Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Hitchens, Jefferson and Atheism

A few weeks ago I mentioned a blog post I’d come across claiming, based upon Dawkins’ new book, that Thomas Jefferson was an atheist. Since I’d given away my copy of that book, I asked my readers to provide the actual text of the book on this point and many of you were helpful enough to do so (I will have that book back in my possession in a couple weeks and will probably do a more complete analysis of it then). But one thing that came out of that discussion was that apparently Dawkins relied primarily on Christopher Hitchens’ recent biography of Jefferson in making that claim.

That came as a bit of a surprise for me. I’ve always rather liked Hitchens as a writer and respected his work even when I disagreed with it. I have not yet gotten a copy of that book either, though I plan to, but based on his exchange with Lenni Brenner I have to say things are looking pretty grim for Hitchens on this question. Brenner, himself an atheist like Hitchens, wrote a review of the book and took Hitchens to task for engaging in wishful thinking in regard to Jefferson being an atheist.

Brenner sent a copy of his review to Hitchens and received a rather nasty response. It should be noted that Hitchens doesn’t actually claim to have proof that Jefferson was an atheist, only that it “can be argued” that he was; I submit that it can be argued only if one engages in precisely the sort of special pleading, out of context quoting, wishful thinking and fanciful rationalizations that we so often (correctly) criticize the religious right for engaging in when considering the views of these same men. Brenner makes largely the same point.

Hitchens argues that Jefferson might have been a closet atheist who was compelled to hide that fact behind a facade of belief in order to protect his political viability:

“Jefferson more than once wrote to friends that he faced the approaching end without either hope or fear. This was as much to say, in the most unmistakable terms, that he was not a Christian. As to whether he was an atheist, we must reserve judgment if only because of the prudence he was compelled to observe during his political life.”

This might be a reasonable argument if one did not have to explain away nearly two decades of writing that firmly belies a belief in God even when those writings were personal letters to trusted friends and were written after he left public office and politics entirely. For that matter, one also has to explain away the content of writings that Jefferson knew would never see the light of day until after he was dead, like the document that we now call the Jefferson Bible.

When challenged to provide evidence of Jefferson’s atheism by Brenner, Hitchens replied with plenty of snideness but scant evidence. In his reply to Brenner, he returned again to the flimsy argument found in the quote above, that the fact that he said he faced his death “without hope or fear” suggests that he was an atheist:

“It can’t be proved that tj was an atheist but it can be argued (a distinction in my book that you ignore). He wrote several times that he faced extinction without “hope or fear”, which certainly means he was not a Christian. No man of any cloth was asked to his well-anticipated deathbed and his headstone/obelisk more or less speaks for itself.”

To call this evidence of atheism is silly enough on its own; in light of the hundreds and hundreds of times Jefferson not only refers to his own belief in God but condemns the beliefs of others as being so absurd that they would lead people to atheism, it becomes nearly delusional. On the first claim, Brenner reproduces Jefferson’s 1820 letter to John Adams in which he uses this phrase about facing death without hope or fear. In it, he is speaking of their common questions about the nature of reality, specifically whether matter and spirit were separate things. And in view of their advancing ages, he writes:

These are things which you and I may perhaps know ere long. We have so lived as to fear neither horn of the dilemma. We have, willingly, done injury to no man; and have done for our country the good which has fallen in our way, so far as commensurate with the faculties given us. That we have not done more than we could cannot be imputed to us as a crime before any tribunal. I look therefore to that crisis, as I am sure you also do, as one ‘qui summum nec metuit diem nec optat’ [Who neither fears the final day nor hopes for it].”

This is hardly evidence of atheism. Indeed, one could argue that the fact that Jefferson goes out of his way to say that he has no fear of judgement before a tribunal because he has done no injury to any man suggests that he thinks some sort of judgement is forthcoming. And this would be consistent with the large number of times, even in his private letters to trusted friends well away from the public, he speaks of similar beliefs.

All of this talk of reading between the lines and pretending that Jefferson must have hidden his real beliefs even to his friends is quite silly in light of Jefferson’s actual words. If you want to know what Jefferson believed, go not to Hitchens but to Jefferson himself, not to his public statements but to his private letters. Look, for example, at his letter to John Adams of April 11, 1823, where he writes:

I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Dæmonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his 5. points is not the God whom you and I acknolege and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a dæmon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin. Indeed I think that every Christian sect gives a great handle to Atheism by their general dogma that, without a revelation, there would not be sufficient proof of the being of a god.

