Is This True?

I came across this post on another blog, and a comment by someone claiming that Dawkins, in his new book The God Delusion says that Thomas Jefferson was an atheist. Here's the comment:

I hate to bring up the name of St. Richard Dawkins too often, as I know he makes the biscuit worshippers come out in a rash. However, in his new book ("The God Delusion" - that's what I love him for, zero words minced) he actually talks about the secularism of the founders and the evidence for Jefferson, at least, being an out-and-out atheist.

These guys were doing their polito-philosophical stuff under the influence of deists like Voltaire. I find it hard to believe that Jefferson - arguably the most brilliant man to run a country, anywhere, ever, and certainly the sort of chap I'd choose to found my nation - believed in fairies at the bottom of the garden.

I was sent a copy of The God Delusion, but as I find Dawkins as irritating when he writes about religion as he is brilliant when writing about science, I gave my copy to my father to read. But I'm sure many of my readers have this book, and I'm quite curious: is this an accurate representation of what Dawkins says on the subject? If it is, then he's engaging in historical revisionism every bit as loathsome as that engaged in by David Barton and the religious right.

Any suggestion that Jefferson was an atheist is patently ridiculous and contradicted by volumes of his own writing. None of the founding fathers were atheists. Even the most radical of the bunch, Thomas Paine, who published a scathing critique of Christianity and claims of revelation in The Age of Reason, still believed strongly in a benevolent God. Calling Jefferson an atheist is every bit as laughable and idiotic as calling him a fundamentalist Christian. Perhaps even more so. So I'm quite curious to know if Dawkins really says that, or if this commenter is misrepresenting what he said.

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Ed, if you can't be bothered to read it, maybe you should let it pass.

Well if I still had the book, I'd look it up. Why, exactly, should I let it pass? I debunk false claims here all the time, including ones that appear in books I haven't read. Why should that be different in this case?

Lettuce, I disagree.
Ed is probably already aware of a lot of what Dawkins says in the book, and as he says he doesn't enjoy reading Dawkins talking about religion. Therefore he is entitled not to read the book.

However, Ed is committed to exposing revisionist statements regarding the Founding Fathers so he is interested to hear from one of us whether this allegation against Dawkins is correct.

Also, it is best to be prepared for whatever the other side is going to throw at you.

Personally, I look forward to reading the book, but not soon enough to answer this query.

Ed, just call your dad up and ask him what Dawkins said. Doesn't that seem easiest?

I haven't read the book, either, but I can't imagine Dawkins would make a claim like that. He may be citing 'evidence' as in things Jefferson said and wrote which sound an awful lot like atheism, but if Jefferson never identified himself as such, why make such a patently ridiculous claim?

Dawkins says no such thing. This is from p42-43 of my copy of The God Delusion:

Dawkins says Christopher Hitches thinks it likely that Jefferson was an atheist and quotes Hitchens quoting Jefferson saying "If [rational inquiry] ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in this exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you."

Dawkins then quotes a letter from Jefferson to Peter Carr:
"Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servily crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of God; if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear."

Then Dawkins says "Remarks of Jefferson's such as 'Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man' are compatible with deism but also with atheism."

I [Susan] think it would have been extremely dangerous for Jefferson to "come out" as an atheist and being no dummy, if he *was* an atheist he would have kept it pretty close to his vest and sprinkled around God talk when it seemed necessary and could be done with a minimum of dishonesty. Dawkins does point out that all the founders were "passionate secularists" which is certainly correct but he never says he thinks Jefferson was an atheist.

Leni wrote:

Ed, just call your dad up and ask him what Dawkins said. Doesn't that seem easiest?

Not under the circumstances. He's probably a two hour trip away from that book at the moment.

MrsCogan wrote:

Dawkins says Christopher Hitches thinks it likely that Jefferson was an atheist and quotes Hitchens quoting Jefferson saying "If [rational inquiry] ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in this exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you."

Dawkins then quotes a letter from Jefferson to Peter Carr:
"Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servily crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of God; if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear."

Then Dawkins says "Remarks of Jefferson's such as 'Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man' are compatible with deism but also with atheism."

If anyone thinks that the first two statements are evidence of atheism, they are every bit as guilty of wishful thinking and historical revisionism as David Barton. Yes, Jefferson did encourage Peter Carr to question everything, including the existence of God, but he also believed strongly that reason would lead one to belief in God (though not the Biblical god, certainly). And yes, he also argued firmly that belief in God was not necessary to be ethical, and he named many European atheists of high ethics as evidence of that. But none of that makes him an atheist, not by a longshot. From what you quoted, Dawkins does not actually say that Jefferson was an atheist, he just says that some of what Jefferson said was "compatible" with atheism. But volumes of what he wrote is also quite incompatible with atheism, and if you're discussing the man's religious views, it's absurd to leave all of that evidence out of the discussion. I'll have to read the passage in more context to see whether Dawkins is really guilty of misrepresentation on this count. On this one though:

Dawkins does point out that all the founders were "passionate secularists" which is certainly correct but he never says he thinks Jefferson was an atheist.

If he really says that, then he is every bit as guilty as David Barton is on the other side. The claim that all of the founders were secularists, passionate or otherwise, is absolute nonsense. The word "secularist" can mean a lot of things, but it certainly can't be defined so broadly as to include Patrick Henry, or Samuel Adams, or John Witherspoon. By today's standards, even George Washington and John Adams would not be considered secularists, since they both believed that the government should issue declarations and proclamations of belief in God as long as they were non-coercive (Jefferson issued them as well, but later regretted doing so; Madison opposed them).

Ed -

MrsCogan has it right, Dawkins does not claim Jefferson was an atheist. He does, however, qoute others speculating that Jefferson might have leaned in that direction. Dawkins then qoutes Jefferson himself and shows that the qoute is nearly indistinguishable from what we now consider agnosticism.

The point that Dawkins raises is not the what philisophical "shade" that Jefferson was, but rather to what extant Jefferson held organized religion, and Christianity in particular, in contempt. Dawkins, I think, goes out of his way to state in that section of the book that he is discussing the example of the Founding Fathers to counter the fundamentalist Christian claim that America was explicitly founded on Christian ideology and law.

The person you read that claims Dawkins was calling Jefferson an "out and out atheist" was dishonest or needs to re-read that portion of the book again.

Of course, we should ask why Dawkins would qoute someone who speculates that Jefferson was an atheist. It can certainly be interpreted that Dawkins was trying to make the positive claim while using another's voice, but in my mind I don't believe that Dawkins would feel the need for such a pathetic attempt to protect his image. He has certainly shown himself capable of defending his positions without hiding behind scare qoutes.

Blaine wrote:

Dawkins then qoutes Jefferson himself and shows that the qoute is nearly indistinguishable from what we now consider agnosticism.

