You probably know by now that Damon Vix and his group Atheists United managed to get a nativity scene out of a public park in Santa Monica by forcing the city first to open up the park as a public forum and then, by putting up lots of non-religious displays, prompt them to shut down the whole thing and not allow any unattended displays of any kind. And I laud him and them for that. But I wish they cared more about accuracy, which ought to matter to atheists and skeptics more than to our opponents.
I’ve already written about one display that contained a fake quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Religions are all alike — founded upon fables and mythologies.” This quote does not exist anywhere in Jefferson’s writings or speeches. But now, looking through the pictures they put up of some of the other displays, I see that isn’t the only fake quote from the founding fathers they used. There’s also this one, attributed to James Madison:
The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.
But again, this quote has never been found anywhere in Madison’s writings. It’s certainly something he would have agreed with, having written at some length about the long history of Christian establishments in Europe and the damage they did to religious freedom. In his Memorial and Remonstrance, he wrote:
“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution…In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people.”
But while he might have agreed with the sentiment, he never said what is attributed to him. When David Barton defends his use of similar fake quotes from the founding fathers by saying that they may not have said those exact words but they would have agreed with them, we rightly condemn him for intellectual dishonesty. That is equally true here. As atheists and skeptics, we should care a lot more about the truth than a liar like Barton.
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