This is as clear as it can possibly be. In a private letter to a trusted friend, written 15 years after he has left politics behind completely and as he is approaching the end of his life, Jefferson makes three things very clear:

1. He believes in God, even going so far as to say that he acknowledges and adores him.

2. That he could never be an atheist.

3. That one of the primary reasons he rejects Calvin’s views on God is that they blaspheme God and might well lead others to be atheists.

Clearly this is not the sort of thing an atheist would say, nor can it be dismissed as a clever deception designed to cover up his true beliefs to help maintain his political viability. Indeed, the entire series of letters between he and John Adams includes a wide range of their personal beliefs that, had they still been active in politics and had those opinions been revealed to the public, would have damaged them politically.

One is hard pressed to explain why Jefferson, had he been concerned about concealing his true feelings even to Adams in his private letters, would have written so extensively of his rejection of virtually every aspect of orthodox Christianity, from the virgin birth to the trinity (which he and Adams both agreed amounted to “metaphysical insanity”) to the very claim that Jesus was divine. The fact is that Hitchens’ rationalizations in this regard are every bit as absurd as anything David Barton has ever written from the other side. One can only maintain such a claim by engaging in the most superficial reasoning and substituted what one wishes to be true for what actually is true.

Comments

  1. #1 Ginger Yellow
    November 27, 2006

    There’s a very unfavourable review of Hitchens’s book on Paine in a recent London Review of Books, pointing out what it claims are numerous basic (but not trivial) factual errors. I don’t know enough about Paine to tell if the review is correct, but if so, these signs doesn’t bode well for Hitchens’s upcoming book on religion. Even setting aside his conversion to neoconservatism, he seems to be getting very sloppy.

  2. #2 Raging Bee
    November 27, 2006

    Hitch wrote:

    He wrote several times that he faced extinction without “hope or fear”, which certainly means he was not a Christian.

    I “certainly” means no such thing. It could also “arguably” mean that TJ was simply refusing to second-guess how his God would judge him.

  3. #3 Russell
    November 27, 2006

    As an atheist, I have no problem with the fact that Jefferson was some sort of Deist. He clearly was a more critical thinker about religion than was common in his day, and more willing to go where his analysis led.

    Was there any philosopher at the time who stood up for an explicit atheism? Even Hume was hesitant to do so. And if anyone could have done that, it would have and should have been Hume.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    November 27, 2006

    Russell-

    I think it’s inaccurate to call Jefferson a deist as well, at least by today’s definition. He found common cause with deists on many things, but he clearly believed in a provident, intervening, benevolent God, as did all of the leading founders, in contrast to the impersonal, non-intervening, watchmaker creator of deism. That’s why I think Gregg Frazer’s phrase, theistic rationalism, is the best description of his views.

    And in answer to your second question, no, I am not aware of any actual atheists at the time. Even the most radically anti-Christian voices, like Paine or Voltaire, still believed that the universe was created. D’Holbach is perhaps the closest to being a genuine atheist in that day and age.

  5. #5 Jon Rowe
    November 27, 2006

    That’s a great point. Brenner’s book on Jefferson and Madison has virtually everything the two men said on religion in chronological order. It’s a great resource to have — a must if you want to master understanding of Jefferson’s and Madison’s religious beliefs.

    Brenner is right. Jefferson believed in God. And I’d even go so far as to argue Jefferson believed in an active personal God, not a distant Watchmaker.

    He was however, not a Christian. His God was a “rational” God. And Jefferson, like the other key Founders and the divines they followed, sacrificed the tenets of orthodox Christianity at the alter of rationalism.

  6. #6 Jon Rowe
    November 27, 2006

    LOL. I see Ed and I posted practically the same thing at the same time.

  7. #7 Raging Bee
    November 27, 2006

    Hitchens’ claim the Jefferson was “really” an atheist, but had to conceal it, which is why Hitchens has no evidence to prove his assertion, is kinda similar to how IDers “explain” their lack of support in the scientific community: there’s PLENTY of scientists who question evolution, they assure us, but they all have to hide their true opinions ’cause the Darwinist establishment will send black helicopters to ruin their careers if they were ever outed. Which neatly explains why they’ve done no actual science to support ID.

  8. #8 kehrsam
    November 27, 2006

    Was there any philosopher at the time who stood up for an explicit atheism?

