Atheist Monument Critique: Treaty of Tripoli

benjamin wiker

Read part 1 of this series on an 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, doesn’t want to accept the obvious conclusion that the United States was not in any sense founded on the Christian religion. 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” was understood as a deist reference at that time. 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 say a public prayer, and the atheist can’t explain 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 this, perhaps 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 here

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

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 9/11/13.)

Photo credit: Wikipedia


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  • eric

    In a public school, the Christian can’t say a public prayer, and the atheist can’t explain why the Christian god doesn’t exist

    A Christian student can certainly say a public prayer in school, so long as it’s not disruptive. Want to say grace over your lunch? Be my guest. Want to pray before your exam? Just don’t be too loud.
    Your second example is somewhat disanalogous (to the first) because, unlike a prayer, it only makes sense in the context of one student talking to another, and very likely pushing for a conversation the first student didn’t seek out and doesn’t want to have. I could easily understand a secular prohibition on students telling each other their religious views are wrong, arising out of some past school history of such discussions escalating to violence. I really doubt many schools would need to implement such a prohibition, though. A little bit of friction is probably not disruptive, so I think in most cases, both of your “can’t”s are actually “can”s. IMO a school would only need to limit the students’ free speech to pray or dispute with each other on religion if there was a history of this sort of conversation interrupting class work or escalating into more serious (I.e. physical) disagreements.

    • That’s what I meant by “public.” Teachers are certainly prohibited, but students can be, too. A student saying a morning prayer over the school announcement system, for example, would be coercive, because the apparatus of the school is used to indoctrinate to captive students.

      • Kodie

        I went to high school with this cool guy who was in a few of my classes, I don’t know what exactly made him cool. He was kind of trendy but offbeat, and was also pretty positive kind of guy. Anyway, I wasn’t really friends with him, but he was the kind of person everyone in school knew, or that was my perception. So, last week of school, we get our yearbooks, and there’s a picture of him in the random candids section. I say hey will you sign my yearbook, and of course he does, and I don’t remember the message, it was probably something decent and secular, but I just remember he wrote by his picture with arrows, Me / my bible (which was stacked on his desk with other books while he was doing classwork).

        Apparently this guy brought his bible to school every day and managed to be a great nice guy without harassing anyone – I know I’m just a data point, but if he meant to proselytize, he certainly had enough opportunities with me, so I assume he liked to bring his bible to school for his own comfort and occasional consultation. Until he signed my yearbook, I probably had no idea he was a Christian, or a serious enough one to keep a bible handy. I remember the picture composition, his name, the way he looked and dressed, but I don’t remember what nice message he wrote in my yearbook except he felt necessary to point out his bible was in the picture.

        • Like you said–very low key. I can’t imagine anyone having an objection. And, I’m pretty certain that’s totally legal.

        • Kodie

          Right, I didn’t really mind it at all. I kind of wonder why he had to point out his bible in the picture after all, though.

        • eric

          You *did* say he was offbeat. Maybe he was tickled by the thought that he had been doing something subversive the entire year (even though he wasn’t), and decided to point it out to everyone after the fact.

          At this day and age, I view bringing a bible to school as 90% virtue signaling. After all, if you *really* just wanted to read it and weren’t trying to show everyone how Christianly you are, you could simply read it on your phone. Or your pad. Or your computer. Etc… Electronic versions of many flavors are all free. Lugging around an extra pound of dead trees is entirely unnecessary…unless the point of doing it is to show people that you’re doing it.

        • Yeah, but did Jesus read his New Testament electronically? Nope–he read it in his trusty English NIV translation, just like Kodie’s classmate.

        • Greg G.

          He read from the Holy PDF.

        • Jim Jones

          He had the original KJV (which I suspect some people think the Jews stole, along with the typewriter god created it on).

        • TheNuszAbides

          the Holy Golden PDF

          adjusted for Neoplatonism.

        • Kodie

          It was a while before the internet.

