed or doctrine.” The proposal was reintroduced several times after that; in fact, versions of it were still appearing in Congress as late as 1965.
While the NRA was never successful in getting the Christian nation amendment passed, the group had better luck with another policy objective: adding “In God We Trust” to coins. That practice was codified in the North during the Civil War.
Obviously, there would have been no need to amend the Constitution to declare America officially Christian if the document already said as much. But it didn’t, which is why the NRA felt so strongly about its emendation.
The Origins of the Christian-Nation Myth
This last point provides the key to understanding the staying power of the Christian-nation myth. The myth’s origins go back not to the founding period but to a much different time in history—the post-Civil War era.
During this period, the country came as close it ever would to being officially Christian. Many laws did reflect the tenets of that faith. For example, books, magazines, and even stage productions were banned if they were deemed insulting to the Christian faith. Protestant prayer and worship were common in many public schools. Laws curtailed Sunday commerce. Even the Supreme Court flirted with the Christian-nation concept in its infamous decision in the Holy Trinity case.
The post-Civil War era was also a period of great social upheaval. The end of slavery in the South created dislocation and confusion, which left people grasping for answers in the chaos. Other social changes loomed. Late in the century, women began advocating for the right to vote. Not surprisingly, some people reacted to these changes by latching onto reactionary religious views.
Despite the social unrest, in many ways this period of history is the religious Right’s ideal society. Think about it: public schools were pushing conservative forms of Protestantism. Religiously based censorship was common. All people were required to abide by a set of laws based on Christian principles, with the government playing the role of theological enforcer. Significantly, this was also a time of rigidly enforced gender roles and official policies of racial segregation.
Many of these principles still inspire the religious Right’s agenda today. So when religious Right leaders or television preachers hearken back to our days as a Christian nation, remember that they are not talking about the founding period. What they long for is a return to an aberrant era in late-nineteenth- century America.
The attempt to “nineteenth-century-ize” modern America continues into the present. It’s not uncommon to hear the Christian-nation myth invoked in battles over religion in public schools, displays of religious signs and symbols on public property, and other church-state disputes. It has also been raised in questions dealing with tax aid to religious groups through school vouchers and “faith-based” initiatives. The argument is that it’s only to be expected that large amounts of taxpayer money will end up in the coffers of Christian groups because we are, after all, a Christian nation.
The myth also feeds several psychological needs. It assures religious Right supporters who fear the pace of social change that things like same-sex marriage and the rise of secularists are aberrations that run counter to the “real” Christian nature of the country. It also invokes a “stolen legacy” myth—the idea that a grand and glorious history (in this case, a Christian one) exists but that it is being covered up or denied by usurpers who seek to sup- press the nation’s history as part of a power grab.
The Christian-nation myth also has political ramifications. Put simply, it is often used to motivate people to vote a certain way. Increasingly, the theocrats of the Far Right are assailing what they call the “secular Left,” an all-purpose bogeyman guilty of many crimes, including denying the Christian-nation idea.
But the myth is by no means limited to the religious Right. Polls show great confusion in this area: in 2007, for example, 55 percent of respondents told the First Amendment Center they believed the Constitution establishes America as an officially Christian nation.
Misinformation like this has especially bad consequences for secular humanists. The myth promotes the pernicious idea that non-Christians are second-class citizens in “Christian America.” It leads to the idea that the law mandates only a grudging tolerance of nonbelievers rather than what the Constitution really extends: full and equal rights to all Americans, regardless of what they do or do not believe.
That the Christian-nation myth has many supporters among the religious Right doesn’t mean it has validity. It is, in fact, a form of “historical creationism” that mainstream scholars have repeatedly shown to be fallacious. But, like “scientific creationism,” the Christian-nation myth still has great power and wide acceptance. Humanists must confront—and debunk—the myth wherever it appears.”
Rob Boston is the assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which publishes Church and State magazine.
The Truth About Religion in America: The Founders Loathed Superstition and We Were Never a Christian Nation
By Kerry Walters, Free Inquiry
N.B.: It might be noted that the first four of the ten ‘commandments’ are in direct opposition to the First Amendment!
“Once they begin to circulate, falsehoods—like counterfeit currency—are surprisingly tenacious. It doesn’t matter that there’s no backing for them. The only thing that counts is that people believe they have backing. Then, like bad coins, they turn up again and again.
One counterfeit idea that circulates with frustrating stubbornness is the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. It’s one of the Christian Right’s mantras and a favorite talking point for televangelists, religious bloggers, born-again authors and lobbyists, and pulpit preachers. Take, for example, the Reverend Peter Marshall. Before his death in 2010, he strove mightily (and loudly) to “restore America to its traditional moral and spiritual foundations,” as his still-active website says, by telling the truth about “America’s Christian heritage.” Or consider WallBuilders, a “national pro-family organization” founded by David Barton, whose mission is “educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country.” Called “America’s historian” by his admirers, Barton is a prolific writer of popular books that spin his Christian version of American history. And then there’s Cynthia Dunbar, an attorney and one-time professor at Liberty University School of Law. She’s another big pusher of the Christian America currency. Her 2008 polemic One Nation Under God proclaims that the Christian “foundational truths” on which the nation rests are being “eroded” by a “socialistic, secularistic, humanistic mindset” from which Christians need to take back the country.
Unlike some of the wackier positions taken by evangelicals—think Rapture—the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation has gone relatively mainstream. This is the case largely because the media-savvy Christian Right is good at getting across its message. A 2007 First Amendment Center poll revealed that 65 percent of Americans believe the founders intended the United States “to be a Christian nation”; over half of us think that this intention is actually spelled out somewhere in the Constitution. Conservative politicians sensitive to the way the wind blows are careful to echo the sentiment, or at least not to dispute it, even if they’re not particularly religious themselves. Recent GOP presidential aspirants Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry championed the claim with gusto. Even John McCain, who usually left the Bible-thumping to his Alaskan running mate, jumped on the bandwagon in his failed 2008 bid for the presidency by assuring a Beliefnet interviewer that “this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles” and that he personally would be disturbed if a non-Christian were elected to the highest office in the land.
So the notion that America was founded as a Christian nation is widespread. In the currency of ideas, it’s the ubiquitous penny. But like an actual penny, it doesn’t have a lot of value. That so many people think it does is largely because they don’t stop to consider what “founded as a Christian nation” might signify. Presumably the intended meaning is something like this: Christian principles are the bedrock of both our political system and founding documents because our founders were themselves Christians. Although wordier, this reformulation is just as perplexing because it’s not clear what’s meant by the term founders. Just who are we talking about here?
There are three primary candidate groups, and each is regularly invoked by the Christian Right. Some say that the founders of the nation were the Puritans, the “original settlers” of the New World. (Never mind that they’re not the original English settlers; that honor goes to the ragtag and much less prudish Jamestown lot.) Others contend that the real founders of the country were the people who actually lived in the colonies at the time of the revolution. But the most widely recognized candidates are the men at the center of the struggle for independence and the subsequent formation of the republic who have since been enshrined as the “Founding Fathers.”
Puritans as Founders
Cynthia Dunbar is among those who believe that the Puritans who began migrating to New England in the first half of the seventeenth century are our nation’s founders. In her One Nation Under God, she applies John Winthrop’s famous 1630 city-on-a-hill rhetoric about the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s destiny to the United States. “We as a nation were intended by God,” she writes, “to be a light set on a hill to serve as a beacon of hope and Christian charity to a lost and dying world.” To clinch her argument, Dunbar appeals to the Mayflower Compact, a covenant signed by slightly fewer than half of the original Mayflower Pilgrims in 1620. Quoting the part of the Compact that reads, “Having undertaken for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith … a voyage to plant the first colony,” Dunbar comments that “this is undeniably our past, and it clearly delineates us as a nation intended to be emphatically Christian.”
No less an authority than Alexis de Tocqueville shares her sentiment, although in a less heavy-handed way. In his Democracy in America(1835 and 1840), he argued that the basic principles upon which the American experiment is based—equality and democracy—were inspired by Puritan covenants such as the Mayflower Compact. They established communities in which local independence, the “mainspring and lifeblood of American freedom,” could flourish, thus preparing the way for a “completely democratic and republican” form of national government.
This sounds good on a first run-through. But the problem is that both Dunbar and de Tocqueville miss important points. The Mayflower Compact that Dunbar thinks establishes the nation on a Christian footing is clearly more political than religious. She quotes from the document’s preamble, which in fact does contain conventional references to God, but ignores the purely secular meat of the document. Signatories bind themselves “into a civil body politic” for the sake of enacting “just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony”—period. The Mayflower Compact may ceremonially invoke God, but its substance is religiously neutral. And even in its opening reference to God, there’s not a breath of anything specifically Christian.
De Tocqueville gets it right when he claims that the Puritans established self-regulating local communities. But he overplays his hand when he says that these are prototypes of democratic and republican forms of government, because the sorry truth is that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was more theocratic than democratic. Repression of religious dissent—including the public execution of Quakers and harsh restrictions on dress, behavior, and “secular” forms of entertainment—are representative of the oppressive bigotry that characterized Puritan settlements. It’s difficult to see any common denominator between Puritan polity and the principles of the early Republic except the bare fact that both advocated “just and equal laws.” But the salient point of comparison is not, of course, the mere advocacy but rather the contentof those laws, and the theocratic drift of the Puritan ones obviously clashes with the republic’s careful separation of church and state. The conclusion is obvious: the Puritans may have founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which historically preceded the United States, but they didn’t found the United States. To claim otherwise is to fall victim to one of the oldest fallacies on the books, post hoc ergo propter hoc, the hasty assumption that because A precedes B, A causes B.
Christian Majority as Founders
So much for the Puritans. What about the second candidate group, the people who actually lived in the colonies when the United States was born and consented to its creation? Weren’t they by and large Christian? And if so, wouldn’t the general will have been that the new nation reflect prevailing Christian beliefs and values? (Televangelist D. James Kennedy once threw his weight behind this assertion by bizarrely arguing that because the colonial Jewish population was so small, the Christian population had to have been overwhelmingly large.)
This is a reasonable question. But the answer isn’t as apparent as some members of the Christian Right believe, because the issue is more complicated than they allow. (The tendency to oversimplify is one of the movement’s defining characteristics.) It’s not obvious that most late-colonial residents were “Christian” in the narrow sense meant by present-day evangelicals. In the final quarter of the eighteenth century, American religious sensibilities were in flux. Because membership in religious denominations was voluntary—a welcome reaction to the earlier Puritanical repression of religious choice—inherited membership and denominational allegiance were weak. Laypeople hopped from one sect to another in such numbers and with such frequency that Richard Hofstadter calculated in his 1974 Anti-Intellectualism in American Lifethat upwards of 90 percent of Americans were unchurched during the revolutionary and early republic years. Historian James MacGregor Burns agreed, noting in his 1983 The Vineyard of Liberty that the years immediately following the Revolution were a “wintry season” for Christianity in America.
What this suggests is that it is misleading to speak of Christian belief from that period as a uniform, monolithic set of principles and doctrines (just as it’s misleading to so characterize modern-day Christian belief, by the way), because people either migrated from denomination to denomination or rejected affiliation altogether. Adding to the confusion was the plurality of Christian interpretations that they had to choose from. There were Quaker, Dunker, Baptist, Moravian, Methodist, Lutheran, Shaker, German Reformed, Anglican, Congregationalist, and Roman Catholic beliefs. Moreover, there was a spectrum of theological opinion within each of these denominations, ranging from the extremely conservative to the extremely liberal. Quakers, Moravians, Baptists, Shakers, and Dunkers were explicitly leery of attempts to marry religion and politics, but even those denominations that accepted in principle a connection disagreed on its specific parameters. In short, Christians’ attitudes about the role their faith should play in the governance of the new nation were all over the map.
To illustrate just how ambiguous the label “Christian” could be, consider the example of James Madison, who was consecrated Episcopal bishop of Virginia in 1790. (No, not that Madison. The bishop shared a name with his cousin, the fourth president of the United States.) Even though he shepherded one of the most populous Episcopal dioceses in the country, Madison was criticized even during his lifetime for being something of a freethinking Deist. Clearly influenced by the Enlightenment era’s emphasis on natural science—he taught the subject for years at the College of William and Mary—Madison, as one of his fellow bishops delicately put it, was thought to “philosophize too much on the subject of religion” to be entirely orthodox. Despite his Church of England connection, Madison was also a patriot during the revolution, ardently championing political equality and democracy. But it’s difficult to tell whether his reasons for doing so are attributable to Christian conviction or his study of political theorists such as John Locke. Both influences are intermingled in his writings and sermons.
Madison was by no means unique. Many of his formally Christian contemporaries held similarly heterodox views that would be quite unacceptable to today’s Christian Right. As I argued in my 1998Benjamin Franklin and His Gods, Americans in the late colonial and early republic years were often caught in a worldview clash between Christianity on the one hand and the Enlightenment on the other. Some reacted by clinging to their Christian faith and blasting Enlightenment “infidelity” with jeremiads, while others, as Jonathan Edwards grumbled in 1773, “wholly cast off the Christian religion and are professed infidels.” College students at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, King’s (present day Columbia), William and Mary, and Dartmouth gleefully embraced, at least for a while, the Enlightenment’s anti-biblical religion of Deism. In the 1790s, thanks largely to the efforts of Deist crusader Elihu Palmer, militant Deism—which rejected miracles, revelation, the authority of Scripture, and the divinity of Jesus—enjoyed a spurt of rather astounding popularity. But many people who lived at the founding of the nation tried to steer a middle course that combined, even if awkwardly at times, elements from both Christian and Enlightenment worldviews. This made for any number of nuanced possibilities when it came to Christian commitment, all of them much more complex than the Christian Right would prefer to acknowledge.
Christian Founding Fathers
Since colonial and early republic Christians were no more uniform in belief than today’s Christians are, we can dismiss the claim that the United States was intended to be Christian because the general population at the time of independence was Christian. But what about the position that the leaders in the struggle for independence—names that every American kid immediately recognizes—were Christian and intended the republic to reflect their religious convictions? This is the argument to which the Christian Right most commonly appeals. Marshall, Barton, and Dunbar champion it with gusto, as do dozens of other evangelical authors such as John Eidsmore (Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers, 1995); Tim LaHaye of apocalyptic Left Behind series fame (Faith of Our Founding Fathers, 1994); and Gary DeMar (America’s Christian Heritage, 2003). As we’ve seen, it’s also received wisdom for a majority of Americans.
The problem, as scholar after scholar has pointed out—how often must it be repeated before the reality breaks through the myth?—is that it simply isn’t true. The Founding Fathers weren’t all Christian. Some, of course, were: Patrick Henry (Episcopalian), John Hancock (Congregationalist), John Jay (Episcopalian), and Sam Adams (Congregationalist), for example, were all devout and pretty conventional Christians. But the big players in the founding of the United States—such men as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and probably Alexander Hamilton—weren’t. Each of them was much more comfortable with a deistic understanding of God than a Christian one. For them, the deity was an impersonal First Cause who created a rationally patterned natural order and who was best worshiped through the exercise of reason and virtue. Most of them may have admired the ethical teachings of Jesus (although Paine conspicuously did not), but all of them loathed and rejected the priestcraft and superstition they associated with Christianity.
