Stranger Fruit

Thomas Jefferson and Richard Dawkins

I’m looking for the source of a quote, attributed by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion (p. 31) to Thomas Jefferson. Dawkins writes:

Thomas Jefferson – better read – was of a similar opinion: ‘The Christian God is a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.’

I cannot find a citation online for this quote, and Dawkins does not provide one. The Jefferson archive at Virginia (which has over 1,700 items online) has a single document (a letter to William Short) which contains the phrase “a being of
terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust”. In context, the phrase is:

There are, I acknowledge, passages not free from objection, which we may, with probability, ascribe to Jesus himself; but claiming indulgence from the circumstances under which he acted. His object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses. That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust. Jesus, taking for his type the best qualities of the human head and heart, wisdom, justice,
goodness, and adding to them power, ascribed all of these, but in infinite perfection, to the Supreme Being, and formed him really worthy of their adoration.

While this contains the phrase “a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust,” it seems, under fair reading, to be referring to the Jewish conception of God as “taught by Moses”. In any case, the quote as given by Dawkins does not occur.

Online there are references to Jefferson saying:

I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded upon fables and mythologies. The Christian God is a being of terrific character — cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust…” (Works Vol. iv., p. 325).

I have not been able to track down Works or the phrase “founded upon fables and mythologies” in the Virginia archive. If this is volume 4 of the Works then
the quote is not there either.

Can any reader provide concrete evidence for Jefferson saying what Dawkins attributes to him?

(Please note that I’m not trying to attribute any dishonesty to Dawkins. The quote does appear frequently online without attribution. I’m just trying to figure out whether we’re dealing with a spurious quote here.)

Comments

  1. #1 Baratos
    January 18, 2007

    I think Brayton covered this a few weeks ago. At least, it was something about Jefferson and Dawkins….

  2. #2 Noodle
    January 18, 2007

    Yeah, I’ll second that, in a way. Ed, Jonathan Rowe and the boys over at Positive Liberty would probably be a good resource for quotes from Jefferson or other Founders.

  3. #3 Ed Brayton
    January 18, 2007

    The first quote is authentic, and Jefferson did indeed find the Old Testament god to be a barbaric creature (as do I). The second quote (“not one redeeming feature”) is fake, actually a conglomeration of two separate quotes, one authentic and one not.

  4. #4 John Lynch
    January 19, 2007

    Ed,

    Thanks.

    That leaves us looking for the Dawkins quote.

  5. #5 Ed Brayton
    January 19, 2007

    It’s probably the second quote, which is seen all over the web despite not being found in Jefferson’s writings. Whoever invented it likely added the “Christian God” part to the authentic “cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust” line from the William Short letter. There’s an even worse example of sloppy scholarship in that section of Dawkins’ book, where he says:

    “Remarks of Jeffersons’s such as ‘Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man’ are compatible with deism but also with atheism. So is James Madison’s robust anticlericalism: ‘During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, supestition, bigotry, and persecution.’ The same could be said of Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Lighthouses are more useful than churches’ and of John Adams’s ‘This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.’

    The Adams quote is as badly out of context as anything the creationists have ever used. Here’s the full quote in context, from a letter to Jefferson:

    Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!” But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell.

    Not only does the quote not represent Adams’ position, the same paragraph clearly shows that it was the opposite of his actual position. That’s as bad as anything I’ve seen from the creationists, and we hammer them when they do it. I doubt Dawkins did it intentionally, he just took it from someone else. Still, it’s really shoddy scholarship and it clearly misrepresents Adams.

  6. #6 Alexander Vargas
    January 19, 2007

    We know what many of us are to Dawkins: vile Neville Chamberlain appeasers, gutless lame and inmoral fencesitters. Nice fella.
    I guess, to fight creationism, we must do like the creationists: Anything goes. Sloppy research, quote mining…

  7. #7 ThomasJ
    January 19, 2007

    Not only does the quote not represent Adams’ position, the same paragraph clearly shows that it was the opposite of his actual position.

    I don’t think that’s clear at all. The fact that Adams said that his recent reading had “twenty times” almost led him to take the position expressed in the sentence Dawkins quotes indicates that he was very conflicted about the effects of religion on the world. And it doesn’t affect Dawkins’ point, anyway, which was that the series of quotes he gave are compatible with deism and atheism.

    But of course, the real motive behind these endless attempts to score trivial debating points against Dawkins is that you just can’t stand the central message of the book; namely, that religion is nonsense, frequently harmful, not necessary for a moral life or a decent society, and it’s high time we give up this collective delusion.

  8. #8 John Lynch
    January 19, 2007

    But of course, the real motive behind these endless attempts to score trivial debating points against Dawkins is that you just can’t stand the central message of the book;

    No, the real “motive” is to try and find out what Jefferson and other actually said versus what some people seem to wish they said. It is an historical matter – either someone said/wrote something or they did not.

  9. #9 Sean
    January 20, 2007

    In a letter dated April 21, 1803 that is part of the Library of Congress collection of his papers, Jefferson wrote that his view of Christianity was misconstrued even then.

  10. #10 Écrasez l'infâme
    January 23, 2007

    Positive Atheism lists the quote as a phony, having made an inquiry to Jefferson Presidential Library:

    The Jefferson Presidential Library has searched for the following alleged quotation and cannot find it within their collection of known and verified Jefferson writings. Therefore we think this quotation is probably a forgery and recommend its removal from all quotes collections.

