I’m reading Christopher Hitchens’ new essay collection on my Kindle and the first essay is about religion and the founding fathers. He says of Ben Franklin:
Of Franklin, it seems almost certainly right to say that he was an atheist (Jerry Weinberger’s recent study Benjamin Franklin Unmasked being the best reference here), but the master tacticians of church-state separation, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were somewhat more opaque about their beliefs.
As much as I admire Hitchens as a thinker and a writer, he is flat wrong here. Franklin was a religious dissenter, to be sure, but calling him an atheist is simply absurd given his own statements. Most obviously, his 1790 letter to Ezra Stiles, written literally a few weeks before he died, in which he gave his beliefs in great detail:
Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho’ it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. I see no harm however in its being believed, if that Belief has the good Consequence as probably it has, of making his Doctrines more respected and better observed, especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the Believers, in his Government of the World, with any particular Marks of his Displeasure. I shall only add respecting myself, that having experienced the Goodness of that Being, in conducting me prosperously thro’ a long Life, I have no doubt of its Continuance in the next, tho’ without the smallest Conceit of meriting such Goodness.
You cannot possibly make him into an atheist. Had he lived in modern times, I have no doubt he likely would be an atheist. But he didn’t. And he wasn’t. And it is as absurd and dishonest for us to try to force him to wear the labels we’d like him to wear as it is for the David Bartons of the world to portray him and the other leading founders as fundamentalist Christians.
Unfortunately, he did much the same thing to Jefferson several years ago, though he was less adamant about that, saying that it “can’t be proved” that Jefferson was an atheist but it can be “argued.” No, it can’t. Jefferson believed quite firmly in a provident, interventionist god — not the Christian god, of course — and he even argued against Calvinism on the grounds that it would lead people to atheism, which he regarded as a very bad thing.
If we are going to criticize the Christian Nation apologists for this kind of thing, we must — absolutely must — avoid engaging in the same kind of sophistries.
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