Despite this, the Christian Right insists on adopting these men (aside from Paine) as Christian founders. The usual justification is that each of them (again, except Paine) belonged to an established Christian denomination. But as we’ve already seen, formal membership by itself wasn’t then (or now) a fail-safe measure of an individual’s religious beliefs. As David Holmes compellingly argues in his 2006 Faiths of the Founding Fathers, other factors—such as the way in which the founders referred to God, opinions they expressed in personal correspondence, and their involvement in church life—must be considered as well. None of the founders, for example, used conventional Christian language when writing or speaking about God. Instead, the terms they favored—Supreme Architect, Author of Nature, First Cause, Nature’s God, Superattending Power—were unmistakably deistic. (One of the Christian Right’s most telling blind spots is its failure to pick up on the founders’ obviously non-Christian nomenclature.) Another indicator of their lack of conventional Christian commitment is the fact that while all of them had been baptized as infants, an initiation that of course made them nominally Christian, none who were members of denominations that offered the sacrament of Confirmation sought it as adults. Moreover, they generally did not take Communion when it was offered, nor did they typically involve themselves in church activities. Even when they did, it was no clear signal that they were orthodox Christians. George Washington, for example, served on the vestry in several Episcopalian parishes. But he avoided Confirmation and Communion, never used give-away Christian terms such as Lord or Redeemer, and rarely even referred to Jesus by name. Finally, none of them gave the slightest hint in their personal letters or diaries that they considered themselves committed Christians.
The obvious conclusion is that it’s a stretch to call the leading founders “Christians,” particularly of the evangelical sort. Most of them may not have been contemptuously anti-Christian (although Paine certainly was, with Jefferson a close second), but neither did they have much use for Christianity. They had so little regard for its central tenets, in fact, that they couldn’t square it with their consciences to salt their public statements with even an occasional Christian phrase. In this way they displayed an integrity that few vote-hungry politicians in our day feel moved to emulate. Revealingly, only a handful of their contemporaries seemed particularly bothered by their obvious indifference to Christianity, and those who made a big deal of it generally did so more for political reasons—as when Federalists attacked the “infidel” Jefferson in the presidential elections of 1800 and 1804—than from any sense of outraged orthodoxy. Then as now, what pretended to be a religious battle was often a political one.
Perhaps the most obvious way in which the founders intentionally used non-Christian language is in their drafting of the nation’s two defining documents, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. In the Constitution, no mention whatsoever of God is made except in the document’s date (“Done … in the year of our Lord …”), an inexplicable oversight if its framers intended it to lay the foundation for a Christian nation. The Declaration of Independence does use religious language, but the religion is obviously Deism rather than Christianity. God is referred to as “Nature’s God,” the “Creator” of the physical “Laws of Nature” in addition to the “unalienable [moral] Rights” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To interpret the document as even suggestively Christian is sheer fantasy or worse. On the contrary, both it and the Constitution clearly serve as precedents for the famous passage in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli—one which the Christian Right loves to hate—which affirms that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The treaty, which sealed a routine diplomatic agreement between the U.S. and the Muslim state of Tripolitania, was unanimously ratified by the Senate and publicly endorsed and signed by President John Adams. That it was passed without debate or dissent attests to the fact that neither the president nor senators found its denial of a Christian foundation to the nation objectionable.
The claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, therefore, just doesn’t ring historically true. But as with all counterfeit coins, there’s enough genuine metal mixed in with the paste to fool unsuspecting consumers. To deny the obviously false claim that the founders of the United States intended it to be Christian doesn’t imply that certain sentiments and values held by Christians played no role in the nation’s founding. As we’ve seen, the Puritans endorsed equality and self-government. Baptists and Quakers, probably because of their sometimes savage persecution by Puritans, championed the separation of church and state. Deistic nominal Christians, such as Bishop James Madison, embraced the political ideals of tolerance and republicanism. But none of these beliefs are uniquely Christian, and in fact they’re much more obviously at home in Enlightenment liberal thought than eighteenth-century orthodox Christian theology. One could have held them as a Christian, but holding them didn’t necessarily mean one was a Christian. Such beliefs could just as well have been held by a Deist or even a thoroughgoing secularist. Nonetheless, to the extent that some Christians held them, it is undeniable that Christian-owned principles were part of the convergence of beliefs that defined the new nation. This is, however, a far cry from saying that the nation was explicitly built upon Christian principles.
But let’s concede, just for the sake of the argument, what is patently false: that the nation in fact was founded on Christian principles and intended by its founders to be Christian. The obvious perplexity that then arises is why the Christian Right is so convinced that a “socialistic, secularistic, and humanistic mindset” has jerked the nation up by its Christian roots. The founding documents framed by our “Christian” forebears are still venerated today. The same protection of religious liberty endorsed by our “Christian” founders is still fiercely championed by political leaders and the courts. So what’s been uprooted? What’s been lost that our “Christian” founders put in place?
The answer, of course, is that nothing has been lost, and the Christian Right knows it. What evangelicals really want is something that never was, and that’s an explicitly sectarian statement of commitment to Christ worked into the warp and woof of national law and public policy. What they want is the Christian theocracy that the founders explicitly rejected. For all their political thundering against the intrusive ways of “big government,” what evangelicals yearn for is strict legal codification of their version of Christian values. What never occurs to the Christian Right is that if the founders in fact had been Christians intending to create a commonwealth faithful to Jesus’s teachings, the United States today would be a nation quite different from what evangelicals think it should be. There would be no standing army, no divide between rich and poor, no ethnic hatred or closed borders, no persecution of religious dissent, no national chauvinism, a lot less holier-than-thou finger-pointing, and a lot more forgiveness and compassion.
Now, that would be a shining city built on a hill.”
Kerry Walters, William Bittinger Professor of Philosophy at Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania, is the author or editor of twenty-five books, including Revolutionary Deists: Early America’s Rational Deists, a 2011 Choice Outstanding Book; a critical edition of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason (Broadview, 2011); and Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum, 2010).
By: Valerie Talico
“I am what you might call a slow learner. I managed to make it all the way through high school, despite an eating disorder I couldn’t pray away, and all the way through college, despite a suicidal depression triggered by the same eating disorder, and almost all the way through grad school before I finally gave up on my religion and god.
By contrast, my friend Geoff figured things out in the second grade. One day a nun at his Catholic school tried to pour holy water on the one Black kid in the school to exorcise the devil because he kept getting in fights. But Geoff thought to himself: It’s not Satan, it’s because all the other kids pick on him. Today Geoff is a psychologist working for Seattle Children’s Hospital –which is, ironically, the same place that did in the last shreds of my Evangelical beliefs.
I can’t recall the name of the small person who severed the final strands of my faith. There’s just a vague image of soft brown hair and trusting brown eyes. I was 26, in the last stage of my PhD program, which required a year-long internship at the University of Washington. In one of my rotations, the one at Children’s Hospital, interns provided mental health consultation for families of patients on the medical wards. He was two, and in the first phase of treatment for a spinal cord tumor that would leave him paraplegic even if the nightmare course of chemotherapy were successful. I don’t know how long he survived.
Maybe it was his eyes, or his inability to comprehend why he couldn’t walk anymore, or why people who looked kind kept hurting him. Maybe it was the unbearable tenderness of his parents, who simply wanted to take their child home and love him rather than watch him suffer inexplicable months of “treatment” for a long shot at extending his life. But something inside me broke.
For years I had been patching my Christian faith together, as I like to say, with duct tape and bailing wire. My beliefs had become more and more idiosyncratic as I tried to hold together the lot of moral and rational contradictions that make up born-again, Bible-believing Christianity. Now, finally, after two decades of warping my feelings, perceptions and intellect to defend the absolute goodness of the Christian God, I got mad. I said to the god in my head, “I’m not making excuses for you anymore. I quit.” And just like that, God was gone. All that was left was the frame of tape and wire: empty excuses, rationalizations and songs of worship that sounded oddly flat.
I tell you these two stories because they illustrate two extremes of leaving faith. On the one hand you have Geoff, whose parents were casual believers and whose skepticism kicked in early. On the other hand you have me, who took things to the brink of suicide because, as I thought, if I couldn’t pray away bulimia and depression then I was a failure in God’s eyes. There are many paths into religion and many paths out.
The Damage Done
Most freethinkers were religious at one point in their lives. Whether you need a recovery process to move beyond that — and how intensive that recovery process will be — depends on what you believed, how deeply you believed it, and how much of your social support depended on fellow believers. ExChristian.net hosts forums that give people a chance to talk about their exodus from faith with support from fellow travelers. As often as not, loneliness is one of the hardest parts of the process. A believer can go anywhere in the world and find a ready-made community of fellow Christians. But a former believer can find himself or herself alone at the dinner table surrounded by family members but harboring a dark secret that would trigger rejection and judgment – if they only knew.
Ministers who lose their faith often face the worst isolation, which is why Richard Dawkins and other have launched the Clergy Project to support those who are in transition. My friend Rich Lyons is a member of the project. He had to leave his home in Texas and excavate old radio skills he hadn’t used in over a decade in order to start life over in Seattle. Questioning cost him not only his livelihood, but also his wife, access to his beloved daughter, and his small-town reputation as a decent person. Rich now produces a podcast series called Living After Faith – his way of offering a helping hand to other exiles from Christian fundamentalism.
Getting out of the church can be a complicated process — but it’s easy compared to getting the church out of you. A while back, I wrote an article titled “Getting God’s Self-appointed Messengers Out of Your Head.” I talked about a concept psychologists call “introjects.” When you are a toddler, your mobility outpaces your good sense. Left to their own devices, many toddlers would play in traffic — without even being told to. Caregivers have to provide constant external supervision. One of the ways that a toddler becomes capable of greater autonomy is that the voices of those external supervisors get internalized. The toddler brain develops what we call an introjected parent — an internal model that can say, “Don’t follow that ball into the street,” even if the real-world mother or father isn’t there. We create virtual, introjected parents (and teachers and preachers), so that even if all of those authority figures disappear we will still know how to function. But at some point having your parents along in your head is a disadvantage — say, for example, when somebody really hot has just undone the top button on your shirt.
I think of recovery from religion like peeling layers off of an onion. Dissenting intellectually from teachings or doctrines you learned as an adult is like peeling off one of the outer layers. But if you keep going, you find scripts that got laid down earlier—attitudes, emotional conditioning, ideas you were taught before you had the capacity to question them. And some of these are tremendously harmful from a psychological standpoint.
I once was speaking to a group of Hindus who wanted to understand evangelical Christianity, because rampant proselytizing was dividing their villages and splitting families down the middle. After the talk, a woman named Mohini came up to me. She asked, “Is what you told us really true — that Christians believe children are born evil?” I explained again the doctrine of original sin. She was horrified. She said, “When babies are born into Hindu families, we whisper to them: ‘You are perfect. You are a spark of the divine.’”
Last week, I was working alongside my friend Al, who is a carpenter and used to belong to a Christian commune. I asked him, “If you were talking to a group of college students about recovery from religion, what would you tell them? What would you most want them to know?” He said: “Tell them they are OK just the way they are.” Getting rid of the sense that you were born deeply, unacceptably flawed can be a lifetime endeavor.
Triggers for Leaving
Like my own experience at Children’s Hospital, many former believers experience some kind of acute trigger. Religion has an immune system made up of promises, threats and behavioral scripts that keep belief from crumbling under pressure from outside information. In Bible-believing Christianity, that immune reaction includes disparagement of rationality: “Thinking themselves wise they became fools” (Romans 1:22) or “The fool has said in his heart there is no God” (Psalms 14:1). The Bible is full of threats against the faithless, from the story of Noah’s flood to the tortures promised in Revelation. Rules for believers prohibit emotional attachments to outsiders: “Be ye not unequally yoked with unbelievers, for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness and what communion hath light with darkness” (2 Cor 6:14).
When the religion’s immune system is working, it can seem like nothing gets through. A motivated believer will fend off any amount of linear reasoning or evidence. Backed into a corner he or she will simply insist, “I just know.” I picture some of my own family members surrounded by a polished wall of smooth steel—impervious, with no foot or handhold.
And yet, over time, life creates little windows of opening. Sometimes the trigger is unignorable hypocrisies or cruelty by church members. Sometimes it is a life crisis—a divorce, natural disaster, injury or loss of a loved one. Sometimes new social connections open up new ideas. Sometimes the accumulation of contradictory information reaches a tipping point. Bible-believing Christians, those who see the Bible as the perfect word of God, would be horrified to know how often loss of faith is triggered by someone deciding to read the good book and discovering the long litany of slavery, incest, misogyny, genocide, or scientific absurdities there.
Stages of Recovery
When the walls of faith start crumbling, people often go through a process that I think of as roughly four phases based on the dominant emotions of each stage:
1. Denial and fear. When religion has provided the structure to your life, doubt can be terrifying—especially if you’ve been taught that doubt is a sign of spiritual weakness or comes straight from the devil. In this phase, many believers redouble their efforts to shore up their faith. They may pray desperately for God to take away the doubts. Increased Bible-reading is common. So is missionary work: if you can convince others God is real, then surely it must be true. Psychologist Marlene Winell specializes in recovery from religion. For this phase of recovery, she offers clients two bits of advice that she sums up as “Get real” and “Get a grip”:
Be honest with yourself about whether your religion is working for you. Let go of trying to force it to make sense….Don’t panic. The fear you feel is part of the indoctrination. All those messages about what will happen to you if you leave the religion are a self-serving part of the religion. If you calm down, you’ll be just fine. Many people have been through this.
2. Uncertainty and guilt. At some point, doubt gains the upper hand. But that doesn’t mean the transition is over. When those final threads of my own faith broke, I kept my thoughts to myself. I didn’t believe in God anymore, so I told myself, but I didn’t want to drag anyone else to hell with me. A friend described this phase as “I don’t believe in Hell. Does that mean I’m going there?” It would take several years and several therapists after my Children’s Hospital rotation before I risked asking my brother Dan how he managed to hold onto our childhood beliefs. (I found out his beliefs were as long gone as mine.)
My book, Trusting Doubt, is particularly valuable in this phase because it digs into core evangelical teachings, showing how they can’t possibly be true. Information is powerful in helping to purge those last lingering shreds of doubt and the guilt that goes with them. Learn about yourself, the world around you and the history of your religion. Former Mormon Garrett Amini says his parents called books and articles that were critical of his religion “spiritual pornography.” Evangelicals don’t use this term, but the concept is probably familiar to anyone who has ever been a part of a sect that has to constantly fend off reality. So, read widely:evolutionary biology, analysis of sacred texts, psychology of religion, physics. Listen with open ears. The truth will set you free.
