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Atheist Monument Critique: Treaty of Tripoli

Read part 1 of this series on a new American Atheist monument installed on public property in Florida as a protest against a Ten Commandments monument.

The left side of the monument contains this statement from the Treaty of Tripoli (1797), a treaty between the United States and the Muslim state that controlled the coast of what is now Libya:

The Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.

That’s pretty straightforward. The young United States wanted to make clear that it had no religious motives for antagonism with any Muslim countries.

Benjamin Wiker (the Christian whose article I’ve been critiquing) cautions us against concluding from this statement that America was indeed not founded on Christianity. He raises two points.

WWFFD? (What Would the Founding Fathers Do?)

There are hundreds of other quotes [besides this treaty] from the Founders that show a Christian, or at least a Deist, grounding of their views.

Okay, so what?

Maybe in addition to supporting Christianity, some of the founders also liked fishing. Maybe they also believed in astrology. Maybe they also ate meat. Do we conclude then that the United States was founded for the benefit of fishermen or astrologers or carnivores? That it gives those people some sort of advantage over their fellow citizens? That the Constitution was inspired by the lore or wisdom from those activities?

Of course not. If the founding fathers wanted to institutionalize the eating of meat, for example, they had their chance. They could’ve put it in the Constitution, but they didn’t. The same is true for Christianity: if the founding fathers wanted Christianity to have some sort of advantage or cherished place or even acknowledgement within society, the Constitution would say so. It doesn’t.

Maybe Wiker is saying something else. Maybe he’s saying that Christianity is the origin of some of the ideas that are so foundational to American society and that the founders borrowed from Christianity.

If that’s the point, it’s a ridiculous one. Not only did democracy, limited government, freedom of religion and speech, the right to a jury trial, and prohibition against slavery not come from the Bible, most of these principles conflict with the Bible. How do we know? Because when Christianity was in charge in Europe a thousand years ago, those principles weren’t in effect!

If the Constitution is inconvenient, try elsewhere

Next, Wiker points to the Declaration of Independence,

which claims that the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” are the proper foundation of a nation, and that human beings “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” which must be respected by any government.

Whoa—you don’t want to go there. “Nature’s God” is a deist reference. This is not the Christian god.

And let’s see who’s in charge. The Declaration of Independence says that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” No, government doesn’t turn to God for its authority but to the people.

And what do you do when government becomes abusive? Do you appeal to God then? Nope. The Declaration says:

Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The government rules at the pleasure of the people, not God.

Wiker wants to trump the Treaty of Tripoli with the Declaration of Independence, but neither is law. The Constitution is, and it creates a secular government.

Radical secular atheism?

His knockout blow to the idea that the Treaty of Tripoli is relevant is:

we do not find support for the American Atheist’s notion that America should be grounded in a secular atheist government that is as radically opposed to Deism as it is to Christianity.

I don’t know what he’s talking about. The Constitution demands a secular government with no favors given or constraints imposed on Christian belief or unbelief. In a public school, the Christian can’t give a prayer, and the atheist can’t tell why the Christian god doesn’t exist. If Wiker is worried about a government that imposes atheism (and therefore makes things difficult for Christians and other believers) then I’m on his side, but I’m pretty sure that American Atheists’ goal of imposing this on America is just his fantasy.

After all thisperhaps I should’ve cut to the chase earlier: I never point to the Treaty of Tripoli in my discussions with Christians. Wiker doesn’t want me using it, and I don’t want to. It is tempting, given that it so clearly faces the question, but it’s an obscure treaty that’s no longer in effect. I see why atheists find it attractive, but I think that it’s too complex to make an effective argument.

What I do instead is point to the Constitution. If the founding fathers had wanted this to be a Christian country, that’s where they would’ve said so. They didn’t.

Continue: Atheist Monument Critique: Founding Father Freethinkers

I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do,
because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.
— Susan B. Anthony

Photo credit: Wikipedia

About Bob Seidensticker

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