I'm dying to know what that quote was. Can you provide it?

The point that Dawkins raises is not the what philisophical "shade" that Jefferson was, but rather to what extant Jefferson held organized religion, and Christianity in particular, in contempt.

Well that much is mostly true. Certainly, Jefferson held much of institutional Christianity in great contempt, including especially St. Paul and the 4 gospel writers. And he had a special loathing for Calvin (and I can't blame him for that). But he also believed that the ethical system of Jesus was the most "perfect and sublime" every invented, and thus that is why he called himself a Christian (in the same sense that he also called himself an Epicurean).

Dawkins, I think, goes out of his way to state in that section of the book that he is discussing the example of the Founding Fathers to counter the fundamentalist Christian claim that America was explicitly founded on Christian ideology and law.

And that is certainly laudable, as I do so often myself. But discussing Jefferson is not the same thing as discussing the Founding Fathers; he was but one man among many. And if, as Mrs. Cogan suggests, he says that the founding fathers were "passionate secularists", that belongs in the same dungheap of nonsense that Barton's crap belongs in. I think you could fairly call only 2 or 3 of the founding fathers secularists (but certainly not atheists) in any coherent sense (Madison, Jefferson, Thomas Paine). The rest of those with leanings toward theistic rationalism (Washington, Franklin, Adams) were all in favor of government supporting religion in general (not Christianity specifically, or any denomination of it) as long as that support was not coercive. And even those three were moderates on church/state questions compared to founders like Patrick Henry, John Witherspoon, Samuel Adams, Noah Webster, and most of the rest.

"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.'

[...]

"Whether Jefferson and his colleagues were theists, deists, agnostics or atheists, they were also passionate secularists who believed that the religious opinions of a president, or lack of them, were entirely his own business."

That's the immediate context, and the larger context is arguing that America's founders were secularists. I don't personally know enough of any of their writings to be able to weigh in conclusively one way or another, but I do know that I've read a whole bunch of quotes from most founding fathers that would indicate that he's correct.

Ed -

Regarding the comment about the founders being "passionate secularists"; the whole sentence reads:

"Whether Jefferson and his colleagues were theists, deists, agnostics or atheists, they were also passionate secularists who believed that the religious opinions of a President, or lack of them, were entirely thier own business."

What in your opinion is wrong with this claim? I admit that I am not nearly well enough versed in the views of the Founding Fathers to answer this. How differently must we apply the term "secular" to the founders as compared to how it is understood today? Were not the founders far more secular than many of thier contemporaries? Might it be in this sense that Dawkins uses "passionate secularist"? If so, is it dishonest without clearly delineating the difference between secularism then and now?

Regards,

"The following statement of Jefferson is indistinguishable from what we would now call agnosticism:

"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 ...without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence."

I'd say that's pretty agnostic.

(PS. Sorry about the double post)

Stuart Coleman wrote:

"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.'

It's absolutely pointless to say that those quotes are "compatible" with atheism; all that means is that an atheist might say the same thing. It's especially pointless in light of the volumes and volumes of writings by all of those men that absolutely prove their belief in God (though, again, not the Biblical God). Not being a Christian does not make one an atheist. And the last quote is absolutely the sort of unscholarly, dishonest quoting that we bash David Barton for constantly. Let me give you the very next sentence of what he wrote (to Jefferson, incidentally). He did not say "this would be the best of all possible worlds if there was no religion in it." He said:

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.

That changes that quote a hell of a lot, doesn't it? Dawkins is as guilty of distorting and misrepresenting the words of these men as David Barton. Using that quote as he does shows a rank disregard for intellectual honesty.

Ed -

Just saw your response to me...

This is the qoute from Jefferson that Dawkins uses that he claims is "nearly indistinguishable" from agnosticism:

"To talk of immaterial existence 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...without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence."

Also, you answered some of my questions in my second post before I finished it, so thanks...

Blaine wrote:

"Whether Jefferson and his colleagues were theists, deists, agnostics or atheists, they were also passionate secularists who believed that the religious opinions of a President, or lack of them, were entirely thier own business."

What in your opinion is wrong with this claim?

If by "his colleagues" he means only Madison and Paine...maybe. But if he's referring to the founding fathers as a group, absolutely not. There is no possible definition of "secularist" that could cover most of the founding fathers, certainly not for men like Patrick Henry, Noah Webster and many others. Even the last statement, if applied to John Adams, is hard to justify. In the election of 1800, he made a very big deal out of Jefferson's lack of religious piety (which is quite ironic, since they later became fast friends and it turns out that their private views were virtually identical on all religious questions).

Ed -

Thanks for your clarifications.... I read Dawkins because many bloggers have recommended it, and I have quite enjoyed his science writing in the past. If, as you say, he has dishonestly characterized the founders in order to make a point against religion, I wonder where else in the book he has done so.... I admit though, the thought of checking his rather long list of sources and footnotes fills me with dread.

Stuart Coleman wrote:

"The following statement of Jefferson is indistinguishable from what we would now call agnosticism:

"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 ...without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence."

No, this statement is absolutely not a statement of agnosticism. Anyone who has read enough of Jefferson's views on the subject knows that. Jefferson was a materialist, yes, but not in the sense that we think of it today (when materialism or naturalism is synonymous with atheism). Jefferson believed that God himself was a material being, not an immaterial being; that's why he says that, in his view, Christianity is promoting atheism by promoting immaterialism - since the immaterial does not exist, saying that God is immaterial is saying that God does not exist. But Jefferson very much believed that God exists and he said so too often to count. He just believed that God was a material being.

In fact, he made a point in the letter that quote is from to distinguish between material Christianity and material atheism, which he considered to both be the same false belief:

In England these Immaterialists might have been burnt until the 29. Car. 2. when the writ de haeretico comburendo was abolished: and here until the revolution, that statute not having extended to us. All heresies being now done away with us, these schismatists are merely atheists, differing from the material Atheist only in their belief that `nothing made something,' and from the material deist who believes that matter alone can operate on matter.

I really find this distasteful. He's pulling quotes out of context and ignoring reams of evidence to the contrary to make it sound as though Jefferson was really an agnostic. It's every bit as dishonest as what David Barton does and he should absolutely be called to account for it.

Ed, I suspect something is up here. I doubt Dawkins' would willingly distort these facts, I'm guessing he got the quotes second-hand. Of course, when writing a book these kinds of things should be checked, and would certainly hope Dawkins did check them, but before accusing him of outright dishonesty you might want to find out whether or not he was simply misinformed (remember, he is British...).

I will look into it, and if Dawkins was dishonest, I'll lose a good chunk of respect for him.