    In college I had a professor who repeatedly referred to Jeremy Bentham as an atheist, but I have seen nothing in his writings to support this. The only biography I have read mentions that his mother was quite religious while his father was not.

  9. #9 ck
    November 27, 2006

    “It can’t be proved that tj was an atheist but it can be argued?”

    How about

    “It can’t be proved that God exists but it can be argued”

    I wonder how Hitchens would respond to that kind of a defense…probably somewhere along the lines of Ed’s closing sentence in the post above: “One can only maintain such a claim by engaging in the most superficial reasoning and substitut[ing] what one wishes to be true for what actually is true.”

  10. #10 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 27, 2006

    Was there any philosopher at the time who stood up for an explicit atheism? Even Hume was hesitant to do so. And if anyone could have done that, it would have and should have been Hume.

    Your best bet might be Baron d’Holbach.


    Holbach’s coterie included intellectuals who, although their positions varied on many issues, shared at least a willingness to entertain views that many would have thought too radical to be discussed in social settings. The coterie met from the 1750′s into the 1780′s. The group evolved over time, but its core members, Alan Kors has argued, were Denis Diderot, the encyclopedist; the diplomat and cultural critic Friedrich-Melchior Grimm; the naturalist Charles-Georges Le Roy; the writer and critic Jean-François Marmontel; the historian and priest abbé Guillame-Thomas-François Raynal; the doctor Augustin Roux; the poet and philosopher Jean-François de Saint-Lambert; the writer Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Suard; the pamphleteer François-Jean, chevalier de Chastellux, the pamphleteer abbé André Morellet; and the philosopher Jacques-André Naigeon. Many of these men were, like Holbach, avowed atheists and many also pushed radical, even revolutionary political agendas.

    D’Holbach’s name isn’t as well-known as Hume or some others; I also understand that some of his works were published pseudonymously. In that time it was not safe to publish openly as an atheist.

  11. #11 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 27, 2006

    TJ wrote:

    I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Dæmonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did.

    Note here that Jefferson seems to be using “atheist” as a slur. This bit is also incoherent, because it does not make sense that someone would both be an Atheist and worship a false god. So, while I will agree that Jefferson was likely a Deist as he claimed to be, one should remember the historical context in which Jefferson lived. Open atheism had been punishable by death for centuries, and atheists and atheism had been slandered for millenia; slander which continues to this day.

  12. #12 Markus
    November 27, 2006

    I hope for the day that people can stop fearing of being an atheist and can embrace it honestly. I do wonder how many of the founders would have been atheists if the environment hadn’t been so hostile.

  13. #13 Ed Brayton
    November 27, 2006

    Markus wrote:

    I do wonder how many of the founders would have been atheists if the environment hadn’t been so hostile.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with a hostile environment; to suggest that it does is to suggest that men like Jefferson were intellectual cowards, even in private. Given the risks they took in standing up for liberty, that’s a difficult position to support.

  14. #14 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 27, 2006

    I don’t think it has anything to do with a hostile environment; to suggest that it does is to suggest that men like Jefferson were intellectual cowards, even in private.

    Read one post higher, where I note that Jefferson used the word “Atheist” as a slur against Calvin. Not even TJ was able to rise completely above that cultural bias.

  15. #15 Russell
    November 27, 2006

    I agree that it’s difficult to paint Jefferson as an intellectual coward. It seems to me more a matter of the time not being ripe for explicit atheism. Some shackles on the mind are not from cowardice, but from the culture in which we are born, and the ideas in which we are bathed. As strong an intellect as he was, Jefferson was no exception to that universal condition.

    I understand the distinction drawn between theistic rationalism and Deism, but they seem to me to reside on two end points of a spectrum. Did Jefferson look forward to miraculous interventions in particular cases? Or hope that his god had designed the universe in such fashion that it would work toward some just and beneficient end? A watchmaker god is not necessarily impersonal or uncaring.

    Ed, Mustafa: thanks for the reference on D’Holbach.

  16. #16 Gerard Harbison
    November 27, 2006

    Full-fledged atheism was rare in Jefferson’s day; it left too much of the natural world unexplained. It seems clear that Hitchens was out to lunch on this claim. However, one could plausibly argue that Jefferson was about as weak a theist as a reasonable man of his time could be. He rejected the divine inspiration of the Bible, even the Gospels, and was openly skeptical of many of the claims of orthodox Christianity. I suspect, born 100 years later, he would indeed have been an atheist.

