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.