That's what David Barton's supporters say too, unfortunately. The difference between them is that Dawkins is a genuine scholar and should know better than to take quotes like that without looking them up. He has criticized creationists (and rightly so) for doing that for decades. If he doesn't know how badly he is misrepresenting the reality here, he certainly ought to know because he should have done the research first (at the very least, had a fact checker do it; he can certainly afford it).

Ed, I definitely agree with you. I sent an E-mail through his website, hopefully I'll have a response soon. If not, he's coming to a nearby town in a couple weeks for a book signing, there'll be a Q&A, I'll ask him then.

I'd also like to point out that I had no idea about this. My general understanding of the founding fathers was in line with Dawkins's. I've never taken an in-depth American History course, so this is coming from The History Channel and High School level history, plus the few quotes I've seen online. I'm a bit curious now as to how this got so ubiquitously misrepresented.

Ed wrote:

But Jefferson very much believed that God exists and he said so too often to count. He just believed that God was a material being.

I'm confused here. How did Jefferson understand the word "material?" Surely he did not mean that God was made out of flesh, or some natural substance -- did he? And souls?

Today, a distinction is usually made between matter, which is physical or material, and "spirit," which is non-physical and immaterial. I'm not sure what people thought in the 18th century. Was he referring to God and souls as being like energy or "forces," and thinking of them as material?

Depending on your perspective deism is either a glass half full or a glass half empty. Both atheists and the tradionally religious can either claim or disavow deism - depending on how it suits their purposes. While there is historical evidence to dispute this, one claim made about 18th century deists was that they would have been atheists if they had only heard of Charles Darwin. Until Darwin anticlerical Bible-bashers were supposedly stuck with the first cause and design arguments. Another claim is that they were the first religious liberals.

By Bill Jarrell (not verified) on 14 Oct 2006 #permalink

Prior to saying:

"Whether Jefferson and his colleagues were theists, deists, agnostics or atheists, they were also passionate secularists who believed that the religious opinions of a President, or lack of them, were entirely his own business."

Dawkins discusses the views of Madison and Adams - the Adams stuff was taken from letters to Jefferson. I tend to think Ed is right on this, there are more founding fathers than Jefferson, Madison and Adams - incidently on an earlier page he characterizes Paine as a diest (his only mention of Paine actually).

To give Blaine a partial answer, I thought his discussion of the Melanesian cargo cults was incorrect...

By afarensis (not verified) on 14 Oct 2006 #permalink

All I have seen and read of Jefferson tends to compel me to think that the man when he wrote that others should question and investigate, never advocated for them his own beliefs. As Ed said, he felt reason must include God as a divine element of beingness. If this reason would lead you from God, then you are still "blessed" to enjoy reason, even if you do not follow it to God. This is not agnosticism, and only those who wander along the cline of theism to agnosticism to atheism would consider it so, instead of conceiving of tangents to this cline.

I, for example, am an agnostic Buddhist who employs reason every day. I do not conceive of God, but I have been given no imperative or experience to do so, and thus without that experience, cannot as of yet.

By Jaime A. Headden (not verified) on 14 Oct 2006 #permalink

Ed,

It's nice that you brought this up. I have read TGD front to back and I would have to say that Dawkins is certainly no historian. His analysis of the origins of American secularism and the religious backgrounds of the founders is pretty weak. As a side note, his commentary on the religious views of Stalin and Hitler is similarly superficial, though not as misleading as the former.

I cringed as I read it, because it will inevitably detract from the weight of the rest of the book. Most of the rest of it is pretty compelling, leading me to believe that Dawkins should have simply stuck to what he was good at rather than writing a "jack of all trades" sort of book, i.e., attempting to simultaneously be a scientist and a historian.

Ed, you keep daily watch on the nuts at the anti-ACLU sites, as well as World Net Daily, but you don't read Dawkin's book - despite knowing full well that it will be a major topic for a very long time in the debates - because he's "irritating" when he writes about his opinions about religion?

You are REALLY weird, or else simply showing that holier-than-thou "I am a scientist and a libertairian" side that makes you look, to this simply reader, like another guy with more of those useless, uncaring and unresearched, everyone-has-got-one "opinion" things.

(I believe I'm beginning to assume that anyone spouting off with the "other-L" word, "libertarian," is, on that topic at the very least, a preening shit to be ignored.)

By goddogtired (not verified) on 14 Oct 2006 #permalink

but as I find Dawkins as irritating when he writes about religion as he is brilliant when writing about science

Curiously I heard the exact opposite opinion expressed yesterday at the London Howlerfest.

Ed,

I usually like your posts and read you daily but methinks you have something against Dawkins and it's leaking into your commentary here.

goddogtired summed it up pretty well.

Without talking to Jefferson it's impossible to know for certain what he was or wasn't although I tend to side with you on this I also think there is enough in doubt to have the question be unsettled.

Having said that I also think it doesn't matter a whit.

Ed said:

I think you could fairly call only 2 or 3 of the founding fathers secularists (but certainly not atheists) in any coherent sense (Madison, Jefferson, Thomas Paine).

The obvious question that occurs to me is: how, then, did we end up with a purely secular Constitution? I would think that in order for it to be ratified, there would have to have been a lot more secularists than just 2 or 3?

And I think the issue of secularism is an entirely separate one from the issue of theism vs. deism vs. agnosticism vs. atheism. I am well aware that most of the founding fathers believed in God in some form or other, but they (the majority of them) were wise enough to see that the best form of government would be a secular one.

afarensis wrote:

Dawkins discusses the views of Madison and Adams - the Adams stuff was taken from letters to Jefferson.

If that's the case, then I think it makes it considerably less excusable that he so badly misrepresents Adams' position with that incredibly out of context quote. If he's quoting at length from the Adams-Jefferson letters, then he absolutely has to know that the little "this would be the best of all possible worlds" snippet did not represent Adams' actual position. In fact, Adams, unlike Jefferson, was strongly convinced that religion was necessary for public morality.

goddogtired wrote:

Ed, you keep daily watch on the nuts at the anti-ACLU sites, as well as World Net Daily, but you don't read Dawkin's book - despite knowing full well that it will be a major topic for a very long time in the debates - because he's "irritating" when he writes about his opinions about religion?

I think you have a very different conception of "the debates" than I do. I take great interest in the evolution/creationism debate; I take virtually no interest in the theism/atheism debate. So to say that I should read this book because it will be "a major topic in the debates" is to confuse the situation considerably. When Dawkins writes about science and evolution, I take him quite seriously. He's a brilliant scientist and an even better writer. I gladly read books like The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable, both because they are excellent books on the subject of evolution and because those books will be part of the debate that I actually care about. But yes, when he writes about religion I find him annoying so I generally don't bother anymore to read him when he writes about that subject.