3. Loss, grief and anger. Once there’s no going back, it’s not unusual to feel bereft, spiritually, socially, intellectually and emotionally. The loss is real, even if Jesus is not. Religion offers clarity, identity, purpose, community, a channel for joy, a structure around which to sculpt the week and the calendar year. That is a lot to lose — even if your parents or spouse don’t kick you out. Grieving is important. So is anger. Anger is an activating emotion, it gives you the guts to say what is real—to yourself and to others, and to make hard changes. Christians often are taught that anger is bad, and many people will encourage you to shutter it during the recovery process. It can feel risky, too big or too out of control. But the reality is that each of our emotions has a purpose, and sometimes we need to express anger so we can learn how to take care of ourselves without it. Learning to express anger in a way that is appropriate and modulated takes practice.
When you get stuck in either grief or anger, it’s time to get help. Marlene Winell’s book,Leaving the Fold, has great self-help exercises for fundamentalists in recovery. But sometimes self-help isn’t enough. Winell offers long-distance phone consultations andRecoveringfromReligion.org is creating a referral list of mental health professionals who are able to work with clients in recovery.
4. Emergence, curiosity, affirmation. The very first ex-Christian Web site I ran across – now almost 10 years ago — was called losingmyreligion.com. Its archive still exists, headed by the same banner it had then — a picture of a dead fish and an inscription that says: “Stay home Sundays, save 10 percent.” Just beneath the banner is this poem:
I woke up to an empty room
No more angels watching over me.
No more demons to be held at bay
by the invocation of
an Anglicized version
of a Hellenized version
of a Hebrew name
I woke up to an empty room:
Just a room. Four walls, ceiling, floor.
Just a room. Nothing more.
I woke up to an empty room
and embraced the solid air.
I woke up to an empty room and knew myself
What Comes Next?
In those wonderful interludes when you find yourself awake, the dominant emotions shift from focusing on who you were to focusing on who and what you want to be. Which values and habits from your religion do you want to keep? What do you want to call yourself? What new discoveries most excite your curiosity? What matters – really matters to you?
As a movement, atheism—freethought—secularism is just becoming strong enough to move beyond a defensive posture and beginning to ask these questions. Are there secular moral absolutes? Dare we talk about secular spiritual community? How do we build ritual, holidays and music back into our communal lives? Absent religion, how can we together express wonder and joy?
Joseph Campbell had this to say:
People say that what we are all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive….”
That is the quest of a lifetime.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” and “Deas and Other Imaginings.” Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.
By: Greta Christina
“But just because religion has done some harm — that doesn’t mean it’s mistaken! Sure, people have done terrible things in God‘s name. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist!”
Yup. If you’re arguing that — you’re absolutely right. And the question of whether religion is true or not is important. It’s not the main point of this book: if you want more thorough arguments for why God doesn’t exist, by me or other writers, check out the Resource Guide at the end of this book. But “Does God exist?” is a valid and relevant question. Here are my Top Ten reasons why the answer is a resounding, “No.”
1: The consistent replacement of supernatural explanations of the world with natural ones.
When you look at the history of what we know about the world, you see a noticeable pattern. Natural explanations of things have been replacing supernatural explanations of them. Like a steamroller. Why the Sun rises and sets. Where thunder and lightning come from. Why people get sick. Why people look like their parents. How the complexity of life came into being. I could go on and on.
All these things were once explained by religion. But as we understood the world better, and learned to observe it more carefully, the explanations based on religion were replaced by ones based on physical cause and effect. Consistently. Thoroughly. Like a steamroller. The number of times that a supernatural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a natural explanation? Thousands upon thousands upon thousands.
Now. The number of times that a natural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a supernatural one? The number of times humankind has said, “We used to think (X) was caused by physical cause and effect, but now we understand that it’s caused by God, or spirits, or demons, or the soul”?
Sure, people come up with new supernatural “explanations” for stuff all the time. But explanations with evidence? Replicable evidence? Carefully gathered, patiently tested, rigorously reviewed evidence? Internally consistent evidence? Large amounts of it, from many different sources? Again — exactly zero.
Given that this is true, what are the chances that any given phenomenon for which we currently don’t have a thorough explanation — human consciousness, for instance, or the origin of the Universe — will be best explained by the supernatural?
Given this pattern, it’s clear that the chances of this are essentially zero. So close to zero that they might as well be zero. And the hypothesis of the supernatural is therefore a hypothesis we can discard. It is a hypothesis we came up with when we didn’t understand the world as well as we do now… but that, on more careful examination, has never once been shown to be correct.
If I see any solid evidence to support God, or any supernatural explanation of any phenomenon, I’ll reconsider my disbelief. Until then, I’ll assume that the mind-bogglingly consistent pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones is almost certain to continue.
(Oh — for the sake of brevity, I’m generally going to say “God” in this chapter when I mean “God, or the soul, or metaphysical energy, or any sort of supernatural being or substance.” I don’t feel like getting into discussions about, “Well, I don’t believe in an old man in the clouds with a white beard, but I believe…” It’s not just the man in the white beard that I don’t believe in. I don’t believe in any sort of religion, any sort of soul or spirit or metaphysical guiding force, anything that isn’t the physical world and its vast and astonishing manifestations.
2: The inconsistency of world religions.
If God (or any other metaphysical being or beings) were real, and people were really perceiving him/ her/ it/ them, why do these perceptions differ so wildly?
When different people look at, say, a tree, we more or less agree about what we’re looking at: what size it is, what shape, whether it currently has leaves or not and what color those leaves are, etc. We may have disagreements regarding the tree — what other plants it’s most closely related to, where it stands in the evolutionary scheme, should it be cut down to make way for a new sports stadium, etc. But unless one of us is hallucinating or deranged or literally unable to see, we can all agree on the tree’s basic existence, and the basic facts about it.
This is blatantly not the case for God. Even among people who do believe in God, there is no agreement about what God is, what God does, what God wants from us, how he acts or doesn’t act on the world, whether he’s a he, whether there’s one or more of him, whether he’s a personal being or a diffuse metaphysical substance. And this is among smart, thoughtful people. What’s more, many smart, thoughtful people don’t even think God exists.
And if God existed, he’d be a whole lot bigger, a whole lot more powerful, with a whole lot more effect in the world, than a tree. Why is it that we can all see a tree in more or less the same way, but we don’t see God in even remotely the same way?
The explanation, of course, is that God does not exist. We disagree so radically over what he is because we aren’t perceiving anything that’s real. We’re “perceiving” something we made up; something we were taught to believe; something that the part of our brain that’s wired to see pattern and intention, even when none exists, is inclined to see and believe.
3: The weakness of religious arguments, explanations, and apologetics.
I have seen a lot of arguments for the existence of God. And they all boil down to one or more of the following: The argument from authority. (Example: “God exists because the Bible says God exists.”) The argument from personal experience. (Example: “God exists because I feel in my heart that God exists.”) The argument that religion shouldn’t have to logically defend its claims. (Example: “God is an entity that cannot be proven by reason or evidence.”) Or the redefining of God into an abstract principle… so abstract that it can’t be argued against, but also so abstract that it scarcely deserves the name God. (Example: “God is love.”)
And all these arguments are ridiculously weak.
Sacred books and authorities can be mistaken. I have yet to see a sacred book that doesn’t have any mistakes. (The Bible, to give just one example, is shot full of them.) And the feelings in people’s hearts can definitely be mistaken. They are mistaken, demonstrably so, much of the time. Instinct and intuition play an important part in human understanding and experience… but they should never be treated as the final word on a subject. I mean, if I told you, “The tree in front of my house is 500 feet tall with hot pink leaves,” and I offered as a defense, “I know this is true because my mother/ preacher/ sacred book tells me so”… or “I know this is true because I feel it in my heart”… would you take me seriously?
Some people do try to prove God’s existence by pointing to evidence in the world. But that evidence is inevitably terrible. Pointing to the perfection of the Bible as a historical and prophetic document, for instance… when it so blatantly is nothing of the kind. Or pointing to the fine-tuning of the Universe for life… even though this supposedly perfect fine-tuning is actually pretty crappy, and the conditions that allow for life on Earth have only existed for the tiniest fragment of the Universe’s existence and are going to be boiled away by the Sun in about a billion years. Or pointing to the complexity of life and the world and insisting that it must have been designed… when the sciences of biology and geology and such have provided far, far better explanations for what seems, at first glance, like design.
As to the argument that “We don’t have to show you any reason or evidence, it’s unreasonable and intolerant for you to even expect that”… that’s conceding the game before you’ve even begun. It’s like saying, “I know I can’t make my case — therefore I’m going to concentrate my arguments on why I don’t have to make my case in the first place.” It’s like a defense lawyer who knows their client is guilty, so they try to get the case thrown out on a technicality.
Ditto with the “redefining God out of existence” argument. If what you believe in isn’t a supernatural being or substance that has, or at one time had, some sort of effect on the world… well, your philosophy might be an interesting one, but it is not, by any useful definition of the word, religion.
Again: If I tried to argue, “The tree in front of my house is 500 feet tall with hot pink leaves — and the height and color of trees is a question that is best answered with personal faith and feeling, not with reason or evidence”… or, “I know this is true because I am defining ’500 feet tall and hot pink’ as the essential nature of tree-ness, regardless of its outward appearance”… would you take me seriously?
4: The increasing diminishment of God.
This is closely related to #1 (the consistent replacement of supernatural explanations of the world with natural ones). But it’s different enough to deserve its own section.
When you look at the history of religion, you see that the perceived power of God has been diminishing. As our understanding of the physical world has increased — and as our ability to test theories and claims has improved — the domain of God’s miracles and interventions, or other supposed supernatural phenomena, has consistently shrunk.
Examples: We stopped needing God to explain floods… but we still needed him to explain sickness and health. Then we didn’t need him to explain sickness and health… but we still needed him to explain consciousness. Now we’re beginning to get a grip on consciousness, so we’ll soon need God to explain… what?
Or, as writer and blogger Adam Lee so eloquently put it in his Ebon Musings website, “Where the Bible tells us God once shaped worlds out of the void and parted great seas with the power of his word, today his most impressive acts seem to be shaping sticky buns into the likenesses of saints and conferring vaguely-defined warm feelings on his believers’ hearts when they attend church.”
This is what atheists call the “god of the gaps.” Whatever gap there is in our understanding of the world, that’s what God is supposedly responsible for. Wherever the empty spaces are in our coloring book, that’s what gets filled in with the blue crayon called God.
But the blue crayon is worn down to a nub. And it’s never turned out to be the right color. And over and over again, throughout history, we’ve had to go to great trouble to scrape the blue crayon out of people’s minds and replace it with the right color. Given this pattern, doesn’t it seem that we should stop reaching for the blue crayon every time we see an empty space in the coloring book?
5: The fact that religion runs in families.
The single strongest factor in determining what religion a person is? It’s what religion they were brought up with. By far. Very few people carefully examine all the available religious beliefs — or even some of those beliefs — and select the one they think most accurately describes the world. Overwhelmingly, people believe whatever religion they were taught as children.
Now, we don’t do this with, for instance, science. We don’t hold on to the Steady State theory of the Universe, or geocentrism, or the four bodily humours theory of illness, simply because it’s what we were taught as children. We believe whatever scientific understanding is best supported by the best available evidence at the time. And if the evidence changes, our understanding changes. (Unless, of course, it’s a scientific understanding that our religion teaches is wrong…)
Even political opinions don’t run in families as stubbornly as religion. Witness the opinion polls that show support of same-sex marriage increasing with each new generation. Political beliefs learned from youth can, and do, break down in the face of the reality that people see every day. And scientific theories do this, all the time, on a regular basis.
This is emphatically not the case with religion.
Which leads me to the conclusion that religion is not a perception of a real entity. If it were, people wouldn’t just believe whatever religion they were taught as children, simply because it was what they were taught as children. The fact that religion runs so firmly in families strongly suggests that it is not a perception of a real phenomenon. It is a dogma, supported and perpetuated by tradition and social pressure — and in many cases, by fear and intimidation. Not by reality.
6: The physical causes of everything we think of as the soul.
The sciences of neurology and neuropsychology are in their infancy. But they are advancing by astonishing leaps and bounds, even as we speak. And what they are finding — consistently, thoroughly, across the board — is that, whatever consciousness is, it is inextricably linked to the brain.
Everything we think of as the soul — consciousness, identity, character, free will — all of that is powerfully affected by physical changes to the brain and body. Changes in the brain result in changes in consciousness… sometimes so drastically, they make a personality unrecognizable. Changes in consciousness can be seen, with magnetic resonance imagery, as changes in the brain. Illness, injury, drugs and medicines, sleep deprivation, etc…. all of these can make changes to the supposed “soul,” both subtle and dramatic. And death, of course, is a physical change that renders a person’s personality and character, not only unrecognizable, but non-existent.
So the obvious conclusion is that consciousness and identity, character and free will, are products of the brain and the body. They’re biological processes, governed by laws of physical cause and effect. With any other phenomenon, if we can show that physical forces and actions produce observable effects, we think of that as a physical phenomenon. Why should the “soul” be any different?
What’s more, the evidence supporting this conclusion comes from rigorously-gathered, carefully-tested, thoroughly cross-checked, double-blinded, placebo- controlled, replicated, peer-reviewed research. The evidence has been gathered, and continues to be gathered, using the gold standard of scientific evidence: methods specifically designed to filter out biases and cognitive errors as much as humanly possible. And it’s not just a little research. It’s an enormous mountain of research… a mountain that’s growing more mountainous every day.
The hypothesis of the soul, on the other hand, has not once in all of human history been supported by good, solid scientific evidence. That’s pretty surprising when you think about it. For decades, and indeed centuries, most scientists had some sort of religious beliefs, and most of them believed in the soul. So a great deal of early science was dedicated to proving the soul’s existence, and discovering and exploring its nature. It wasn’t until after decades upon decades of fruitless research in this area that scientists finally gave it up as a bad job, and concluded, almost unanimously, that the reason they hadn’t found a soul was that there was no such thing.
Are there unanswered questions about consciousness? Absolutely. Tons of them. No reputable neurologist or neuropsychologist would say otherwise. But think again about how the history of human knowledge is the history of supernatural explanations being replaced by natural ones… with relentless consistency, again, and again, and again. There hasn’t been a single exception to this pattern. Why would we assume that the soul is going to be that exception? Why would we assume that this gap in our knowledge, alone among all the others, is eventually going to be filled with a supernatural explanation? The historical pattern doesn’t support it. And the evidence doesn’t support it. The increasingly clear conclusion of the science is that consciousness is a product of the brain. Period.
7: The complete failure of any sort of supernatural phenomenon to stand up to rigorous testing.