        • eric

          Yeah I wasn’t saying your example was virtue signaling. I’m saying that any High Schooler doing it in 2017 is likely virtue signaling as much as anything else.

        • MNb

          Some of my pupils bring Bibles and other religious texts to school and place it on their tables. That’s OK with me, but I insist on them doing math and physics in math and physics class. When they’re done they can read whatever they want.

      • eric

        Okay. I took “public” just to mean “out loud.” “Merely” out loud prayers that don’t disrupt, don’t use the PA system, etc. are fine.

        • I give full support to Christians who follow the church/state separation rules. I wish all Christians were as considerate.

  • Lerk!

    I used to point out that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are contrary to Christian values, as well. Now that I understand that “the pursuit of happiness” comes from Epicurus’ belief that happiness is to be found in moderation (because excess leads to pain and therefore unhappiness), it seems not so diametrically opposed to Christianity. Not in line with it, certainly, but not the opposite.

    • smrnda

      Epicurus quite a few ideas, and it’s one of the reasons why I describe myself as a Rational Hedonist. We all want to have a good time, and avoiding excess is how we prevent partying today and having a disaster on our hands tomorrow.

      But yeah, life? The Christian god kills people all the time. Liberty? Christians are called to be slaves to Christ, and slavery was not opposed by Jesus or Paul. Pursuit of happiness? The Christian religion glorifies suffering, it’s a religion founded by the idea that nailing some guy to a cross is the best thing a god can do.

      • Pofarmer

        The Christian religion glorifies suffering,

        Revels in it, in fact.

        • Greg G.

          Open your hymnals to page 153 and let’s sing “I’m Washed in the Blood of the Lord” again this week, shall we?

        • Lerk!

          “are you warshed in the blood of the laaaaaaamb?”

    • That part might not be, but the rest of Epicurus’ philosophy was entirely opposed to Christianity. It was materialist, denied any divine providence (and gods that intervened at all) etc. Christians despised Epicureans. One early Christian had attributed the famous “Epicurean dilemma” to him, though it was probably one of the later Epicureans who said this, since this concept of God wasn’t really as prominent when Epicurus lived:

      “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
      Then he is not omnipotent.
      Is he able to prevent evil, but not willing?
      Then he is not benevolent.
      Is he neither able nor willing?
      Then why call him God?”

      • Lerk!

        I’ve seen that as you typed it, but I’ve also seen it as “the gods”. Wouldn’t he have been referring to the Greek Pantheon?

        • Epicurus probably would have, yes, but as I said he didn’t say it. So whoever did (if indeed they were Epicurean) was apparently referring to the Christians’ God. The criticism would really make no sense in regards to the Greek gods, who were not really held as being “all-good” and such. As for the Epicureans, they believed gods were wholly indifferent to the human race.

  • Bruce Gorton

    Wiker wants to trump the Treaty of Tripoli with the Declaration of Independence, but neither is law.

    The treaty of Tripoli actually is law.

    Section 4, Article 6:2 of the US Constitution:

    This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

    • eric

      Yes, and this is a point some conservatives often miss too; treaties become the law of the land, and the President is just as obligated to defend and execute them as they are the other laws of the land.

    • Helpful, thanks.

    • Kevin K

      Exactly so.

  • Michael Neville

    The Declaration of Independence was a political and propaganda document. The Constitution is a legal document.

  • Had3

    Don’t forget the Treaty was unanimously approved by Congress and published. Not a single congressman thought there was anything wrong with what the Treaty said.

  • smrnda

    What seems shocking to some is that, it’s possible for Christians or Deists to want to found a government that is secular. Though they had many faults, the founders of the US at least didn’t want a theocracy, and wanted it less than some people do today.

    • Pofarmer

      The founders had seen theocracies, most wanted no part in another one, although it certainly wasn’t unanimous.

      “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people
      maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of
      ignorance, of which their civil as well as religious leaders will
      always avail themselves for their own purposes. ”

      Thomas Jefferson.

      • Jim Jones

        They’d already seen state governments pick a different, favorite flavor. They want no part of a federal government doing that.