    Whether he would have been a Neville Chamberlain atheist, now, is another question. ;-)

  17. #17 Ed Brayton
    November 27, 2006

    Gerard-

    I think a plausible argument could be made that Jefferson would be an atheist, or a real deist, if he was alive today. I’m always hesitant to play alternative history games, but it’s not an unreasonable argument given his particular emphasis on reason and science. I doubt he would find the argument from design as compelling today as he did when he was alive.

  18. #18 Richard
    November 27, 2006

    Hitchens has a very uneasy relationship with reality these days — they are hardly on speaking terms with one another. It’s hardly a surprise that his Jefferson book is not a great piece of scholarship.

    I’m an atheist (of the Dawkins/Myers school), and I dread what Hitchens is going to say in the name of godlessness. He can turn a phrase like no one else, but he often sacrifices accuracy to do so.

  19. #19 Coin
    November 27, 2006

    I’d not heard of Hitchens before his “conversion” to neoconservatism, but from what I’ve seen and read of him in the time since I discovered him, I see absolutely nothing worthy of respect about him or his writings– either before or after the “conversion”, on either the subjects I disagree or agree with him on. The man does not appear to have any concept of intellectual honesty and seems to treat writing solely as a tool to advance whatever his pet agenda is that year.

    As for whether Thomas Jefferson was an atheist, I don’t think it’s even meaningful to ask such a question. Even aside from the difficulty of judging Jefferson’s private views on religion (I think his overall views are made pretty clear if you read his writings in context, but his statements on the subject frankly contradict one another over time, and you can quote-mine him to say pretty much anything you want if you’re so inclined), the Christianity of the time was something quite different than it is today and “atheism” didn’t even exist as a meaningful concept. To ask whether Thomas Jefferson is an atheist is to judge a 18th century mind by 21st-century values and politics. It’s like asking whether Jesus was a Democrat or a Republican.

  20. #20 Raging Bee
    November 27, 2006

    I’m an atheist (of the Dawkins/Myers school), and I dread what Hitchens is going to say in the name of godlessness. He can turn a phrase like no one else, but he often sacrifices accuracy to do so.

    In that case, he fits right into the Dawkins/Myers/Harris “school” — they all sacrifice accuracy as easily as they fart. Pretending Jefferson was an atheist is pretty tame compared to some of the nonsense I’ve heard from that lot.

  21. #21 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 27, 2006

    I think a plausible argument could be made that Jefferson would be an atheist, or a real deist, if he was alive today. I’m always hesitant to play alternative history games

    Same here, especially since I had a Creationist tell me that if Darwin were alive today, he would probably reject evolution.

  22. #22 Lettuce
    November 27, 2006

    If Jefferson wasn’t an atheist then, he’s definitely not one now; one was or the other.

  23. #23 kehrsam
    November 27, 2006

    Coin: Hitchens made a name for himself as a good-natured sort of stalinist. He picked up the nickname, “The Bollinger Bolshevik” some time during the 1980′s, and in the US was mostly relegated to the pages of “The Nation.”

    He is a brilliant stylist with words, as as time passed he began moving into more mainstream pubs like Vanity Fair. This was accompanied by a move to the right to the extent that he is pretty happy with all things Tony Blair. He’s the lapdog’s lapdog these days.

  24. #24 GH
    November 27, 2006

    that case, he fits right into the Dawkins/Myers/Harris “school” — they all sacrifice accuracy as easily as they fart.

    Good grief. I can’t believe you actually believe half of your comments on here.

    As to Jefferson there are many good points on this thread and while I’m not yet convinced of the ‘theistic rationalist’ position over a varying form of deism it’s enough of a triviality to make me say ‘who cares?’

    I do think Jefferson would be a weak atheist in todays world but as Ed said thats an alternative history game.
    :-)

  25. #25 Coin
    November 27, 2006

    Coin: Hitchens made a name for himself [in the 80s] as a good-natured sort of stalinist.

    Yeah, so I’ve heard. Frankly though I don’t really see why this is supposed to make me more likely to respect him :/

  26. #26 Chuck
    November 27, 2006

    Perhaps Hitchens’ descent into neoconservatism is deeper than we could have feared. He has initiated a Straussian critique of the founding fathers, starting with Jefferson, arguing that his public statements must be fleshed out by critical analysis of the esoteric Truths in his writings which he was forced to disguise in Noble Lies by the pious tyranny of his times.