Not all religious and spiritual beliefs make testable claims. But some of them do. And in the face of actual testing, every one of those claims falls apart like Kleenex in a hurricane.
Whether it’s the power of prayer, or faith healing, or astrology, or life after death: the same pattern is seen. Whenever religious and supernatural beliefs have made testable claims, and those claims have been tested — not half-assedly tested, but really tested, using careful, rigorous, double-blind, placebo-controlled, replicated, etc. etc. etc. testing methods — the claims have consistently fallen apart. Occasionally a scientific study has appeared that claimed to support something supernatural… but more thorough studies have always refuted them. Every time.
I’m not going to cite each one of these tests, or even most of them. This chapter is already long as it is. Instead, I’ll encourage you to spend a little time on theCommittee for Skeptical Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer websites. You’ll see a pattern so consistent it boggles the mind: Claimants insist that Supernatural Claim X is real. Supernatural Claim X is subjected to careful testing, applying the standard scientific methods used in research to screen out bias and fraud. Supernatural Claim X is found to hold about as much water as a sieve. (And claimants, having agreed beforehand that the testing method is valid, afterwards insist that it wasn’t fair.)
And don’t say, “Oh, the testers were biased.” That’s the great thing about the scientific method. It’s designed to screen out bias, as much as is humanly possible. When done right, it will give you the right answer, regardless of the bias of the people doing the testing.
And I want to repeat an important point about the supposed anti-religion bias in science. In the early days of science and the scientific method, most scientists did believe in God, and the soul, and the metaphysical. In fact, many early science experiments were attempts to prove the existence of these things, and discover their true natures, and resolve the squabbles about them once and for all. It was only after decades of these experiments failing to turn up anything at all that the scientific community began — gradually, and very reluctantly — to give up on the idea.
Supernatural claims only hold up under careless, casual examination. They are supported by wishful thinking, and confirmation bias (i.e., our tendency to overemphasize evidence that supports what we believe and to discard evidence that contradicts it), and our poor understanding and instincts when it comes to probability, and our tendency to see pattern and intention even when none exists, and a dozen other forms of cognitive bias and weird human brain wiring. When studied carefully, under conditions specifically designed to screen these things out, the claims vanish like the insubstantial imaginings they are.
8: The slipperiness of religious and spiritual beliefs.
Not all religious and spiritual beliefs make testable claims. Many of them have a more “saved if we do, saved if we don’t” quality. If things go the believer’s way, it’s a sign of God’s grace and intervention; if they don’t, then God moves in mysterious ways, and maybe he has a lesson to teach that we don’t understand, and it’s not up to us to question his will. No matter what happens, it can be twisted to prove that the belief is right.
That is a sure sign of a bad argument.
Here’s the thing. It is a well-established principle in the philosophy of science that, if a theory can be supported no matter what possible evidence comes down the pike, it is useless. It has no power to explain what’s already happened, or to predict what will happen in the future. The theory of gravity, for instance, could be disproven by things suddenly falling up; the theory of evolution could be disproven by finding rabbits in the pre-Cambrian fossil layer. These theories predict that those things won’t happen; if they do, the theories go poof. But if your theory of God’s existence holds up no matter what happens — whether your friend with cancer gets better or dies, whether natural disasters strike big sinful cities or small God-fearing towns — then it’s a useless theory, with no power to predict or explain anything.
What’s more, when atheists challenge theists on their beliefs, the theists’ arguments shift and slip around in an annoying “moving the goalposts” way. Hard-line fundamentalists, for instance, will insist on the unchangeable perfect truth of the Bible; but when challenged on its specific historical or scientific errors, they insist that you’re not interpreting those passages correctly. (If the book needs interpreting, then how perfect can it be?)
And progressive ecumenical believers can be unbelievably slippery about what they do and don’t believe. Is God real, or a metaphor? Does God intervene in the world, or doesn’t he? Do they even believe in God, or do they just choose to act as if they believe because they find it useful? Debating with a progressive believer is like wrestling with a fish: the arguments aren’t very powerful, but they’re slippery, and they don’t give you anything firm to grab onto.
Once again, that’s a sure sign of a bad argument. If you can’t make your case and then stick by it, or modify it, or let it go… then you don’t have a good case. (And if you’re making any version of the “Shut up, that’s why” argument — arguing that it’s intolerant to question religious beliefs, or that letting go of doubts about faith makes you a better person, or that doubting faith will get you tortured in Hell, or any of the other classic arguments intended to quash debate rather than address it — that’s a sure sign that your argument is in the toilet.)
9: The failure of religion to improve or clarify over time.
Over the years and decades and centuries, our understanding of the physical world has grown and clarified by a ridiculous amount. We understand things about the Universe that we couldn’t have imagined a thousand years ago, or a hundred, or even ten. Things that make your mouth gape with astonishment just to think about.
And the reason for this is that we came up with an incredibly good method for sorting out good ideas from bad ones. We came up with the scientific method, a self-correcting method for understanding the physical world: a method which — over time, and with the many fits and starts that accompany any human endeavor — has done an astonishingly good job of helping us perceive and understand the world, predict it and shape it, in ways we couldn’t have imagined in decades and centuries past. And the scientific method itself is self-correcting. Not only has our understanding of the natural world improved dramatically: our method for understanding it is improving as well.
Our understanding of the supernatural world? Not so much.
Our understanding of the supernatural world is in the same place it’s always been: hundreds and indeed thousands of sects, squabbling over which sacred texts and spiritual intuitions are the right ones. We haven’t come to any consensus about which religion best understands the supernatural world. We haven’t even come up with a method for making that decision. All anyone can do is point to their own sacred text and their own spiritual intuition. And around in the squabbling circle we go.
All of which points to religion, not as a perception of a real being or substance, but as an idea we made up and are clinging to. If religion were a perception of a real being or substance, our understanding of it would be sharpening, clarifying, being refined. We’d have better prayer techniques, more accurate prophecies, something. Anything but people squabbling with greater or lesser degrees of rancor, and nothing to back up their belief.
10: The complete lack of solid evidence for God’s existence.
This is probably the best argument I have against God’s existence: There’s no evidence for it. No good evidence, anyway. No evidence that doesn’t just amount to opinion and tradition and confirmation bias and all the other stuff I’ve been talking about. No evidence that doesn’t fall apart upon close examination.
And in a perfect world, that should have been the only argument I needed. In a perfect world, I shouldn’t have had to spend a month and a half collating and summarizing the reasons I don’t believe in God, any more than I would have for Zeus or Quetzalcoatl or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. As thousands of atheists before me have pointed out: It is not up to us to prove that God does not exist. It is up to theists to prove that he does.
In a comment on my blog, arensb made a point on this topic that was so insightful, I’m still smacking myself on the head for not having thought of it myself. I was writing about how believers get upset at atheists when we reject religion after hearing 876,363 bad arguments for it, and how believers react to this by saying, “But you haven’t considered Argument #876,364! How can you be so close-minded?” And arensb said:
“If, in fact, it turns out that argument #876,364 is the one that will convince you, WTF didn’t the apologists put it in the top 10?”
If there’s an argument for religion that’s convincing — actually convincing, convincing by means of something other than authority, tradition, personal intuition, confirmation bias, fear and intimidation, wishful thinking, or some combination of the above — wouldn’t we all know about it?
Wouldn’t it have spread like wildfire? Wouldn’t it be the Meme of All Memes? I mean, we all saw that Simon’s Cat video within about two weeks of it hitting the Internet. Don’t you think that the Truly Excellent Argument for God’s Existence would have spread even faster, and wider, than some silly cartoon cat video?
If the arguments for religion are so wonderful, why are they so unconvincing to anyone who doesn’t already believe?
And why does God need arguments, anyway? Why does God need people to make his arguments for him? Why can’t he just reveal his true self, clearly and unequivocally, and settle the question once and for all? If God existed, why wouldn’t it just be obvious?
It is not up to atheists to prove that God does not exist. It is up to believers to prove that he does. And in the absence of any good, solid evidence or arguments in favor of God’s existence — and in the presence of a whole lot of solid arguments against it — I will continue to be an atheist. God almost certainly does not exist, and it’s completely reasonable to act as if he doesn’t.
“Why can’t GOP politicians trumpet their religious credentials without assaulting women?
Because fundamentalist religion of all stripes has degradation of women at its core, and fundamentalist Christianity is no exception. Progressive Christians believe the Bible is a human document, a record of humanity’s multi-millennial struggle to understand what is good and what is God and how to live in moral community with each other. But fundamentalists believe the Bible is the literally perfect word of the Almighty, essentially dictated by God to the writers. To believe that the Bible is the literally perfect word of God is to believe that women are tainted seductresses who must be controlled by men.
Listen to early church father Tertullian: “You [woman] are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert—that is, death—even the Son of God had to die.”
Or take it from reformer John Calvin: “Woman is more guilty than man, because she was seduced by Satan, and so diverted her husband from obedience to God that she was an instrument of death leading to all perdition. It is necessary that woman recognize this, and that she learn to what she is subjected; and not only against her husband. This is reason enough why today she is placed below and that she bears within her ignominy and shame.”
To the woman [God] said, I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. -Genesis 3:16
No matter how outrageous Santorum and Gingrich may seem to secularists and moderate people of faith, they are right on target for an intended audience of Bible believing fundamentalists. If you have any doubt, check out these 15 Bible passages.*
1. A wife is a man’s property: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Exodus 20:17
2. Daughters can be bought and sold: If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do.Exodus 21:7
3. A raped daughter can be sold to her rapist: If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. Deuteronomy 22:28-29
4. Collecting wives and sex slaves is a sign of status: He [Solomon] had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. 1 Kings 11:3
5. Used brides deserve death: If, however the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. Deuteronomy 22:20-21.
6. Women, but only virgins, are to be taken as spoils of war: Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. Numbers 31:17-18
7. Menstruating women are spiritually unclean: When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean. Anyone who touches her bed will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening. Anyone who touches anything she sits on will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water….
…The priest is to sacrifice one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. In this way he will make atonement for her before the Lord for the uncleanness of her discharge. You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place, which is among them. Leviticus 15: 19-31
8. A woman is twice as unclean after giving birth to a girl as to a boy: A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over.
If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding.
When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. Leviticus 12: 1-8
9. A woman’s promise is binding only if her father or husband agrees: When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said. When a young woman still living in her father’s household makes a vow to the Lord or obligates herself by a pledge and her father hears about her vow or pledge but says nothing to her, then all her vows and every pledge by which she obligated herself will stand.
But if her father forbids her when he hears about it, none of her vows or the pledges by which she obligated herself will stand; the Lord will release her because her father has forbidden her….
…A woman’s vow is meaningless unless approved by her husband or father. But if her husband nullifies them when he hears about them, then none of the vows or pledges that came from her lips will stand. Her husband has nullified them, and the Lord will release her. Her husband may confirm or nullify any vow she makes or any sworn pledge to deny herself. Numbers 30:1-16
10. Women should be seen and not heard: Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 1 Corinthians 14:34
11. Wives should submit to their husband’s instructions and desires: Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Colossians 3:18
12. In case you missed that submission thing…: Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Ephesians 5:22-24.
13. More submission – and childbearing as a form of atonement: A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. 1 Timothy 2: 11-15
14. Women were created for men: For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.1 Corinthians 11:2-10
15. Sleeping with women is dirty: No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among mankind and offered as first-fruits to God and the Lamb. Revelation 14:3-4
This list is just a sampling of the Bible verses that either instruct or illustrate proper relationships between men and women. In context, they often are mixed among passages that teach proper relationships with children, slaves and foreigners. The Bible doesn’t forbid either contraception or abortion, but it is easy to see why Bible-believing fundamentalists might have negative feelings about both.
As futurist Sara Robinson has pointed out, traditional rules that govern male-female relationships are grounded more in property rights than civil rights. Men essentially have ownership of women, whose lives are scripted to serve an end—bearing offspring. It was very important to men that they know whose progeny they were raising, so sexual morality focused primarily on controlling women’s sex activity and maintaining their “purity” and value as assets. Traditional gender roles and rules evolved on the presumption that women don’t have control over their fertility. In other words, modern contraception radically changed a social compact that had existed for literally thousands of years.
Some people don’t welcome change. Since the beginnings of the 20th century, fundamentalist Christians have been engaged in what they see as spiritual warfare against secularists and modernist Christians. Both of their foes have embraced discoveries in fields as diverse as linguistics, archeology, psychology, biology and physics – all of which call into question the heart of conservative religion and culture. Biblical scholars now challenge such “fundamentals” as a historical Adam, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and the special status that Abraham’s God gave to straight males.
Fundamentalists are fighting desperately to hang on to certainties and privileges they once saw as an Abrahamic birthright. If they can’t keep women in line, it’s all over. The future ends up in the hands of cultural creatives, scientists, artists, inquiring minds, and girls. It’s horrifying.
*All verses are quoted from the New International Version of the Bible, a favorite of evangelicals.
By: Rob Boston *N.B.: The first clause of the first Amendment is our only defense against theocracy…
“To hear the Religious Right tell it, men like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were 18th-century versions of Jerry Falwell in powdered wigs and stockings. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Unlike many of today’s candidates, the founders didn’t find it necessary to constantly wear religion on their sleeves. They considered faith a private affair. Contrast them to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (who says he wouldn’t vote for an atheist for president because non-believers lack the proper moral grounding to guide the American ship of state), Texas Gov. Rick Perry (who hosted a prayer rally and issued an infamous ad accusing President Barack Obama of waging a “war on religion”) and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum (whose uber-Catholicism leads him to oppose not just abortion but birth control).
There was a time when Americans voted for candidates who were skeptical of core concepts of Christianity like the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus and the virgin birth. The question is, could any of them get elected today? The sad answer is probably not.
Here are five founding fathers whose views on religion would most likely doom them to defeat today:
1. George Washington. The father of our country was nominally an Anglican but seemed more at home with Deism. The language of the Deists sounds odd to today’s ears because it’s a theological system of thought that has fallen out of favor. Desists believed in God but didn’t necessarily see him as active in human affairs. The god of the Deists was a god of first cause. He set things in motion and then stepped back.
Washington often employed Deistic terms. His god was a “supreme architect” of the universe. Washington saw religion as necessary for good moral behavior but didn’t necessarily accept all Christian dogma. He seemed to have a special gripe against communion and would usually leave services before it was offered.
Washington was widely tolerant of other beliefs. He is the author of one of the great classics of religious liberty – the letter to Touro Synagogue (1790). In this letter, Washington assured America’s Jews that they would enjoy complete religious liberty in America; not mere toleration in an officially “Christian” nation. He outlines a vision of a multi-faith society where all are free.
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation,” wrote Washington. “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”
Stories of Washington’s deep religiosity, such as tales of him praying in the snow at Valley Forge, can be ignored. They are pious legends invented after his death.
2. John Adams. The man who followed Washington in office was a Unitarian, although he was raised a Congregationalist and never officially left that church. Adams rejected belief in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, core concepts of Christian dogma. In his personal writings, Adams makes it clear that he considered some Christian dogma to be incomprehensible.