  • Jury trial originated in England, which then was officially Christian (it still is now, though a different kind). However, it’s true this didn’t have a specifically Christian origin. The Pope later originated a very different system.

    • Jim Jones

      > Jury trial…

      The original was pretty horrendous.

      • Yes, it wasn’t much help then.

  • Sophia Sadek

    Alexander Hamilton and his dominionist backers absolutely detested the Deists. He considered them to be heathen infidels.

    • Jim Jones

      Christian sects hate each other? Nothing to see here, move along. There are over 40,000 such sects.

      • Sophia Sadek

        The Deists may have been raised Christian, but I doubt that they would qualify as True Christians.

        • Jim Jones

          Who does?

        • Sophia Sadek

          Ever since the fourth century, only those who affirm faith in the doctrine of the Trinity can be considered True Christians. All others are considered heretics, apostates, and infidels.

        • Jim Jones

          Jesus was so clear on the trinity.

          Oh, wait.

        • TheNuszAbides

          no wonder Newton advanced science–he was cheating by mistakenly embracing Arianism.

        • Sophia Sadek

          The term “Arianism” is one of the most misleading expression in the human language. Most of the people characterized as Arians were not followers of Arius. They were merely Christians who rejected the Roman doctrine of the Trinity. Ethiopian Christians in the sixteenth century considered the Portuguese to be Arians.

        • TheNuszAbides

          fair enough, i was using an overly specific term as shorthand.

  • Kevin K

    This discussion is always so tiresome.

    If the government of the United States of America were founded on Christian principles, it would be a monarchy. Because that’s the form of government that is laid out in the bible as being the one that Jesus will return to reign over.

    Christians are going to have to show me chapter and verse where a three-branch, co-equal system of checks and balances appears in the bible. They’re going to have to show me where it mandates a bicameral legislature with set terms of office.

    They’re also going to have to reconcile the direct contradiction between the First Commandment (no gods except Yahweh) and the First Amendment (any god you wish or none at all).

    • MNb

      Hmmm yeah ….. the Netherlands were a republic from 1581 until 1806 CE – and the Dutch Reformed Church was state church. Secularization began when the Netherlands had become a kingdom.

      • TheNuszAbides

        a stopped clock is still accurate twice a nation. or something like that.

    • Christians are going to have to show me chapter and verse where a three-branch, co-equal system of checks and balances appears in the bible. They’re going to have to show me where it mandates a bicameral legislature with set terms of office.

      Christians are going to have to show me democracy in the Bible.

      • Kevin K

        There’s also the brand of Christian that tries to take credit for every law about such things as murder, theft, rape, etc, as coming from “god”. Which might be the case, but it would be the god of Hammurabi, who wrote his code 1,000 years before the Jews started codifying their laws.

    • Greg G.

      Based on the New Testament, we would be socialists or even communists:

      Acts 4:32-35 (NRSV)32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

      Lucian of Samosata backs that up:

      From The Passing of Peregrinus:
      Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once, for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence. So if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing upon simple folk.

      We also see that “receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence” is a long-standing tradition.

  • Pofarmer
    • “Researchers say they’ve figured out what makes people reject science, and it’s not ignorance”

      Yes, very topical.

    • eric

      Interesting article, though I think their solution is something of a bell-the-cat one. I think the fate of the OTA shows that you can be as studiously neutral and agreement-seeking as possible, and if your conclusions aren’t what the people in power want to hear, they’re going oppose the science. I think we waste a lot of effort trying to massage our communications to make the scientific conclusion more palatable to deniers, when in fact there is not much to be done. Climate steptics aren’t going to come round just because you parse your solution in terms of preventing economic losses. Anti-vaxxers aren’t going to become pro-vax just because you tune the message for them. In some ways, these sorts of strategies assume the target audience is somewhat naïve, somewhat stupid. They aren’t. The AGW-denier, YECer, and anti-vaxxer is going to see through what the mainstreamers are doing, and they’re going to reject it because they’ll know exactly where it leads.