    However, there are several properly cited Jefferson quotes at WikiQuote that express Jefferson’s views on this subject throughout his life:

    * The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, ed. Paul Leicester Ford, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, p. 78.

    * Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned: yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free inquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves. But every state, says an inquisitor, has established some religion. “No two, say I, have established the same.” Is this a proof of the infallibility of establishments? Our sister states of Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsisted without any establishment at all.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, p. 80.

    * I doubt whether the people of this country would suffer an execution for heresy, or a three years imprisonment for not [297] comprehending the mysteries of the trinity.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, p. 81.

    * [I]n a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever[.]
    o Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, pp. 83-84.

    * Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object [religion]. In the first place divest yourself of all bias in favour of novelty & singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, & the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand shake off all the fears & servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear. You will naturally examine first the religion of your own country. Read the bible then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus. … But those facts in the bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. … Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature in the case he relates. For example in the book of Joshua we are told the sun stood still several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, etc. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine therefore candidly what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis as the earth does, should have stopped, should not by that sudden stoppage have prostrated animals, trees, buildings, and should after a certain time have resumed its revolution, & that without a second general prostration. Is this arrest of the earth’s motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities? You will next read the new testament. It is the history of a personage called Jesus. Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions I. of those who say he was begotten by god, born of a virgin, suspended & reversed the laws of nature at will, & ascended bodily into heaven: and 2. of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, & was Punished capitally for sedition by being gibbeted according to the Roman law which punished the first commission of that offence by whipping, & the second by exile or death in furcâ. … Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of it’s consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort & pleasantness you feel in it’s exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a god, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, & that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a god, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. In fine, I repeat that you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, & neither believe nor reject anything because any other persons, or description of persons have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable not for the rightness but uprightness of the decision. I forgot to observe when speaking of the new testament that you should read all the histories of Christ, as well of those whom a council of ecclesiastics have decided for us to be Pseudo-evangelists, as those they named Evangelists. Because these Pseudo-evangelists pretended to inspiration as much as the others, and you are to judge their pretensions by your own reason, & not by the reason of those ecclesiastics. Most of these are lost. There are some however still extant, collected by Fabricius which I will endeavor to get & send you.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 5, pp. 324-327.

    * A professorship of theology should have no place in our institution [the University of Virginia].
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Thomas Cooper, October 7, 1814.[1]

    * But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill[.] … The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems,[footnote: e.g. The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc. --T.J.] invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestley has successfully devoted his labors and learning. It would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason, and so generally and deeply afflicted mankind; but this work is to be begun by winnowing the grain from the chaff of the historians of his life.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, October 31, 1819. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 12, pp. 141-142.

    * My aim in that was, to justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers [the authors of the Gospels], which have exposed him to the inference of being an impostor. For if we could believe that he really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods and the charlatanisms which his biographers father on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations and theorizations of the fathers of the early, and fanatics of the latter ages, the conclusion would be irresistible by every sound mind, that he was an impostor. I give no credit to their falsifications of his actions and doctrines, and to rescue his character, the postulate in my letter asked only what is granted in reading every other historian. When Livy and Siculus, for example, tell us things which coincide with our experience of the order of nature, we credit them on their word, and place their narrations among the records of credible history. But when they tell us of calves speaking, of statues sweating blood, and other things against the course of nature, we reject these as fables not belonging to history. … That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, August 4, 1820, on his reason for compiling the Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus. Published in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, Merrill D. Peterson, ed., New York: Library of America, 1994, pp. 1435-1440.[2]

    * His [Jesus'] object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses. That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, August 4, 1820, on his reason for compiling the Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus. Published in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, Merrill D. Peterson, ed., New York: Library of America, 1994, pp. 1435-1440.[3]

    * 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.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823.[4]

    * It is between fifty and sixty years since I read the Apocalypse, and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy, nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams. … what has no meaning admits no explanation.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Alexander Smyth, January 17, 1825.[5]

  11. #11 Jim
    March 20, 2008

    It does seem to be quote mining on Dawkins’ part. The 2nd quote seems to be duplicated many times but I’ve only found 1 use which actually give a reference (sort of); as follows from The Heretic’s Handbook of Quotations: Cutting Comments on Burning Issues. Charles Bufe, ed., Tucson: See Sharp Press, 2001, p. 200.:

    The Christian God is a being of terrific character — cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust.
    -The Jefferson Bible

    However, I have not been able to find the quote in The Jefferson Bible yet. You will observe that a book titled The Heretic’s Handbook… probably isn’t the most unbiased source either, of course. Interestingly, one of the sources for this quotation seems to be Thomas Paine. From Thomas Paine: The Apostle of Liberty. Remsburg, John Eleaser. The Truth seeker co., publisher, 1917, p. 94.:

    The God of the Old Testament, the God that Christians worship, Jefferson pronounces “a being of terrific character–cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.

    You can see here where Paine was trying to force that connection from Jefferson’s original quote. The Paine use is interesting to note because Paine is notorious for having stretched the truth at times. As an aside, Christopher Hitchens is a huge fan of Thomas Paine … I’m just saying.

  12. #12 cl
    June 13, 2008

    Thoughtful and informative thread. Thanks!

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