In February 1756, Adams wrote in his diary about a discussion he had had with a man named Major Greene. Greene was a devout Christian who sought to persuade Adams to adopt conservative Christian views. The two argued over the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity. Questioned on the matter of Jesus’ divinity, Greene fell back on an old standby: some matters of theology are too complex and mysterious for we puny humans to understand.
Adams was not impressed. In his diary he wrote, “Thus mystery is made a convenient cover for absurdity.”
As president, Adams signed the famous Treaty of Tripoli, which boldly stated, “[T]he government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion….”
3. Thomas Jefferson. It’s almost impossible to define Jefferson’s subtle religious views in a few words. As he once put it, “I am a sect by myself, as far as I know.” But one thing is clear: His skepticism of traditional Christianity is well established. Our third president did not believe in the Trinity, the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, original sin and other core Christian doctrines. He was hostile to many conservative Christian clerics, whom he believed had perverted the teachings of that faith.
Jefferson once famously observed to Adams, “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”
Although not an orthodox Christian, Jefferson admired Jesus as a moral teacher. In one of his most unusual acts, Jefferson edited the New Testament, cutting away the stories of miracles and divinity and leaving behind a very human Jesus, whose teachings Jefferson found “sublime.” This “Jefferson Bible” is a remarkable document – and it would ensure his political defeat today. (Imagine the TV commercials the Religious Right would run: Thomas Jefferson hates Jesus! He mutilates Bibles!)
Jefferson was confident that a coolly rational form of religion would take root in the fertile intellectual soil of America. He once predicted that just about everyone would become Unitarian. (Despite his many talents, the man was no prophet.)
Jefferson took political stands that would infuriate today’s Religious Right and ensure that they would work to defeat him. He refused to issue proclamations calling for days of prayer and fasting, saying that such religious duties were no part of the chief executive’s job. His assertion that the First Amendment erects a “wall of separation between church and state” still rankles the Religious Right today.
4. James Madison. Jefferson’s close ally would be similarly unelectable today. Madison is perhaps the most enigmatic of all the founders when it comes to religion. To this day, scholars still debate his religious views.
Nominally Anglican, Madison, some of his biographers believe, was really a Deist. He went through a period of enthusiasm for Christianity as a young man, but this seems to have faded. Unlike many of today’s politicians, who eagerly wear religion on their sleeves and brag about the ways their faith will guide their policy decisions, Madison was notoriously reluctant to talk publicly about his religious beliefs.
Madison was perhaps the strictest church-state separationist among the founders, taking stands that make the ACLU look like a bunch of pikers. He opposed government-paid chaplains in Congress and in the military. As president, Madison rejected a proposed census because it involved counting people by profession. For the government to count the clergy, Madison said, would violate the First Amendment.
Madison, who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, also opposed government-issued prayer proclamations. He issued a few during the War of 1812 at the insistence of Congress but later concluded that his actions had been unconstitutional. As president, he vetoed legislation granting federal land to a church and a plan to have a church in Washington care for the poor through a largely symbolic charter. In both cases, he cited the First Amendment.
One can hear the commercials now: “James Madison is an anti-religious fanatic. He even opposes prayer proclamations during time of war.”
5. Thomas Paine. Paine never held elective office, but he played an important role as a pamphleteer whose stirring words helped rally Americans to independence. Washington ordered that Paine’s pamphlet “The American Crisis” be read aloud to the Continental Army as a morale booster on Dec. 23, 1776. “Common Sense” was similarly popular with the people. These seminal documents were crucial to winning over the public to the side of independence.
So Paine’s a hero, right? He was also a radical Deist whose later work, The Age of Reason, still infuriates fundamentalists. In the tome, Paine attacked institutionalized religion and all of the major tenets of Christianity. He rejected prophecies and miracles and called on readers to embrace reason. The Bible, Paine asserted, can in no way be infallible. He called the god of the Old Testament “wicked” and the entire Bible “the pretended word of God.” (There go the Red States!)
What can we learn from this? Americans have the right to reject candidates for any reason, including their religious beliefs. But they ought to think twice before tossing someone aside just because he or she is skeptical of orthodox Christianity. After all, that description includes some of our nation’s greatest leaders”.
From:Washington Post Social Reader
N.B.: This is why Separation of Church and State is more important than ever!
By: Susan Jacoby
“I am sorry to tell you that this will be my last regular “Spirited Atheist” column, and I want to thank all of you who have followed my essays, including many who have taken the trouble to write me lengthy personal letters on my author Web site. Although I will continue to write occasionally on issues of unusual importance, a weekly column diverts too much time from the research for my next book, to be titled, “Conversions: A Secular History.”
In the new book, I will be examining the full range of historical and personal factors influencing ostensibly religious conversions, from that old favorite, the threat of execution, to marrying a third wife who happens to be a Catholic rather than a Protestant. For the former, see under: Judaism, Christianity and Islam; for the latter, under: Gingrich, Newt.
Looking back on my five years as a contributor to “On Faith,” I see a great paradox in the progress of American secularism: The numbers and visibility of atheists and secularists in the United States have increased but their political and social influence has not.
The large audience for the writings of atheists, most notably Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, has led many American pundits, preachers and politicians to exaggerate the influence of secular thought in the culture as a whole. I only wish they were right. For the warriors of the Christian right, in particular, this exaggeration serves the purpose of presenting themselves as victims in a nation where they in fact wield a power that they do not enjoy anywhere else in the developed world.
For a true measure of the limited influence exerted by atheism on popular culture, one need only turn to the closing bestseller lists for 2011. Leading the “nonfiction” New York Times paperback bestseller list (having been on the list for 56 weeks) is “Heaven Is for Real,” written by the minister-father of a 4-year-old boy who supposedly went to heaven during an emergency appendectomy and saw Jesus (“he had the brightest blue eyes”) and his baby sister, who was actually never born into this world because his mother suffered a miscarriage. This book is also No. 4 on the bestseller list of picture books for small children.
Guess what does not appear on any year-end Times bestseller list? Dawkins’s “The Magic of Reality,” an enchanting work which explains the origins of life to children in a non-didactic way that places religious myth in the context of the long human struggle to understand how we came to be, is nowhere to be found.
The point is that there is a much larger American audience for childish (in this instance, literally so) supernatural fantasies, which should no more be classified as nonfiction than Grimm’s fairy tales, than there is for any book that attempts to present the world as it is to the next generation. That 15 to 20 percent of Americans are no longer affiliated with any church does not replace the default position occupied in American political and cultural life by religion in general and Christianity in particular.
Even more important, the most potent religious influence on American politics is exercised by those on the far religious right, who — while they represent only a minority of all believers — are backed by huge amounts of money and organizational muscle. I have written many times in this column about the organizational and financial shortcomings that make it difficult for the secular movement, and indeed for liberal religious organizations committed to upholding secular government, to translate their values into real social and political influence.
I have also observed that secularists, unlike the religious right, do not always have the same political values. There is a deep split, as demonstrated every week in the comments about my columns, between American secularists descended from the humanism of Thomas Paine and those descended from the social Darwinists of the 19th century and the Ayn Randian “you’re on your own” anti-government ideologues of the 20th century. The problem for the secular right is that politicians who share its anti-government views are also committed to far-right religion. But the split between the humanists and the neo-social Darwinists is a serious problem for the secular movement as a whole, because the two groups find it difficult, if not impossible, to support the same candidates.
But there is another, much more important difficulty in the secular struggle to alter default assumptions about religion. Since the 1980s, the far right, especially the religious right, has been masterful at taking control of public language in a way that always places secularism and secular liberalism on the defensive.
First, the anti-abortion crusaders seized the brilliant label “pro-life” to characterize anyone who supported legal abortion as “anti-life.” The women’s movement adopted “pro-choice” as an alternative but was never entirely successful at marketing the label, as evinced by the current efforts of those fighting abortion restrictions to characterize themselves as “the real pro-lifers.” Once you start trying to appropriate the meaning of your opponents’ already twisted labels, you’re already halfway to losing whatever battle you’re fighting.
Second, the right has made a pejorative out of both intellectualism and liberalism, often equating both with godless secularism.
Now the same people are trying to take control of the term “religious liberty” and redefine it to mean the freedom of religious groups to accept government money but spend it only on providing services that have their particular faith imprimatur..
At an October hearing, titled “Religious Liberty in the United States,” largely ignored by the mainstream media, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, asserted that religious freedom is under attack in America as it has never been in the past.
What Franks actually means by “religious freedom” is the liberty of religion to spend government money as it pleases. He is right, however, that this was never an issue on a national level in the past, because for most of the nation’s existence, the federal government never made the grievous error of giving money for secular purposes to faith-based organizations.
A parade of right-wing evangelical Protestants and representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops testified at the hearings against all attempts by the Obama administration to attach government regulations to taxpayer money. In this view, the administration is waging “war on Christianity” by, for example, mandating that providers with U.S. government contracts offer a “full range of reproductive services” to sex-trafficking victims in the United States and around the world. The church wants to help pregnant girls forced into prostitution by forcing them to have their abusers’ babies.
Bishop William C. Lori, head of the newly formed Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty formed by the bishops’ conference, attacked provisions of the new domestic health care law that impose any government mandates on religious health providers.
Note, again, the use of the term “religious liberty” to mean liberty for religious institutions to impose their values with taxpayer money. In practical terms, what Bishop Lori means is that when a rape victim walks into a government-funded Catholic emergency clinic, the clinic can not only refuse to offer the morning-after pill to protect her against pregnancy but can even fail to tell her about the existence of such a pill or to refer her to a nonsectarian institution that does provide such services.
The belief that religious institutions have the right to feed at the government trough while rejecting any government rules is the glue of the lobbying alliance between the Catholic bishops and right-wing evangelical Protestant leaders — an odd coupling that has never before existed in American history.
The only person at the hearing to point out that this redefinition of religious liberty is actually a demand for “special government blessings for those in favored faiths, and conversely, the treatment of members of other faiths as second-class citizens” was Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Nothing could be further from religious liberty as originally conceived by both the secularists and the people of liberal religion (mainly Baptists, liberal Congregationalists on the road to Unitarianism, and Quakers) who wrote the founding documents for this nation. All of these religious believers would have been horrified at the idea of accepting government money to underwrite their beliefs. That is why they joined with freethinkers like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to pass the the 1786 Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. The first state law to officially draw a line between government and religious institutions was written when religious conservatives in Virginia attempted to tax citizens for Christian teaching in public schools. This act would become the template for the federal Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
What religious liberty has traditionally meant in the United States is the right of all to believe and proselytize as they wish without government interference or favoritism. It also means the right of minority religions and of those who do not believe in any religion to be free from harassment by a state-favored religious majority.
Language distortion bolsters every aspect of religion as the default position. Twenty years ago, I could be reasonably sure, if I opened a fundraising appeal mentioning religious liberty on the envelope, that the notice came from a group like Americans United for Separation of Church and State or the ACLU. Now such appeals come from the likes of Focus on the Family and the Catholic hierarchy. They have no shame, and they want religious liberty only for themselves.
If secularists are to succeed in making any inroads on the default position of religion, they must reclaim the original definition of religious liberty, as exemplified by those who passed Virginia’s 1786 law.
There is another related, equally important task for the secular movement today. We must reclaim the language of passion and emotion from the religious right, which loves to portray atheists as bloodless, “professorial” (the word always applied to Obama) devotees of abstract scientific principles that have nothing to do with real human lives. This misguided but, again, ideologically useful portrait of atheists appeared frequently in the patronizing eulogies for Christopher Hitchens offered by religious believers who had fallen under the spell of his voice and his prose. Ross Douthaut, writing in the Times, argued that “many Christian readers felt that in Hichens’s case there had somehow been a terrible mix-up, and that a writer who loved the King James Bible…surely belonged with them, rather than with the bloodless prophets of a world lit only by Science.”
This is the sort of mindless obeisance to received opinion propagated by the missionaries for religion as the default position. Confronted by an atheist who does not fit their stereotype, their conclusion is not that the stereotype is awry but that the atheist, deep down, must not really be a true atheist. Because everyone knows that atheists are bloodless elitists (never honest Christian folk) who substitute science with a capital “S” for God with a capital “G.”
One reason why believers couldn’t quite dismiss Hitchens was that he did write and speak with the language of passion and emotion, as Robert Green Ingersoll, “the Great Agnostic” did in the 19th century and Thomas Paine in the 18th. I believe that the most crucial task for secularists today is to lay claim to the heritage that unites passion and reason.
I will close this column on the same note that I ended my book “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism,” in which I quoted Lear’s soliloquy when, after raging on the heath, he stumbles onto a place of shelter:
Poor naked wretches, wereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.
[Make sure to set this so it appears as poetry.]
Yes, let us talk about showing the heavens more just. This is the essence of humanist secularism and humanist atheism and it must be offered not as a defensive response to the religiously correct but as a robust creed worthy of the world’s first secular government. It is also time to revive the evocative and honorable word “freethinker,” with its insistence that Americans think for themselves instead of relying on default opinion. The combination of “free” and “thought” embodies every ideal that secularists hold out to a nation founded not on dreams of justice in heaven but on the best human hopes for a more just earth.”
From Me: The following are a series of snippets from a post by a theologian which should provide a course correction for any who are under any of the following delusions:
o Dec 25 is an actual birthday of part of the Christian god.
o and it is the “reason for the season.”
For the full post, see the link below.
Since the date of Christ‘s birth is not mentioned in the Bible, it is not likely that the first century Christians could have celebrated it. Furthermore, the observance of Christmas is difficult to track to 2nd century Christians either, because there is no evidence that anyone kept Christmas that early. What is known, however, is that early Christians kept Passover, Pentecost, and other days considered to be of Jewish origin.
This is all taught, by the way, by the Roman Catholic Church, even though it now advocates the December 25th Christmas holiday.
The early Catholic Church did not celebrate Christmas. Furthermore, Tertullian (one of its leading 2nd/3rd century writers) warned that to participate in the winter celebrations made one beholding to pagan gods.“
“…the modern Christmas celebration is at the same time as the old Gentile Saturnalia holiday (and with many of the same elements, like wreaths and gift-giving),”
“…those who teach “Jesus is the reason for the season” are in error. The reason for the season appears to be that those who professed wanted to have a party. And did not care if the party was related to pagan gods.”
“The Catholic Encyclopedia teaches that:
Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church (Martindale C. Transcribed by Susanti A. Suastika. Christmas. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III. Copyright © 1908 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).
The above is true.
An Armenian scholar called Ananias of Shirak, circa 600 A.D., wrote:
The Festival of the holy Birth of Christ, on the 12th day before the feast of the Baptism, was not appointed by the holy apostles, nor by their successors either, as is clear from the canons of the holy apostles…which is 6th of January, according to the Romans.