You are REALLY weird, or else simply showing that holier-than-thou "I am a scientist and a libertairian" side that makes you look, to this simply reader, like another guy with more of those useless, uncaring and unresearched, everyone-has-got-one "opinion" things.

Now that's really funny. First of all, I am not a scientist at all and have never claimed to be. Second of all, this subject has precisely nothing to do with libertarianism or political beliefs of any kind, so I can't imagine what that has to do with anything; perhaps it's just some sort of bizarre kneejerk reaction to an idea you don't like. Lastly, and most importantly, on this particular subject it is me, not Dawkins, who has bothered to do the research and shown a concern for what is true and what is not. That makes your comment here a perfect example of irony.

(I believe I'm beginning to assume that anyone spouting off with the "other-L" word, "libertarian," is, on that topic at the very least, a preening shit to be ignored.)

Then by all means, feel free to ignore me. I'm quite sure no one has a gun to your head forcing you to be here.

But yes, when he writes about religion I find him annoying so I generally don't bother anymore to read him when he writes about that subject.

Why? His arguments in this area are much better and much more coherent than say a Ken Miller who's religious arguments are quite poor lending to ridiculous. But I guess you could also not read Millers on this topic as well.

Lastly, and most importantly, on this particular subject it is me, not Dawkins, who has bothered to do the research and shown a concern for what is true and what is not.

I doubt very much if Dawkins doesn't care what is true. I also doubt he didn't do his research. Is it not possible he simply reaches a different conclusion?

GH wrote:

I usually like your posts and read you daily but methinks you have something against Dawkins and it's leaking into your commentary here.

Great. Now can you point to anything I've said in this regard that is untrue? If not, then this is utter nonsense. Everything I have said in this thread is absolutely accurate and my criticisms of Dawkins for his misrepresentations on this issue appear to be quite justified. For crying out loud, he quotes Adams as saying "This would be the best of all possible worlds if there was no religion in it" - as evidence that his views were "compatible with atheism" - while ignoring the very next line which says, "Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell." And without quoting the voluminous statements that Adams made regarding his firm belief in God (again, not the Biblical god) and his equally firm belief that a general acceptance of religion was important to support public morality. I happen to disagree strongly with Adams on that point, but that doesn't justify pretending that he believed otherwise or ignoring the context. That one single misrepresentation is every bit as bad as what David Barton does that I criticize him for every day. Am I supposed to ignore the same kind of thing when it's done by someone ostensibly on "my side"? Or is the honest and consistent thing to condemn both misrepresentations because they both show a disregard for the truth? I'll choose the latter.

Either way, it's quite silly to accuse someone of bias on a particular subject if you can't point to anything they've said on that subject that is false. And frankly, it's exactly what the fundies do, and we all laugh at them for it. When I criticize David Barton for the same thing, I get a virtually identical response: "You just have a bias against him, and against God, and that clouds your judgement." And I make the same response: great, then tell me why I'm wrong. If you can't, then all this talk of bias is pointless.

goddogtired summed it up pretty well.

Goddogtired reacted reflexively in defense of someone he admires (someone I admire to, for many reasons, but not so much that I will overlook obviously bad scholarship) and added nothing of substance to the subject.

Without talking to Jefferson it's impossible to know for certain what he was or wasn't although I tend to side with you on this I also think there is enough in doubt to have the question be unsettled.

You don't have to talk to Jefferson, he was an astonishingly prolific writer who left behind thousands and thousands of letters, many of them addressing this very subject. It's not a big mystery what he believed, we have volumes of his own work discussing those beliefs. And one thing we absolutely know is that Jefferson was neither an atheist nor an agnostic (just as we are equally certain that he was not an orthodox Christian, or a Christian by any meaningful definition other than his own peculiar one). One can reasonably debate certain things about his religious views, like the degree to which he was influenced by deism or Unitarianism, but no honest person could paint Jefferson as either an atheist or an orthodox Christian; those are simply off the charts of absurdity in light of his writings (and I'm not saying that Dawkins says Jefferson was an atheist, as it appears he only says that a couple of out of context quotes from him are "compatible" with atheism, which means practically nothing, especially in light of the fact that he said a million things that are absolutely incompatible with atheism).

Having said that I also think it doesn't matter a whit.

It matters for the same reason that it matters when David Barton does it: because truth matters.

But Jefferson very much believed that God exists and he said so too often to count. He just believed that God was a material being.

I did just a little checking up last night, and so far have failed to find any Christians or theists who believe that "God is a material being" makes sense. When asked what they think it means, the only example they could come up with are those Mormons who believe that God is a person on the planet Kolob, or something like that. As long as you assure them you don't think that an "immaterial" God means that it is an unimportant or irrelevant one, they go with God and soul as non-material -- like thought.

What would a gentleman in 18th century America have meant by calling God an "immaterial being?"

The obvious question that occurs to me is: how, then, did we end up with a purely secular Constitution?

At best, I think Ed's first count is kind of a nit. What Dawkins should have said was 'Some of Jefferson's contemporaries". It's a fair criticism and one that Dawkins should correct, but not one that is germane to the argument, since all Dawkins needs is one, and he has more than a few.

Jefferson did have colleages who made statemnts that are compatible with deism and atheism. The point isn't that that this makes them atheists or deists, but that these statements are distinctly not compatable with the Christianity of modern people who claim the Constitution is basically some sort of biblically inspired religious document.

Further, by today's standards many of founders would be considered passionate secularists. Therefore, historical connotations of the world "secularists" are irrelevant. I personally don't see the point in fretting that Dawkins didn't apply the word to each individual as they or their contemporaries would have. The point is that a not-trivial number of founders held beliefs that would be refered to as "secularist" by the large numbers of people reading Dawkins' book, and (more importantly) by the type of Christians who criticize those same or very similar sentiments in political rivals today.

I do however think that out of context quote was damning. The honest thing to do would be to admit error, correct it, clarify the correction in a forthright way (ie not just deleting it without mention) rework his argument without it. We'll have to wait and see what happens.

By the way, I agree with you on Dawkins' sloppy or deceptive use of quotes. It's bad scholarship, and he should be called on it (though I have not read the book either so can't give any insight on context.)Just because I admire the man and his work doesn't mean we shouldn't jump on errors. And I will give credit to Dawkins that he'd agree.

The only small caveat I'd make is that the comparison to Barton is perhaps a bit extreme. If Dawkins had actually claimed Jefferson was an atheist, then yep. But as bad as Barton? Maybe not - though you're right, quoting part of the "better world with no religion in it" and not the REST would be pretty inexcusable.

WJD wrote:

The obvious question that occurs to me is: how, then, did we end up with a purely secular Constitution? I would think that in order for it to be ratified, there would have to have been a lot more secularists than just 2 or 3?