    (Tongue-in-cheek comment, of course)

  27. #27 Jake
    November 27, 2006

    How can you respect such a drunken fool as Hitchens?

  28. #28 Raging Bee
    November 28, 2006

    Hitchens, drunken fool or not, is not the first person to insist that some leading light of the modern age, such as Galileo, Newton or Einstein, had to have been a closet atheist, whether or not the evidence supports such a claim; based solely on their opinion that such great luminaries couldn’t possibly have stooped so low as to believe in a god. I strongly suspect that all of this revisionism is driven by atheists who can’t bring themselves to admit that the people they look up to as virtual holy men may not have shared their beliefs. At the very least, such claims tend to be made in a tone that screams “THAT’S INCONCEIVABLE!!”

  29. #29 Raging Bee
    November 28, 2006

    As to what Jefferson might have been had he been alive today, I’m guessing he might have been a Unitarian.

  30. #30 Will
    November 28, 2006

    I’ll guess Jefferson would be a Mormon today, since we’re not giving reasons.

  31. #31 Russell
    November 28, 2006

    Raging Bee, you might consider how silly your caricature is in a thread with plenty of atheists discussing Hitchens’s waywardness on this matter. Newton, rather famously, not only wasn’t atheist, but was a bit of a religious kook. I’ve never known anyone who tried to paint him an atheist. Like most non-believers, I have no notion of holy men, so it bothers me not one bit.

  32. #32 kehrsam
    November 28, 2006

    Jefferson would definitely be a Breatharian, were he alive today. At least that would fulfill some deep-seated fantasies of mine.

  33. #33 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 28, 2006

    If Jefferson wasn’t an atheist then, he’s definitely not one now; one was or the other.

    Don’t be too sure. Hitler converted to atheism after his death; Lincoln converted to Christianity shortly after his death. After-death conversions are not so uncommon. Mormons have even formalized it in their rite of temple baptism.

  34. #34 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 28, 2006

    Hitchens, drunken fool or not, is not the first person to insist that some leading light of the modern age, such as Galileo, Newton or Einstein, had to have been a closet atheist, whether or not the evidence supports such a claim; based solely on their opinion that such great luminaries couldn’t possibly have stooped so low as to believe in a god. I strongly suspect that all of this revisionism is driven by atheists who can’t bring themselves to admit that the people they look up to as virtual holy men may not have shared their beliefs. At the very least, such claims tend to be made in a tone that screams “THAT’S INCONCEIVABLE!!”

    The conversion of Hitler to atheism after his death was certainly not driven by atheism, and Einstein’s atheism/agnosticism was not in the closet.

  35. #35 Lizard
    November 28, 2006

    The thing is, the whole debate is stunningly irrelevant to any topic other than Thomas Jefferson himself. The need to ‘claim’ people as supporters or detractors of a philosophy is one of the oddest aspects of modern debate. Either an idea is true, or it isn’t, and this isn’t subject to the popular vote. Atheism, as it turns out, is a true idea, but its truth does not come from who accepts it and who doesn’t. Was Thomas Jefferson NOT an atheist? Then, despite his great genius in other areas, he missed the boat on that one. So it goes. Was he an atheist? Well, this makes him more clever than many of his compatriots, but it doesn’t, in and of itself, enhance the truth of atheism. So it goes.

    (On other topics, I don’t think Hitchens has converted to neoconservatism, he’s just one of the few leftists willing to admit that ultraconservative, woman-hating, gay-killing, intolerant religious fundamentalists aren’t, in fact, some sort of Glorious People’s Revolutionary Front, even if they do happen to hate the United States. Most of the left has allowed their hatred of All That Is Western to consume them to the point where they make common cause with anyone else who hates Western Civilization, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons.)

  36. #36 kehrsam
    November 29, 2006

    Lizard: I suppose you have the appropriate citations for my hatred of Western Civilization? Other people on the “left”? If not, perhaps you should stick to what people actually say, and not attempt to divine their secret motivations.

    I’m not aware of anyone who opposed invading Iraq because they hated the US or the west in general. In fact, since the current situation there was eminently predictable, leftists should have supported the invasion on your logic, because of their secret desire to see the US humiliated.

    As for “atheism is a true idea,” I appreciate your opinion on the matter and will give it appropriate weight as an Appeal to Authority.

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