But many years after their fixing the canons, this festival was invented, as some say, by the disciples of the heretic Cerinthus; and was accepted by the Greeks, because they were truly fond of festivals and most fervent in piety; and by them it was spread and diffused all over the world.
But in the days of the holy Constantine, in the holy Council of Nice, this festival was not received by the holy fathers (Ananias of Shirak, On Christmas, The Expositor, 5th series vol. 4 (1896) Translation. pp.323-337, as reported by ccel).
Twelve days before January 6th is December 25th (see also Conybeare F.C. The Key of Truth: A Manual of the Paulician Church of Armenia. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1898, pp. 185). Hence, the above report suggests that December 25th was originally developed by the heretic Cerinthus.
Why would Cerinthus pick December 25th?
Probably because that was the day of celebration of the birthday of the sun-god Mithra. December 25th also took place during the Saturnalia, hence it was acceptable to at least two groups of pagans. Followers of Mithra represented an influential group in the Roman Empire. Other practices associated with Mithraism have become part of the Roman and Orthodox Catholic churches (such as their communion services) (for more details, please check out the documented article Do You Practice Mithraism?).
Cerinthus was a heretic who the Apostle John publicly denounced towards the end of the first century. Notice that Irenaeus wrote that John detested Cerinthus so much that he would not even take a bath in the same building as him:
There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” (Irenaeus. Adversus Haeres. Book III, Chapter 3, Verse 4).
Why would anyone want to observe a holiday started by an “enemy of truth” that was denounced so strongly by the Apostle John?
Well, at least until the Council of Nicea, the December 25th Christmas holiday was not even accepted by the Roman Catholics.
The Roman Catholics have also condemned Cerinthus as a heretic:
Cerinthus A Gnostic-Ebionite heretic, contemporary with St. John…Cerinthus was an Egyptian, and if not by race a Jew…Cerinthus’s doctrines were a strange mixture of Gnosticism, Judaism, Chiliasm, and Ebionitism (Arendzen J.P. Transcribed by William D. Neville. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III. Published 1908. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).
Yet, the Church in Rome did endorse Christmas, however, no later than by the latter half of the fourth century. Astoundingly the Roman Catholics adopted it when it essentially absorbed the followers of Mithraism (see also Do You Practice Mithraism?).
Notice the following:
Mithraism A pagan religion consisting mainly of the cult of the ancient Indo-Iranian Sun-god Mithra. It entered Europe from Asia Minor after Alexander’s conquest, spread rapidly over the whole Roman Empire at the beginning of our era, reached its zenith during the third century, and vanished under the repressive regulations of Theodosius at the end of the fourth century…Helios Mithras is one god…Sunday was kept holy in honour of Mithra, and the sixteenth of each month was sacred to him as mediator. The 25 December was observed as his birthday, the natalis invicti, the rebirth of the winter-sun, unconquered by the rigours of the season (Arendzen. J.P. Transcribed by John Looby. Mithraism. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor.Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).
The World Book Encyclopedia notes,
In 354 A.D., Bishop Liberius of Rome ordered the people to celebrate on December 25. He probably chose this date because the people of Rome already observed it as the Feast of Saturn, celebrating the birthday of the sun (Sechrist E.H. Christmas. World Book Encyclopedia, Volume 3. Field Enterprises Educational Corporation, Chicago, 1966, pp. 408-417).
It needs to be understood that some scholarly sources believe that the celebration in Rome of Christmas may have began 2-3 decades earlier (by Constantine), but none I am aware of suggest it was prior Constantine in the fourth century.
There have been scholars who believe that Constantine was involved as tradition claims a certain church in Rome as the first site of a December 25th “Christmas” celebration as the following 2007 news account indicates:
The church where the tradition of celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 may have begun was built near a pagan shrine as part of an effort to spread Christianity, a leading Italian scholar says.
Italian archaeologists last month revealed an underground grotto that they believe ancient Romans revered as the place where a wolf nursed Rome’s legendary founder, Romulus, and his twin brother, Remus. A few feet from the grotto, or “Lupercale,” the Emperor Constantine built the Basilica of St. Anastasia, where some believe Christmas was first celebrated on Dec. 25…
It opted to mark Christmas, then celebrated at varying dates, on Dec. 25 to coincide with the Roman festival celebrating the birth of the sun god, Andrea Carandini, a professor of archaeology at Rome’s La Sapienza University, told reporters Friday. The Basilica of St. Anastasia was built as soon as a year after the Nicaean Council. It probably was where Christmas was first marked on Dec. 25, part of broader efforts to link pagan practices to Christian celebrations in the early days of the new religion, Mr. Carandini said. “The church was built to Christianize these pagan places of worship,” he said. “It was normal to put a church near these places to try to ‘save’ them.” Rome’s archaeological superintendent, Angelo Bottini, who did not take part in Mr. Carandini’s research, said that hypothesis was “evocative and coherent” and “helps us understand the mechanisms of the passage from paganism to Christianity.” (Scholars link 1st yule church to pagan shrine. Washington Times – Dec 23, 2007 ROME (AP). http://washingtontimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071223/FOREIGN/924350661/1001 viewed 12/24/07).
And the December 25th date was adopted apparently because the Greco-Roman church was filled with people who did not care that this was the Saturnalis/Mithra birthday (see also Do You Practice Mithraism?), so calling it by the name of Christ somehow was believed to make the sun rebirth activities more acceptable.
And the December 25th Christmas did not become part of the observations in Constantinople until the famous hater of Jews, John Chrysostum, introduced it there:
We may take it as certain that the feast of Christ’s Nativity was kept in Rome on 25 December…It was introduced by St. John Chrysostom into Constantinople and definitively adopted in 395 (Thurston. H. Transcribed by Rick McCarty. Christian Calendar. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III. Published 1908. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York ).
Furthermore, here is even more that The Catholic Encyclopedia admits this about Christmas:
Christmas…Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday; Arnobius (VII, 32 in P.L., V, 1264) can still ridicule the “birthdays” of the gods.
Alexandria. The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt. About A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria (Strom., I, xxi in P.G., VIII, 888) says that certain Egyptian theologians “over curiously” assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ’s birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus…
Cyprus, Mesopotamia, Armenia, Asia Minor. In Cyprus, at the end of the fourth century, Epiphanius asserts against the Alogi (Hær., li, 16, 24 in P. G., XLI, 919, 931) that Christ was born on 6 January…
Rome. At Rome the earliest evidence is in the Philocalian Calendar (P. L., XIII, 675; it can be seen as a whole in J. Strzygowski, Kalenderbilder des Chron. von Jahre 354, Berlin, 1888), compiled in 354, which contains three important entries. In the civil calendar 25 December is marked “Natalis Invicti”…
By the time of Jerome and Augustine, the December feast is established, though the latter (Epp., II, liv, 12, in P.L., XXXIII, 200) omits it from a list of first-class festivals. From the fourth century every Western calendar assigns it to 25 December…
The Gospels. Concerning the date of Christ’s birth the Gospels give no help; upon their data contradictory arguments are based. The census would have been impossible in winter: a whole population could not then be put in motion…
Natalis Invicti. The well-known solar feast, however, of Natalis Invicti, celebrated on 25 December, has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date. For the history of the solar cult, its position in the Roman Empire, and syncretism with Mithraism, see Cumont’s epoch-making “Textes et Monuments” etc., I, ii, 4, 6, p. 355…The earliest rapprochement of the births of Christ and the sun is in Cypr., “De pasch. Comp.”, xix, “O quam præclare providentia ut illo die quo natus est Sol . . . nasceretur Christus.” – “O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born . . . Christ should be born.”…
Cards and presents. Pagan customs centering round the January calends gravitated to Christmas…
The yule log. The calend fires were a scandal even to Rome, and St. Boniface obtained from Pope Zachary their abolition (Martindale C. Christmas, 1908).
Hence it is clear that even early Roman writers such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen did not endorse Christmas, nor did Augustine even list it as an important holiday. And that even later Catholic sources recognize that it is not likely that a census (as shown in Luke 2:1) would be done during the winter–making a December 25th date of birth unlikely (it was also too cold for shepherds to spend the night with their flocks out in an open field, as shown in Luke 2:8, making a December 25th birth basically impossible).
It appears that towards the beginning of the third century, there were some in Alexandria (not Asia Minor, or even Rome) who began to feel that Jesus’ birth should be celebrated, and that it would be on May 25th. But later, in the fourth century, Christmas began to be celebrated with January 6th or December 25 being the dates observed (and that is believed to be because the sun-worshiping Emperor Constantine, or one of his successors, wanted to have a Sun holiday at the time of Saturnalia and Brumalia to placate the Gentiles–it should be noted that while Catholic scholars admit the probable pagan origins of the date and celebrations associated with Christmas, they tend to not believe that it was derived from Saturnalia).
Although it contains certain errors, even the popular novel The Da Vinci Code understood some of the relationship between sun worship and Christmas when it stated:
In Constantine’s day, Rome’s official religion was sun worship–the cult of Sol Invictus, or the Invincible Sun–and Constantine was its high priest…By fusing pagan symbols, dates, and rituals into the growing Christian tradition, he created a type of hybrid religion…
The pre-Christian God Mithras – called the Son of God and the Light of the World – was born on December 25…By the way, December 25 is also the birthday of Osiris, Adonis, and Dionysus (Brown D. The Da Vinci Code. Doubleday, New York, 2003, p. 232).
While some may wish to argue with The Da Vinci Code, the truth, as even all the Catholic scholars admit, is that Christmas was not observed in the second century by the post-apostolic New Testament Church.
They also admit that practices associated with Christmas are of pagan origin, and many of them were condemned by early Catholic leaders. And even the name Natalis Invicti, which the Catholics admit the date of the Christmas celebration probably came from is a pagan festival that literally means invincible birth and that is referring to the so-called invincible birth of the sun, not Christ.
Why would the Gospels not be of no help in determining the date?
Precisely because God did not have the date recorded. Nor is it likely that Jesus was born in the winter.
It is of interest to note that God said He did not let the children of Israel see Him, lest they try to make images of Him (Deuteronomy 4:15-19). Thus it is logical that God did not have the date of Christ’s birth clearly recorded as He did not want it to be observed.
Perhaps I should add that a book I bought at the Vatican in 2004 states the following about the eighth bishop of Rome (now called Pontiffs) and Christmas:
8. TELESPHORUS, ST. (125-136)…He prescribed fasting and penance in the seven weeks before Easter, thus initiating a practice that is still alive in the Christian world. He established that on Christmas eve priests could say three masses and he introduced the Gloria in excelsis Deo, which he himself may have composed, at the beginning of the mass (Lopes A. The Popes: The lives of the pontiffs through 2000 years of history. Futura Edizoni, Roma, 1997, p.3).
That passage is clearly in error as there is no evidence that any in the second century celebrated Christmas.
More recently, a Roman Catholic author admitted the following:
So we don’t reject the use of trees at Christmas time because they were pagan, we continue to use them, because as symbols of life they now point to Christ. (Killian Brian. Halloween, as autumn celebration, reminder God’s name is hallowed. Catholic Online International News. 10/31/06. http://www.catholic.org/international/international_story.php?id=21818).
Yet, the Catholic accepted English translation of the Bible, Douay Old Testament Of Anno Domini 1609 (DOT), teaches:
2 Thus saith our Lord: According to the ways of the Gentiles learn not: and (a) of the signs of heaven, which the heathen fear, be not afraid:
3 Because the laws of the people are vain: because the work of the hand of the artificer hath cut a tree out of the forest with an axe.
4 with silver and gold he hath decked it: with nails and hammers he hath compacted it, that it fall not asunder.. (Jerermie/Jeremiah 10:2-4, The Original And True Douay Old Testament Of Anno Domini 1609. Prepared and Edited by Dr. William von Peters, Ph.D. Copyright © 2005, Dr. William G. von Peters. Ph.D. 2005 copyright assigned to VSC Corp.).
29 When the Lord thy God shall have destroyed before thy face the nations, that thou enterest in to possess, and thou shalt possess them, and dwell in their land:
30 beware left thou imitate them, after they be subverted at thy entering in, and thou require their ceremonies, saying: As these nations have worshipped their Gods, so will I also worship.
31 Thou shalt not do in like manner to the Lord thy God. For all the abominations, that our Lord doeth abhor, have they done to their Gods, offering their sons and daughters, and burning them with fire (Deuteronomy 12:29-31, DOT).
God does not approve of trees that are decorated in worship or other practices associated with pagan worship. Such things should not be done by Christians. This is also shown in Protestant preferred translations of the Bible, like the King James Version as any one can check.
Furthermore, God warns that some even past their children through fire for these ceremonies. By the way, a substitute practice like that was associated with the Saturnalia, now renamed Christmas.
The Day for the God of the Sun Became the Day for the Son of God?
21st century non-Catholic historian Craig Harline wrote the following:
To begin with, Sun Day mattered more than even among Roman pagans, who still far outnumbered Christians and who may well have influenced how Christians worshiped on their special day…
More important in raising the status of Sun Day among pagans was Mithraism. This movement was related to the emperor’s Invincible Sun Cult but carried much broader appeal, especially among the empire’s multitude of soldiers. Followers of Mithra did emphasize Sun Day, and with greater impact than early Christians. In fact they may have influenced the Christian choice of the first day of the week for worship and some Christian forms of worship. Purification by baptism, the virtues of abstinence…setting aside heaven for the pure…and celebrating the birth of their God on December 25 are all allowable parallels.
Another was Mithraism’s treatment of Sun Day. Christians assigned their own meanings to such practices…Christ was the true Sun, and east was the direction in which Christ ascended into heaven…the similarities in worship, the new status of the first day among both groups at about the same time, the pagan assumption that Christians were fellow Sun-worshipers, and the emergence of the Christian metaphor “Christ the Sun” all suggest a connection of some sort (Harline C. Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl. Doubleday, NY, 2007, pp. 5,9-10).
Is that not astounding? There is nothing in the Bible to suggest Jesus Christ is the Sun nor that east was the direction in which Christ ascended into heaven (to verify that latter point, simply read the account in Acts 19-11). Actually, the Bible is clear that humans are not to worship any celestrial bodies, which includes the sun (Deuteronomy 4:19).
Although in English, the terms “son” and “sun” sound exactly the same, that is not the case in either Greek nor Latin. In Greek they are phonetically pronounced hwee-os and hay-lee-osrespectively (Source: Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible). In Latin, they are spelled filius and sol respectively.
Furthermore, the Greek for the expression Christ the Sun would be Χριστός τό Ηλiου. Ηλiου meant sun, but was also the name of the sun god (Helios). Wikipedia has this interesting statement:
In Late Antiquity a cult of Helios Megistos (“Great Helios”) drew to the image of Helios a number of syncretic elements, which have been analysed in detail by W. Fauth by means of a series of late Greek texts, namely: an Orphic Hymn to Helios; the so-called Mithras Liturgy. Notice that Helios is tied to Mithraism. And that the cult of Helios drew syncretic elements (Helios. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helios verified 09/10/07).