The term "secular" here can mean many different things. We have a secular constitution in the sense that it does not mention God or our reliance on him, as virtually all previous governing documents throughout the Western world did (and that is indeed a very great change, and worth applauding). But the text of the Constitution was vague enough to allow several different interpretations in terms of how secular the government had to be. In terms of church/state separation, there were three groups among the founding fathers: theocrats, accomodationists and separationists.

The theocrats were people like Patrick Henry, who believed that the government should be officially Christian and should tax everyone for the support of Christianity; that group lost, definitively, in the debates over the Constitution (so much so that Henry refused to support the Constitution and actively fought against it).

The accomodationists were people like George Washington, Ben Franklin and John Adams. They were all correctly classified as theistic rationalists (using Gregg Frazer's excellent phrase and work on the subject) and not orthodox Christians by any means, but they also all believed that religion, in general, was vital to public morality and that without it, society would crumble. But they also believed in freedom of conscience (other than Adams for a brief period for political purposes when he signed the Sedition act and used it to attack his enemies, a dark stain on his legacy), and they refused to use coercion to achieve that. All of them, however, believed that the government should encourage people to be religious through declarations and proclamations, and Washington and Adams issued many such decrees (none of which were binding, and that made all the difference to them).

The separationists were, primarily, Jefferson and Madison. They believed that the government should be entirely secular, taking no notice at all of the matter of religion and being entirely silent about it.

Our constitution, including the first amendment religion clauses, can be viewed as compatible with accomodationism or separationism (though put me firmly on the side of Jefferson and Madison when it comes to what the government should do), but not with theocracy. Most of the founders probably fell into the accomodationist category. There was virtually no criticism of Adams and Washington for issuing non-binding proclamations supporting religion. Even Jefferson and Madison did not make a big deal out of it, though they both refused to issue them (Madison did issue a couple of thanksgiving proclamations, but later regretted it and took a stand against them).

And I think the issue of secularism is an entirely separate one from the issue of theism vs. deism vs. agnosticism vs. atheism. I am well aware that most of the founding fathers believed in God in some form or other, but they (the majority of them) were wise enough to see that the best form of government would be a secular one.

Only in the broadest sense of a government that should not coerce people into believing. Most of them almost certainly did believe that the government should encourage religious belief in non-coercive ways.

GH wrote:

I doubt very much if Dawkins doesn't care what is true. I also doubt he didn't do his research. Is it not possible he simply reaches a different conclusion?

Then please explain how in the world that Adams quote got in there. This isn't a question of interpretaton. There are only two choices: dishonesty or scholarly sloppiness. The part he quotes from Adams definitively and emphatically does not represent his position and anyone with even a tiny familiarity with Adams' views has to know that.

Sastra-

I agree that Jefferson's views on God as a material being are odd; they are nonetheless his views. He said many times that he was a materialist, but even more times spoke of his firm belief in God (again, not the Biblical god). I don't pretend to understand why he believed that, but it's clear that he did.

"methinks you have something against Dawkins and it's leaking into your commentary here."

I'd say Brayton's dislike of Dawkins is understandable. From his article "Time to Stand Up", he writes,

In a world without religion, there would have been no Crusades; no Inquisition; no anti-Semitic pogroms (the people of the diaspora would long ago have intermarried and become indistinguishable from their host populations); no Northern Ireland Troubles (no label by which to distinguish the two 'communities,' and no sectarian schools to teach the children historic hatreds--they would simply be one community).

The above is a maddening mix of the true and false. He is probably right when it comes to the Crusades, Inquisition, and the pogroms, but the idea that the Irish wouldn't have simply come up with different labels for the two sides if there were no religious differences, or that the children wouldn't learn sectarian hatreds without the schools, is laughable. As if the Irish wouldn't call themselves Nationalists and Loyalists, or wouldn't call each other northerners and southerners, traitors, collaborators, terrorists, etc. The English governers could easily be called "English," and even Irish loyalists could be sneeringly called "English" to imply that they weren't "real" Irish. Yet despite all these obvious possibilities, Dawkins writes, "in Northern Ireland, ... religion is the only divisive label around." What is ironic is that he had earlier in the article acknowledged that the Troubles were mainly political:

Do I really think the Northern Ireland pub bomber says to himself "Take that, Tridentine Transubstantiationist bastards!" Of course I don't think anything of the kind. Theology is the last thing on the minds of such people. They are not killing because of religion itself, but because of political grievances, often justified. They are killing because the other lot killed their fathers. Or because the other lot drove their great grandfathers off their land. Or because the other lot oppressed our lot economically for centuries.

He seems to be straining to find a way to put politically-motivated conflicts with religious labels in the same lot as the kinds of conflicts that are actually sparked by religion. This is probably a by-product of overstating the case that if there were no religion, there would be fewer wars. There certainly would be somewhat fewer, but lust for power and humans' creativity in finding ways to divide ourselves into "us" and "them" would suggest that the drop in bloodshed would not be as substantial as Dawkins would hope.

Dawkins lets his bias make him sloppy, and I suspect that this is what Brayton finds irritating. I certainly find it irritating.

By J. J. Ramsey (not verified) on 15 Oct 2006 #permalink

I agree that Jefferson's views on God as a material being are odd; they are nonetheless his views. He said many times that he was a materialist, but even more times spoke of his firm belief in God (again, not the Biblical god). I don't pretend to understand why he believed that, but it's clear that he did.

I still find it curious. Other than being an interesting topic in its own right, the fact that Jefferson believed in God as a "material being" might even have some relevance here on the issue of whether Dawkins was being deliberately disingenuous in suggesting that Jefferson was more sympathetic to atheism than he really was.

As Dawkins is quick to point out, concepts like God, religion, spirituality, etc. are often interpreted on a full range of different meanings, some of which are actually compatable with naturalism. God exists, but it's a "material being" makes Jefferson sound suspiciously like those theists who have more or less morphed "God" into "the laws of nature" or "the feeling of awe when we look at the sky" or other secularized interpretations. If you push God and religion too far away from immaterial spirit, you're no longer working in the same framework as most believers.

It's possible that Dawkins read the passages decrying "immaterial" as nonsense, and figured that Jefferson was doing the Spinoza/Einstein thing: getting into fuzzy territory where natural and supernatural are blurred, and religious terms seem to have become a kind of metaphor or poetry for nature.

Now, if he did this, he might have been wrong to do so -- but until I get some kind of handle on what the heck ELSE Jefferson was doing, I'm rather sympathetic to this approach myself. I don't understand what a divine 'material being' is supposed to be like. I suspect there is a specific 18th century mindset on this issue I'm not familiar with.

I have to second what Sastra said. To say that Jefferson was not agnostic or an atheist but believed in a material God doesn't at first look to be compatible. What are the God-like attributes that Jefferson's God had? Just a creator? If he's material than surely he must be located somewhere.

I think the use of the word 'God', which typically refers to the Judeo-Christian god, may not be appropriate when referring to Jefferson's god; I try to keep up on what Ed and Jon Rowe write about the religious beliefs of the founders, but what do Jefferson's god and the typical attributes of the J-C God have in common at all?

As far as the references that without religion, life would be Hell, I don't see that alone as supporting a belief in God. I'm not a theist and I believe that to some extent; I think that some people need their belief in God, whether or not it's actually true.

Leni wrote:

Further, by today's standards many of founders would be considered passionate secularists. Therefore, historical connotations of the world "secularists" are irrelevant. I personally don't see the point in fretting that Dawkins didn't apply the word to each individual as they or their contemporaries would have. The point is that a not-trivial number of founders held beliefs that would be refered to as "secularist" by the large numbers of people reading Dawkins' book, and (more importantly) by the type of Christians who criticize those same or very similar sentiments in political rivals today.

I think the opposite is true: I highly doubt Dawkins would call any of the founding fathers other than Madison, Paine and Jefferson "secularists" today. Certainly not Adams or Washington. Washington's first thanksgiving proclamation began by declaring that "it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits." Adams' 1798 declaration began, "As the safety and prosperity of nations ultimately and essentially depend on the protection and the blessing of Almighty God, and the national acknowledgment of this truth is not only an indispensable duty which the people owe to Him, but a duty whose natural influence is favorable to the promotion of that morality and piety without which social happiness can not exist nor the blessings of a free government be enjoyed..." Dawkins surely would not consider those men "secularists", much less "passionate" ones. Except that he has cleverly taken Adams' words completely out of context to change their meaning so that he can lump him in among Jefferson's colleagues. And remember, Adams was actually one of the moderates. Others among the founders were considerably more orthodox than he was and quite keen on having the government support those beliefs. This is quite clearly a distortion of reality, isn't it?

Sastra wrote:

Other than being an interesting topic in its own right, the fact that Jefferson believed in God as a "material being" might even have some relevance here on the issue of whether Dawkins was being deliberately disingenuous in suggesting that Jefferson was more sympathetic to atheism than he really was.

I haven't accused him of being "deliberately disingenuous" in this suggestion. But there is simply no way that anyone with even 15 minutes of looking at Jefferson's writings on religion could possibly conclude that Jefferson was anything even close to atheist or agnostic. The fact that he thought God was material does not change that one bit.

As Dawkins is quick to point out, concepts like God, religion, spirituality, etc. are often interpreted on a full range of different meanings, some of which are actually compatable with naturalism. God exists, but it's a "material being" makes Jefferson sound suspiciously like those theists who have more or less morphed "God" into "the laws of nature" or "the feeling of awe when we look at the sky" or other secularized interpretations. If you push God and religion too far away from immaterial spirit, you're no longer working in the same framework as most believers.

But there is absolutely no question that Jefferson did not believe in anything like Spinoza's "laws of nature" deity or just a feeling of awe. He made it very, very clear that he believed in a benevolent, interventionist God (though, again, not the Biblical god, which he found "cruel, capricious, vindictive and unjust"). Remember his famous statement about slavery:

"God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever."

This man was not a deist, he was a theist, and a very firm one indeed. He did not believe in "god as the sum of all laws" or as a feeling of awe, he believed in a specific deity that gave us life and liberty and exacted justice. That he rejected the Biblical conception of God is also very clear in his writings, but to take his anti-Christian writings as being evidence of being sympathetic to atheism is, plain and simple, a distortion of reality.

It's possible that Dawkins read the passages decrying "immaterial" as nonsense, and figured that Jefferson was doing the Spinoza/Einstein thing: getting into fuzzy territory where natural and supernatural are blurred, and religious terms seem to have become a kind of metaphor or poetry for nature.

This is only possible if one is completely ignorant of 90% of what Jefferson wrote on the subject of religion. And if that is the case, then why on earth is he making such bold claims about Jefferson's beliefs in the first place? At the very least, this is unscholarly, sloppy and lazy.

In connection with Adams, Dawkins also quotes the following:

Adams also delivered himself of some splendid tirades against Christianity in particular: 'As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?' And, in another letter, this time to Jefferson, ' I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of greif which the history of mankind has preserved - the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of greif has produced!'

So to a certain extent I misunderstood Dawkins. The second quote was from a letter to Jefferson, the first is from a letter to someone else - although Dawkins doesn't say who... I think Dawkins has read these quotes from late in Adams life and assumed that this is what Adams believed during the Revolutionary War era and while Adams was president. At any rate, I agree with you that this was sloppy on Dawkins part, certainly constitutes quotemining if you ask me...

By afarensis (not verified) on 15 Oct 2006 #permalink

afarensis:

I don't think it's a question of what Adams said late in life being inconsistent with what he said earlier in life. I don't think his views changed all that much. But his anti-Christian views, expressed only in private, simply are not evidence of any sympathy for atheism, agnosticism or even deism. Nor are they evidence for him being a "passionate secularist." Even the most radically anti-Christian founder, Thomas Paine, still believed strongly in a benevolent, interventionist, providential God. So did Adams and Jefferson and every other founder with the possible exception of Ethan Allen (and he is a minor figure). Adams and Jefferson both would have considered atheism to be every bit as ridiculous as they found orthodox Christianity; indeed, both said so pretty bluntly.

Well, yeah, I wouldn't characterize him as a passionate secularist either, nor would I consider any of them atheists

By afarensis (not verified) on 15 Oct 2006 #permalink

All right, this thread got a little long for me to read all of it, but I did get a reply from Dawkins' website (although not fom him personally. Here's the text:

"Dear Mr. Coleman,

Thank you for writing. I am happy to report that Mr. Brayton is mistaken in his claim 'he [Dawkins] actually talks about the secularism of the founders and the evidence for Jefferson, at least, being an out-and-out atheist.'"

"If you will look at pages 38-39 from The God Delusion, you shall see what Richard actually stated, which is that many of the Founding Fathers were considered Diests - however SOME people argue Jefferson was in fact atheist (or at least agnostic) and cites work by Christopher Hitchins. This of course IS true - and if you want an interesting read - Hitchins book on Jefferson is fascinating."

It seems that they mistook the text you quoted as your words, but even then this isn't wholly satisfying. I suspect that Dawkins was using pretty much one source without checking it very well. But even then, you'd expect this Hitchins fellow to know the writings of America's founders pretty well if he wrote a book on it, and it appears that he put forth that hypothesis and Dawkins took it from him. Which is the same thing he did with the Cargo Cults, so if his account of that is wrong (as afarensis suggested) it may be for the same reason.

I'm contacting his foundation again, I'll let you know what they say.