Combining “Christianity” was pagan elements is syncretic.
Were Birthdays Celebrated?
The first century Jewish historian Josephus, who was familiar with some aspects of Christianity, noted that Jewish families did not celebrate birthdays:
Nay, indeed, the law does not permit us to make festivals at the birth of our children, and thereby afford occasion of drinking to excess (Josephus. Translated by W. Whiston.Against Apion, Book II, Chapter 26. Extracted from Josephus Complete Works, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids (MI), 14th printing, 1977, p. 632).
Since nearly all of the first Christians were Jewish, this may partially explain why the non-celebration of Jesus’ birth would be consistent with that custom.
However, even as more and more Gentiles began to profess Christ (so much so that they outnumbered those of Jewish heritage that did), the early Gentile leaders also did not endorse the celebration of birthdays.
The writings of the early third century Catholic theologian Origen show that most Catholics were against the celebration of birthdays.
What Did Early Christians Observe?
Unlike with Christmas, God did inspire the recording of the dates of all the festivals that He called “my appointed Feasts” in the Bible (Leviticus, Chapter 23).
While everyone knows that Jesus kept the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:10) and the Passover (Matthew 26:18), many do not realize that the first century Christians observed the all holy days listed in Leviticus Chapter 23. Specifically the New Testament shows that they observed the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread (1 Corinthians 5:7-8), Pentecost (Acts 2:10;20:16; 1 Corinthians 16:8), the Day of Atonement (called the Fast, Acts 27:9) and the Feast of Tabernacles (called the Feast, Acts 18:21). And that the fulfillment’s of the Feast of Trumpets is also described in the New Testament (1 Thessalonians 4:15-18; Revelation 8-11).
Actually, the Bible shows that feast days that God hates are those who have idols:
21 I have hated, and have rejected your festivities: and I will not take the odor of your assemblies…
26 And you carried a tabernacle for your Moloch, and the image of your idols, the star of your God, which you made to yourselves. 27 And I will make you remove beyond Damascus, saith our Lord, the God of hosts is his name. (Amos 5:21,26-27).
What is Christmas if not a renamed holiday to pagan idols like the above was?”
From: The Secular Web
By: Farrell Till
“Whenever the Supreme Court makes a decision that in any way restricts the intrusion of religion into the affairs of government, a flood of editorials, articles, and letters protesting the ruling is sure to appear in the newspapers. Many protesters decry these decisions on the grounds that they conflict with the wishes and intents of the “founding fathers.”
Such a view of American history is completely contrary to known facts. The primary leaders of the so-called founding fathers of our nation were not Bible-believing Christians; they were deists. Deism was a philosophical belief that was widely accepted by the colonial intelligentsia at the time of the American Revolution. Its major tenets included belief in human reason as a reliable means of solving social and political problems and belief in a supreme deity who created the universe to operate solely by natural laws. The supreme God of the Deists removed himself entirely from the universe after creating it. They believed that he assumed no control over it, exerted no influence on natural phenomena, and gave no supernatural revelation to man. A necessary consequence of these beliefs was a rejection of many doctrines central to the Christian religion. Deists did not believe in the virgin birth, divinity, or resurrection of Jesus, the efficacy of prayer, the miracles of the Bible, or even the divine inspiration of the Bible.
These beliefs were forcefully articulated by Thomas Paine in Age of Reason, a book that so outraged his contemporaries that he died rejected and despised by the nation that had once revered him as “the father of the American Revolution.” To this day, many mistakenly consider him an atheist, even though he was an out spoken defender of the Deistic view of God. Other important founding fathers who espoused Deism were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, James Madison, and James Monroe.
Fundamentalist Christians are currently working overtime to convince the American public that the founding fathers intended to establish this country on “biblical principles,” but history simply does not support their view.” (N.B.: In fact, the first four of the Ten Commandments are in violation of the First Amendment – chasdarwin). “The men mentioned above and others who were instrumental in the founding of our nation were in no sense Bible-believing Christians. Thomas Jefferson, in fact, was fiercely anti-cleric. In a letter to Horatio Spafford in 1814, Jefferson said, “In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is easier to acquire wealth and power by this combination than by deserving them, and to effect this, they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer for their purposes” (George Seldes, The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey Citadel Press, 1983, p. 371). In a letter to Mrs. Harrison Smith, he wrote, “It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read. By the same test the world must judge me. But this does not satisfy the priesthood. They must have a positive, a declared assent to all their interested absurdities. My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest” (August 6, 1816).
Jefferson was just as suspicious of the traditional belief that the Bible is “the inspired word of God.” He rewrote the story of Jesus as told in the New Testament and compiled his own gospel version known as The Jefferson Bible, which eliminated all miracles attributed to Jesus and ended with his burial. The Jeffersonian gospel account contained no resurrection, a twist to the life of Jesus that was considered scandalous to Christians but perfectly sensible to Jefferson’s Deistic mind. In a letter to John Adams, he wrote, “To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial is to say they are nothings, or that there is no God, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise” (August 15, 1820). In saying this, Jefferson was merely expressing the widely held Deistic view of his time, which rejected the mysticism of the Bible and relied on natural law and human reason to explain why the world is as it is. Writing to Adams again, Jefferson said, “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter” (April 11, 1823). These were hardly the words of a devout Bible-believer.
Jefferson didn’t just reject the Christian belief that the Bible was “the inspired word of God”; he rejected the Christian system too. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he said of this religion, “There is not one redeeming feature in our superstition of Christianity. It has made one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites” (quoted by newspaper columnist William Edelen, “Politics and Religious Illiteracy,” Truth Seeker, Vol. 121, No. 3, p. 33). Anyone today who would make a statement like this or others we have quoted from Jefferson’s writings would be instantly branded an infidel, yet modern Bible fundamentalists are frantically trying to cast Jefferson in the mold of a Bible believing Christian. They do so, of course, because Jefferson was just too important in the formation of our nation to leave him out if Bible fundamentalists hope to sell their “Christian-nation” claim to the public. Hence, they try to rewrite history to make it appear that men like Thomas Jefferson had intended to build our nation on “biblical principles.” The irony of this situation is that the Christian leaders of Jefferson’s time knew where he stood on “biblical principles,” and they fought desperately, but unsuccessfully, to prevent his election to the presidency. Saul K. Padover‘s biography related the bitterness of the opposition that the clergy mounted against Jefferson in the campaign of 1800
The religious issue was dragged out, and stirred up flames of hatred and intolerance. Clergymen, mobilizing their heaviest artillery of thunder and brimstone, threatened Christians with all manner of dire consequences if they should vote for the “in fidel” from Virginia. This was particularly true in New England, where the clergy stood like Gibraltar against Jefferson (Jefferson A Great American’s Life and Ideas, Mentor Books, 1964, p.116).
William Linn, a Dutch Reformed minister in New York City, made perhaps the most violent of all attacks on Jefferson’s character, all of it based on religious matters. In a pamphlet entitled Serious Considerations on the Election of a President, Linn “accused Jefferson of the heinous crimes of not believing in divine revelation and of a design to destroy religion and `introduce immorality’” (Padover, p. 116). He referred to Jefferson as a “true infidel” and insisted that “(a)n infidel like Jefferson could not, should not, be elected” (Padover, p. 117). He concluded the pamphlet with this appeal for “Christians to defeat the `infidel’ from Virginia”
Will you, then, my fellow-citizens, with all this evidence… vote for Mr. Jefferson?… As to myself, were Mr. Jefferson connected with me by the nearest ties of blood, and did I owe him a thousand obligations, I would not, and could not vote for him. No; sooner than stretch forth my hand to place him at the head of the nation “Let mine arms fall from my shoulder blade, and mine arm be broken from the bone” (quoted by Padover, p. 117).
Why would contemporary clergymen have so vigorously opposed Jefferson’s election if he were as devoutly Christian as modern preachers claim? The answer is that Jefferson was not a Christian, and the preachers of his day knew that he wasn’t.
In the heat of the campaign Jefferson wrote a letter to Benjamin Rush in which he angrily commented on the clerical efforts to assassinate his personal character “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” That statement has been inscribed on Jefferson’s monument in Washington. Most people who read it no doubt think that Jefferson was referring to political tyrants like the King of England, but in reality, he was referring to the fundamentalist clergymen of his day.
After Jefferson became president, he did not compromise his beliefs. As president, he refused to issue Thanksgiving proclamations, a fact that Justice Souter referred to in his concurring opinion with the majority in Lee vs. Weisman, the recent supreme-court decision that ruled prayers at graduation ceremonies unconstitutional. Early in his first presidential term, Jefferson declared his firm belief in the separation of church and state in a letter to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptists “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should `make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
Before sending the letter to Danbury, Jefferson asked his attorney general, Levi Lincoln, to review it. Jefferson told Lincoln that he considered the letter a means of “sowing useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets” (quoted by Rob Boston in “Myths and Mischief,” Church and State, March 1992). If this was indeed Jefferson’s wish, he certainly succeeded. Twice, in Reynolds vs. the United States (1879) and Everson vs. Board of Education (1947), the Supreme Court cited Jefferson’s letter as “an authoritative declaration of the scope of the [First] Amendment” and agreed that the intention of the First Amendment was “to erect `a wall of separation between church and state.’” Confronted with evidence like this, some fundamentalists will admit that Thomas Jefferson was not a Bible-believer but will insist that most of the other “founding fathers”–men like Washington, Madison, and Franklin–were Christians whose intention during the formative years of our country was to establish a “Christian nation.” Again, however, history does not support their claim.
James Madison, Jefferson’s close friend and political ally, was just as vigorously opposed to religious intrusions into civil affairs as Jefferson was. In 1785, when the Commonwealth of Virginia was considering passage of a bill “establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,” Madison wrote his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” in which he presented fifteen reasons why government should not be come involved in the support of any religion. This paper, long considered a landmark document in political philosophy, was also cited in the majority opinion in Lee vs. Weisman. The views of Madison and Jefferson prevailed in the Virginia Assembly, and in 1786, the Assembly adopted the statute of religious freedom of which Jefferson and Madison were the principal architects. The preamble to this bill said that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” The statute itself was much more specific than the establishment clause of the U. S. Constitution “Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise [sic] diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities”.
Realizing that whatever legislation an elected assembly passed can be later repealed, Jefferson ended the statute with a statement of contempt for any legislative body that would be so presumptuous “And though we well know this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding assemblies, constituted with the powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable, would be of no effect in law, yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right” (emphasis added).
After George Washington’s death, Christians made an intense effort to claim him as one of their own. This effort was based largely on the grounds that Washington had regularly attended services with his wife at an Episcopal Church and had served as a vestryman in the church. On August 13, 1835, a Colonel Mercer, involved in the effort, wrote to Bishop William White, who had been one of the rectors at the church Washington had attended. In the letter, Mercer asked if “Washington was a communicant of the Protestant Episcopal church, or whether he occasionally went to the communion only, or if ever he did so at all…” (John Remsberg, Six Historic Americans, p. 103). On August 15, 1835, White sent Mercer this reply
In regard to the subject of your inquiry, truth requires me to say that Gen. Washington never received the communion in the churches of which I am the parochial minister. Mrs. Washington was an habitual communicant…. I have been written to by many on that point, and have been obliged to answer them as I now do you (Remsberg, p. 104).
In his Annals of the American Pulpit, The Reverend William B. Sprague, D.D., wrote a biographical sketch of the Reverend James Abercrombie, the other pastor of the congregation Washington attended. In this work, Sprague quoted Abercrombie in confirmation of what White had written to Mercer
One incident in Dr. Abercrombie’s experience as a clergyman, in connection with the Father of his Country, is especially worthy of record; and the following account of it was given by the Doctor himself, in a letter to a friend, in 1831 shortly after there had been some public allusion to it “With respect to the inquiry you make I can only state the following facts; that, as pastor of the Episcopal church, observing that, on sacramental Sundays, Gen. Washington, immediately after the desk and pulpit services, went out with the greater part of the congregation–always leaving Mrs. Washington with the other communicants–she invariably being one–I considered it my duty in a sermon on Public Worship, to state the unhappy tendency of example, particularly of those in elevated stations who uniformly turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I acknowledge the remark was intended for the President; and as such he received it” (From Annals of the American Pulpit, Vol. 5, p. 394, quoted by Remsberg, pp. 104-105).
Abercrombie went on to explain that he had heard through a senator that Washington had discussed the reprimand with others and had told them that “as he had never been a communicant, were he to become one then it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of religious zeal, arising altogether from his elevated station” (Ibid.). Abercrombie then said that Washington “never afterwards came on the morning of sacramental Sunday” (Ibid.).
Here is firsthand testimony from the rectors of the church that Washington attended with his wife, and they both claimed that he never participated in the communion service. Writing in the Episcopal Recorder, the Reverend E. D. Neill said that Washington “was not a communicant, notwithstanding all the pretty stories to the contrary, and after the close of the sermon on sacramental Sundays, [he] had fallen into the habit of retiring from the church while his wife remained and communed” (Remsberg, p. 107). In this article, Neill also made reference to Abercrombie’s reprimand of Washington from the pulpit, so those who knew Washington personally or who knew those who had known him all seem to agree that Washington was never a “communicant.” Remsberg continued at length in his chapter on Washington to quote the memoirs and letters of Washington’s associates, who all agreed that the president had never once been known to participate in the communion service, a fact that weakens the claim that he was a Christian. Would preachers today consider someone a devout Christian if he just attended services with his wife but never took the communion?
As for Washington’s membership in the vestry, for several years he did actively serve as one of the twelve vestrymen of Truro parish, Virginia, as had also his father. This, however, cannot be construed as proof that he was a Christian believer. The vestry at that time was also the county court, so in order to have certain political powers, it was necessary for one to be a vestryman. On this matter, Paul F. Boller made this observation
Actually, under the Anglican establishment in Virginia before the Revolution, the duties of a parish vestry were as much civil as religious in nature and it is not possible to deduce any exceptional religious zeal from the mere fact of membership.* Even Thomas Jefferson was a vestryman for a while. Consisting of the leading gentlemen of the parish in position and influence (many of whom, like Washington, were also at one time or other members of the County Court and of the House of Burgeses), the parish vestry, among other things, levied the parish taxes, handled poor relief, fixed land boundaries in the parish, supervised the construction, furnishing, and repairs of churches, and hired ministers and paid their salaries (George Washington & Religion, Dallas Southern Methodist University Press, 1963, p. 26).
A footnote where the asterisk appears cited Meade as proof that avowed unbelievers sometimes served as vestrymen “As Bishop William Meade put it, somewhat nastily, in 1857, `Even Mr. Jefferson and [George] Wythe, who did not conceal their disbelief in Christianity, took their parts in the duties of vestrymen, the one at Williamsburg, the other at Albermarle; for they wished to be men of influence’” (William Meade, Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia, 2 vols., Philadelphia, 1857, I, p. 191).