Stuart Coleman wrote:

"If you will look at pages 38-39 from The God Delusion, you shall see what Richard actually stated, which is that many of the Founding Fathers were considered Diests - however SOME people argue Jefferson was in fact atheist (or at least agnostic) and cites work by Christopher Hitchins. This of course IS true - and if you want an interesting read - Hitchins book on Jefferson is fascinating."

Hitchens is a guy I have great admiration for (as I genuinely do for Dawkins in many ways, despite the perception that I have it in for him), but if he argues that Jefferson was really an atheist or agnostic, he is absolutely, incontrovertibly wrong. This really is one of those cases where the argument is so far gone from reality that one can only shake their head. I have read, literally, thousands of Jefferson's letters and documents and virtually everything he has written on the subject of religion. I cannot imagine how anyone in their right mind could come to such a conclusion unless they're just engaging in wishful thinking of the "if he was alive today, he'd probably be an atheist" variety. Which may well be true, but we really have no way of knowing. We do know, beyond all reasonable doubt, that he emphatically rejected atheism in real life (while also emphatically rejecting orthodox Christianity).

I'm not arguing that point, I think it's moot, because anyone with any sense can see that secularism is for the best, regardless of what the founders thought.

But I'm fairly certain that this was a case of sloppy scholarship; Dawkins is clearly out of his field and relied on sources that made bad arguments without checking other sources. Sloppy? Yes. Deceitful? Probably not.

Stuart Coleman wrote:

But I'm fairly certain that this was a case of sloppy scholarship; Dawkins is clearly out of his field and relied on sources that made bad arguments without checking other sources. Sloppy? Yes. Deceitful? Probably not.

I would say that's a reasonable conclusion. It'll be interesting to see if he corrects it or admits any of it to be inaccurate. The Adams quote is particularly egregious, the sort of thing he would absolutely hammer a creationist for doing.

This man (Jefferson) was not a deist, he was a theist, and a very firm one indeed. He did not believe in "god as the sum of all laws" or as a feeling of awe, he believed in a specific deity that gave us life and liberty and exacted justice.

I understand this (I've followed some of the discussions on "Theistic Rationalism" and how it differs from Deism), but my confusion still remains -- and it's possible there's a similar confusion on Dawkins' part.

What would an eighteenth century gentleman have meant by believing that God is a "material being?" A benevolent, interventionist god which is also identified as material or physical seems like a strange blending together of ideas to me. I see your point, but even so, statements which would otherwise seem to be evidence for firm theism do take on a rather odd tinge. I don't understand it. You say that Jefferson was a "materialist" -- I'd love to know what a materialist God is.

(And btw, don't underestimate the power of God as a metaphor. People can wax on pretty eloquently and specifically on how "Mother Nature is enraged and enacting her vengeance" for us dishonoring and violating "her planet" -- and not mean a damn thing concerning a literal Mother Nature. I suspect more theists have this sort of attitude than clearly apparent. In the 18th century? I don't know.)

Sastra-

I understand being confused about what Jefferson might have meant by a material God. It seems anachronistic. But that is what he believed, and his writings make quite clear that it's not just a metaphor to him. Any attempt to read such into his writings strikes me as exactly the sort of revisionist wishful thinking we condemn in others. It's going to take some serious evidence to convince me otherwise.

I don't care much about this topic really but nor do I see a clear answer due to the anachronistic style of Jefferson. I think Hitchens is a bright fellow and I thinks he makes some interesting arguments as do Ed and the fellows he writes about and with.

But there is simply no way that anyone with even 15 minutes of looking at Jefferson's writings on religion could possibly conclude that Jefferson was anything even close to atheist or agnostic.

Well this is clearly false as Mr. Hitchens has shown. I think there is room here for more than a little debate. I tend to agree with Sastra and think much of Jeffersons use of God was as a metaphor.

I don't see how he could buy a benevelent god who also meeted out 'justice'. But thats another rathole.

Ed, I think you may be overreacting. In context, Dawkin's seems to be using secularist not as implying a lack of belief in god, but as promoting a personal view of religion as separate from the state, something certainly supported by many of the men who we think of as "founding fathers."

As for whether Adams used Jefferson's lack of piety against him, while hiding his own similar lack, I think it is obvious that this supports the idea that Adams felt that his own personal beliefs were none of the public's business.

As for a statement being "compatible" with atheism, in many cases (as in these), this is a matter of interpretation. Take the paraquote "I think the world would be great without religion, but then I think about all the fucking morons, and change my mind." This idea is entirely compatible with atheism, it is the quote of a man who thinks that OTHER PEOPLE cannot handle the beliefs that he himself holds.

Successfully outing Jefferson as an implicit agnostic will have no effect on redeeming Dawkins' own writing on religion.

as an implicit agnostic will have no effect on redeeming Dawkins' own writing on religion.

I don't think he is in any need of redemption on this topic. He hits the nail on the head the majority of the time. Don't like his style ok, but his arguments are sound.

Ed: If Dawkins said Jefferson was an atheist, it would not be either the dumbest or the most dishonest thing he's said. Check out this interview with Dawkins in Salon (registration may be required). Dawkins may be a brilliant scientist, but he's a shameless, clueless religious bigot. [shameless-plug]I'll be posting about him shortly.[/shameless_plug]

"Dawkins may be a brilliant scientist, but he's a shameless, clueless religious bigot."

------------

Maybe a specific case in point would be helpful there. As far as I can tell, Dawkin's is merely an opinionated atheist. He makes a number of good points, especially in regards to not giving religion a pass, making religious claims stand the same scrutiny as any other claim.

Seth Manapio wrote:

Ed, I think you may be overreacting. In context, Dawkin's seems to be using secularist not as implying a lack of belief in god, but as promoting a personal view of religion as separate from the state, something certainly supported by many of the men who we think of as "founding fathers."

Again, this language is just too vague. If by "religion is separate from the state" you mean that the state should say nothing about the truth or falsity of religion, then that position was actually taken by very, very few of the founders that we know of (Jefferson and Madison, maybe Paine). And they were in the minority even among that group of leaders identified by Gregg Frazer (Washington, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton), where all the others believed that the government should support religion in non-coercive ways through declarations and proclamations. So to claim that "Jefferson and his colleagues" were "passionate secularists" is, at bare minimum, to oversimplify and exaggerate the number of real secularists in the group. If Dawkins was familiar with the declarations made by Washington and Adams, do you really think he would refer to them as "passionate secularists"? They believed that government should avoid coercing religous belief, but certainly not that government should avoid encouraging and supporting it.

As for whether Adams used Jefferson's lack of piety against him, while hiding his own similar lack, I think it is obvious that this supports the idea that Adams felt that his own personal beliefs were none of the public's business.

I don't think that makes any sense. He believed his own personal beliefs were none of the public's business but that his opponent's beliefs were fair game? That's not a stand for separation of church and state or "secularism", it's pure political gamesmanship (something both Adams and Jefferson engaged in a great deal while active in politics, only to regret what they had done later after they became close friends; one must always bear in mind that these men were politicians).

As for a statement being "compatible" with atheism, in many cases (as in these), this is a matter of interpretation. Take the paraquote "I think the world would be great without religion, but then I think about all the fucking morons, and change my mind." This idea is entirely compatible with atheism, it is the quote of a man who thinks that OTHER PEOPLE cannot handle the beliefs that he himself holds.

No, it's not. The problem with this notion that Adams and Jefferson were really closet atheists who rejected belief in God but thought that the masses needed it (an idea popular today among the Straussians, making it ironic that it would be invoked by those on the liberal side of this issue) is that they expressed the same ideas in private to one another. Jefferson was absolutely adamant that none of his religious views should ever be discussed in public by his close friends; indeed, he literally swore them to secrecy and several times in his letters he warns his friends, like Benjamin Rush, not to speak of his views to anyone. He knew that they would be controversial. His now-infamous Jefferson Bible was seen only by a very small group of people during his lifetime and that was intentional on his part. He knew that if it got out, much of the public would turn on him. But he did reveal his views to his friends in private letters, all of which we have today. Adams did as well. So why would they lie to each other about their views and discuss at great length why they believed in God, and what sort of God that meant, and so forth, if they were really secretly atheists? They did commiserate with one another privately over their anti-Christian views. Jefferson and Adams wrote letters to one another discussing Christianity and the Bible and noting that they both rejected the notion that Jesus was divine, they both believed the trinity was absolute nonsense, and so forth (while not revealing any of those views publicly, for political purposes). If they were willing to reveal their anti-Christian views to each other privately while avoiding them in public, why, if they were were really atheists or agnostics, would they not have revealed that as well? Instead, while criticizing most of the Christian conception of God privately, they also discussed their firm belief in a providential God who created the universe. Jefferson explicitly invoked the argument from design, in fact, as a reason why God must exist. No, these were not closet atheists, these were men who not only believed in God (again, not the Biblical one) but believed that the unaided use of reason alone led inexorably to that conclusion. That puts them a hell of a long way from atheism or agnosticism, even if they were also a long way from Christianity. It's good that we debunk the revisionist claims that Jefferson and Adams were orthodox Christians, but to then engage in the same sort of revisionism to make them seem like atheists or agnostics is no less inaccurate.

I haven't read Hitchens' book on Jefferson, but I would like to simply because I am dying to know what sort of arguments he makes. I cannot fathom how one can amke the argument that Jefferson was an atheist or an agnostic; it conflicts with virtually everything he said on the subject in his private letters. The only minimally plausible argument I've heard is purely speculative, that if Jefferson had lived past Darwin's day, he would have given up his theism because he would have seen that there is a plausible explanation for complexity other than God. Possible? Sure. But we have no way of knowing. And it certainly doesn't change the beliefs they actually did have while alive.

Folks, let's not turn this into a big battle over whether religion is good or bad, or true or false, or whether Dawkins is an anti-religious bigot. Even if Dawkins is absolutely right or wrong on those issues, it's not relevant to the issue at hand, which is his misrepresentations, intentional or otherwise, concerning Jefferson and the founding fathers.

Sastra-

Enlightenment conceptions of God were largely compatible with materialism. In fact, one of the greatest philosophical episodes of the Enlightenment was to reconcile an idea of God with Newton's mechanical cosmology. Most logically, the First Cause argument was employed by deists: substance is moved by substance, and this process must have originated by the action of God, who, logically, must be of the same substance as creation. Of course, that does't mean that God is a person on Planet X, as you said, but he is still material in that he is part of the causal chain of the world culminating in the present. Newton himself maintained such a belief, claiming that God is the First Cause and that he ruled through the laws of nature. Newton, a Christian Unitarian, also believed in providence and intervention in addition to ruling through the laws of nature, but the deists rejected all that. Leibnitz represented the deist perspective in his Theodicy (after all, a non-intervening God who creates the Best Possible World can solve the problem of evil), and Spinoza arrived at a different answer through pantheism. All were theologies based on some materialist cosmology.

In fact, the last philosopher to seriously argue for anything other than a materialist cosmology was Descartes. Hobbes' materialism has dominated thought since he scribbled it down, to the consternation of the Orthodox. Darwin's theory of evolution may have driven the point to close to home for some, but most philosophers have been living with materialism for as long as modernity has allowed us to set out on the high seas of reason. That pretty much precludes the orthodox religions, but it does not exclude the God of Spinoza or even Jefferson. Now that Dawkins has resorted to mischaracterization in his proselytizations, he has lost my respect. By the way, Dawkins is a great science writer and perhaps a great philosopher of biology, but he is not a great scientist.

Seth: Click on my handle to see my specific critique -- it's (finally) posted. Responses on my site are welcome (I have no restrictions), since they'd be off-topic here.

Ed wrote:

I think the opposite is true: I highly doubt Dawkins would call any of the founding fathers other than Madison, Paine and Jefferson "secularists" today.

Which is exactly why he should have been more careful to say said "some of the founding fathers". The fact that some weren't doesn't change the fact that some were. I think Dawkins just overstated it, which is why I also said that although I thought your criticism was valid, it was more of a nit since it doesn't change the overriding point.

And as I said above, I agree that the Adams quote was at best sloppy and at worst a straight-up lie. We'll see what Dawkins does. I personally like Dawkins very much, or at least his writings and many of his opinions, so it's my hope that he'll do the honest thing. If he doesn't, it won't remove the force of his other arguments, but it will destroy my respect for the man.

The post originated on my site; when I saw it I wondered. While Jefferson was a Deist -- which to many might be equivalent to atheist -- he was also the one who wrote about people being created equal, and endowed by their creator with unalienable rights.

Course I haven't read the book. It's not available here yet. (Very right-wing little town in a red county in a red state, alas.)

Warren wrote:

The post originated on my site; when I saw it I wondered. While Jefferson was a Deist -- which to many might be equivalent to atheist -- he was also the one who wrote about people being created equal, and endowed by their creator with unalienable rights.

Jefferson has been labeled a deist for a long time, but I think that's mistaken, at least as the word is used today. His writings make clear that he believed in a personal, providential, intervening god, not the distant, watchmaker god of deism (I am a deist myself and the latter is much more in line with my position). Gregg Frazer has, rightly I believe, labeled Jefferson (and Adams, Washington, Franklin and Madison) as "theistic rationalists". He called himself a Unitarian (and was close friends with Joseph Priestley, who brought Unitarianism to America) and predicted that Unitarianism would sweep the country and be the dominant religion within a generation.