Clearly, then, one cannot assume from Washington’s presence at church services and his membership in the Truro parish vestry that he was a Christian believer. Is there any other evidence to suggest that he was a Christian? The Reverend Bird Wilson, an Episcopal minister in Albany, New York, preached a sermon in October 1831 in which he stated that “among all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism” (Paul F. Boller, George Washington & Religion, pp. 14-15). He went on to describe Washington as a “great and good man” but “not a professor of religion.” Wilson said that he was “really a typical eighteenth century Deist, not a Christian, in his religious outlook” (Ibid.). Wilson wasn’t just speaking about matters that he had not researched, because he had carefully investigated his subject before he preached this sermon. Among others, Wilson had inquired of the Reverend Abercrombie [identified earlier as the rector of the church Washington had attended] concerning Washing ton’s religious views. Abercrombie’s response was brief and to the point “Sir, Washington was a Deist” (Remsberg, p. 110). Those, then, who were best positioned to know Washington’s private religious beliefs did not consider him a Christian, and the Reverend Abercrombie, who knew him personally and pastored the church he attended with his wife flatly said that Washington was a Deist.
The Reverend Bird Wilson, who was just a few years removed from being a contemporary of the so-called founding fathers, said further in the above-mentioned sermon that “the founders of our nation were nearly all Infidels, and that of the presidents who had thus far been elected [George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson] _not a one had professed a belief in Christianity_” (Remsberg, p. 120, emphasis added).
Dr. Wilson’s sermon, which was published in the Albany Daily Advertiser the month it was delivered also made an interesting observation that flatly contradicts the frantic efforts of present-day fundamentalists to make the “founding fathers” orthodox Christians
When the war was over and the victory over our enemies won, and the blessings and happiness of liberty and peace were secured, the Constitution was framed and God was neglected. He was not merely forgotten. He was absolutely voted out of the Constitution. The proceedings, as published by Thompson, the secretary, and the history of the day, show that the question was gravely debated whether God should be in the Constitution or not, and after a solemn debate he was deliberately voted out of it…. There is not only in the theory of our government no recognition of God’s laws and sovereignty, but its practical operation, its administration, has been conformable to its theory. Those who have been called to administer the government have not been men making any public profession of Christianity…. Washington was a man of valor and wisdom. He was esteemed by the whole world as a great and good man; but he was not a professing Christian (quoted by Remsberg, pp. 120-121, emphasis added).
The publication of Wilson’s sermon in the Daily Advertiser attracted the attention of Robert Owen, who then personally visited Wilson to discuss the matter of Washington’s religious views. Owen summarized the results of that visit in a letter to Amos Gilbert dated November 13, 1831
I called last evening on Dr. Wilson, as I told you I should, and I have seldom derived more pleasure from a short interview with anyone. Unless my discernment of character has been grievously at fault, I met an honest man and sincere Christian. But you shall have the particulars. A gentleman of this city accompanied me to the Doctor’s residence. We were very courteously received. I found him a tall, commanding figure, with a countenance of much benevolence, and a brow indicative of deep thought, apparently approaching fifty years of age. I opened the interview by stating that though personally a stranger to him, I had taken the liberty of calling in consequence of having perused an interesting sermon of his, which had been reported in the Daily Advertiser of this city, and regarding which, as he probably knew, a variety of opinions prevailed. In a discussion, in which I had taken a part, some of the facts as there reported had been questioned; and I wished to know from him whether the reporter had fairly given his words or not…. I then read to him from a copy of the Daily Advertiser the paragraph which regards Washington, beginning, “Washington was a man,” etc. and ending, “absented himself altogether from the church.” “I endorse,” said Dr. Wilson, with emphasis, “every word of that. Nay, I do not wish to conceal from you any part of the truth, even what I have not given to the public. Dr. Abercrombie said more than I have repeated. At the close of our conversation on the subject his emphatic expression was–for I well remember the very words–`Sir, Washington was a Deist.’”
In concluding the interview, Dr. Wilson said “I have diligently perused every line that Washington ever gave to the public, and I do not find one expression in which he pledges him self as a believer in Christianity. I think anyone who will candidly do as I have done, will come to the conclusion that he was a Deist and nothing more” (Remsberg, pp. 121-122, emphasis added).
In February 1800, after Washington’s death, Thomas Jefferson wrote this statement in his personal journal
Dr. Rush told me (he had it from Asa Green) that when the clergy addressed General Washington, on his departure from the government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never, on any occasion, said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion, and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to disclose publicly whether he was a Christian or not. However, he observed, the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly, except that, which he passed over without notice….
I know that Gouverneur Morris [principal drafter of the constitution], who claimed to be in his secrets, and believed him self to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more in that system [Christianity] than he did” (quoted in Remsberg, p. 123 from Jefferson’s Works, Vol. 4, p. 572, emphasis added).
The “Asa” Green referred to by Jefferson was probably the Reverend Ashbel Green, who was chaplain to congress during Washington’s administration. If so, he was certainly in a position to know the information that “Asa” Green had passed along to Jefferson. Reverend Ashbel Green became the president of Princeton College after serving eight years as the congressional chaplain. He was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a prominent figure in the colonial Presbyterian Church (Remsberg, p. 124). His testimony has to be given more weight than what modern day clerics may think about Washington’s religious beliefs.
Dr. Moncure D. Conway, who was once employed to edit a volume of Washington’s letters, wrote an article entitled “The Religion of Washington,” from which Remsberg quoted the following
In editing a volume of Washington’s private letters for the Long Island Historical Society, I have been much impressed by indications that this great historic personality represented the Liberal religious tendency of his time. That tendency was to respect religious organizations as part of the social order, which required some minister to visit the sick, bury the dead, and perform marriages. It was considered in nowise inconsistent with disbelief of the clergyman’s doctrines to contribute to his support, or even to be a vestryman in his church.
In his many letters to his adopted nephew and younger relatives, he admonishes them about their manners and morals, but in no case have I been able to discover any suggestion that they should read the Bible, keep the Sabbath, go to church, or any warning against Infidelity.
Washington had in his library the writings of Paine, Priestley, Voltaire, Frederick the Great, and other heretical works (pp. 128-129, emphasis added).
In a separate submission to the New York Times, Conway said that “Washington, like most scholarly Virginians of his time, was a Deist.... Contemporary evidence shows that in mature life Washington was a Deist, and did not commune, which is quite consistent with his being a vestryman. In England, where vestries have secular functions, it is not unusual for Unitarians to vestrymen, there being no doctrinal subscription required for that office. Washington’s letters during the Revolution occasionally indicate his recognition of the hand of Providence in notable public events, but in the thousands of his letters I have never been able to find the name of Christ or any reference to him” (quoted by Remsberg, pp. 129-130, emphasis added).
The absence of Christian references in Washington’s personal papers and conversation was noted by historian Clinton Rossiter
The last and least skeptical of these rationalists [Washington] loaded his First Inaugural Address with appeals to the “Great Author,” “Almighty Being,” “invisible hand,” and “benign parent of the human race,” but apparently could not bring himself to speak the word “God” (“The United States in 1787,” 1787 The Grand Convention, New York W, W, Norton & Co., 1987, p. 36).
These terms by which Washington referred to “God” in his inaugural address are dead giveaways that he was Deistic in his views. The uninformed see the expression “nature’s God” in documents like the Declaration of Independence and wrongly interpret it as evidence of Christian belief in those who wrote and signed it, but in reality it is a sure indication that the document was Deistic in origin. Deists preferred not to use the unqualified term “God” in their conversation and writings because of its Christian connotations. Accordingly, they substituted expressions like those that Washington used in his inaugural address or else they referred to their creator as “nature’s God,” the deity who had created the world and then left it to operate by natural law.
Moncure Conway also stated that “(t)here is no evidence to show that Washington, even in early life, was a believer in Christianity” (Ibid.). Remsberg also noted that Conway stated that Washington’s father had been a Deist and that his mother “was not excessively religious” (Ibid.).
Christians have often claimed that most non-Christians make death-bed professions of faith when they realize that they are dying. These claims almost always turn out to be unverifiable assertions, but Conway made it very clear that Washington, even on his death bed, made no profession of faith
When the end was near, Washington said to a physician present–an ancestor of the writer of these notes–”I am not afraid to go.” With his right fingers on his left wrist he counted his own pulses, which beat his funeral march to the grave. “He bore his distress,” so next day wrote one present, “with astonishing fortitude, and conscious, as he declared, several hours before his death, of his approaching dissolution, he resigned his breath with the greatest composure, having the full possession of his reason to the last moment.” Mrs. Washington knelt beside his bed, but no word passed on religious matters. With the sublime taciturnity which had marked his life he passed out of existence, leaving no act or word which can be turned to the service of superstition, cant, or bigotry” (quoted by Remsberg, pp. 132-133, emphasis added).
Some Christians were of course involved in the shaping of our nation, but their influence was minor compared to the ideological contributions of the Deists who pressed for the formation of a secular nation. In describing the composition of the delegations to the constitutional convention, the historian Clinton Rossiter said this about their religious views
Whatever else it might turn out to be, the Convention would not be a `Barebone’s Parliament.’ Although it had its share of strenuous Christians like Strong and Bassett, ex-preachers like Baldwin and Williamson, and theologians like Johnson and Ellsworth, the gathering at Philadelphia was largely made up of men in whom the old fires were under control or had even flickered out. Most were nominally members of one of the traditional churches in their part of the country–the New Englanders Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, the Southerners Episcopalians, and the men of the Middle States everything from backsliding Quakers to stubborn Catholics–and most were men who could take their religion or leave it along. Although no one in this sober gathering would have dreamed of invoking the Goddess of Reason, neither would anyone have dared to proclaim that his opinions had the support of the God of Abraham and Paul. The Convention of 1787 was highly rationalist and even secular in spirit” (“The Men of Philadelphia,” 1787 The Grand Convention, New York W. W. Norton & Company, 1987, pp. 147-148, emphasis added).
Needless to say, this view of the religious beliefs of the constitutional delegates differs radically from the picture that is often painted by modern fundamentalist leaders.
At the constitutional convention, Luther Martin a Maryland representative urged the inclusion of some kind of recognition of Christianity in the constitution on the grounds that “it would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.” How ever, the delegates to the convention rejected this proposal and, as the Reverend Bird Wilson stated in his sermon quoted above, drafted the constitution as a secular document. God was nowhere mentioned in it.
As a matter of fact, the document that was finally approved at the constitutional convention mentioned religion only once, and that was in Article VI, Section 3, which stated that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Now if the delegates at the convention had truly intended to establish a “Christian nation,” why would they have put a statement like this in the constitution and nowhere else even refer to religion? Common sense is enough to convince any reasonable person that if the intention of these men had really been the formation of a “Christian nation,” the constitution they wrote would have surely made several references to God, the Bible, Jesus, and other accouterments of the Christian religion, and rather than expressly forbidding ANY religious test as a condition for holding public office in the new nation, it would have stipulated that allegiance to Christianity was a requirement for public office. After all, when someone today finds a tract left at the front door of his house or on the windshield of his car, he doesn’t have to read very far to determine that its obvious intention is to further the Christian religion. Are we to assume, then, that the founding fathers wanted to establish a Christian nation but were so stupid that they couldn’t write a constitution that would make their purpose clear to those who read it?
Clearly, the founders of our nation intended government to maintain a neutral posture in matters of religion. Anyone who would still insist that the intention of the founding fathers was to establish a Christian nation should review a document written during the administration of George Washington. Article 11 of the Treaty with Tripoli declared in part that “the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion...” (Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States, ed. Hunter Miller, Vol. 2, U. S. Government Printing Office, 1931, p. 365). This treaty was negotiated by the American diplomat Joel Barlow during the administration of George Washington. Washington read it and approved it, although it was not ratified by the senate until John Adams had become president. When Adams signed it, he added this statement to his signature “Now, be it known, that I, John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said treaty, do, by and within the consent of the Senate, accept, ratify and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof.” This document and the approval that it received from our nation’s first and second presidents and the U. S. Senate as constituted in 1797 do very little to support the popular notion that the founding fathers established our country as a “Christian nation.”
Confronted with evidence like the foregoing, diehard fundamentalists will argue that even if the so-called founding fathers did not purposefully establish a Christian nation our country was founded by people looking for religious liberty, and our population has always been overwhelmingly Christian, but even these points are more dubious than most Christian-nation advocates dare suspect. Admittedly, some colonists did come to America in search of religious freedom, but the majority were driven by monetary motives. They simply wanted to improve their economic status. In New England, where the quest for religious freedom had been a strong motive for leaving the Old World, the colonists quickly established governments that were just as intolerant, if not more so, of religious dissent than what they had fled from in Europe. Quakers were exiled and then executed if they returned, and “witches,” condemned on flimsy spectral evidence, were hanged. This is hardly a part of our past that modern fundamentalists can point to as a model to be emulated, although their rhetoric often gives cause to wonder if this isn’t exactly what they want today.
As for the religious beliefs of the general population in pre and post revolutionary times, it wasn’t nearly as Christian as most people think. Lynn R. Buzzard, executive director of the Christian Legal Society (a national organization of Christian lawyers) has admitted that there is little proof to support the claim that the colonial population was overwhelmingly Christian. “Not only were a good many of the revolutionary leaders more deist than Christian,” Buzzard wrote, “but the actual number of church members was rather small. Perhaps as few as five percent of the populace were church members in 1776″ (Schools They Haven’t Got a Prayer, Elgin, Illinois David C. Cook Publishing, 1982, p. 81). Historian Richard Hofstadter says that “perhaps as many as ninety percent of the Americans were unchurched in 1790″ (Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, New York Alfred A. Knopf, 1974, p. 82) and goes on to say that “mid-eighteenth century America had a smaller proportion of church members than any other nation in Christendom,” noting that “in 1800 [only] about one of every fifteen Americans was a church member” (p. 89). Historian James MacGregor Burns agrees with these figures, noting that “(t)here had been a `very wintry season’ for religion every where in America after the Revolution” (The American Experiment Vineyard of Liberty, New York Vintage Books, 1983, p. 493). He adds that “ninety percent of the people lay outside the churches.”
Historians, who deal with facts rather than wishes, paint an entirely different picture of the religious composition of America during its formative years than the image of a nation founded on “biblical principles” that modern Bible fundamentalists are trying to foist upon us. Our founding fathers established a religiously neutral nation, and a tragedy of our time is that so many people are striving to undo all that was accomplished by the wisdom of the founding fathers who framed for us a constitution that would protect the religious freedom of everyone regardless of personal creed. An even greater tragedy is that they many times hoodwink the public into believing that they are only trying to make our nation what the founding fathers would want it to be. Separation of church and state is what the founding fathers wanted for the nation, and we must never allow anyone to distort history to make it appear otherwise.”