Atheism and Skepticism are not Coterminous

What is the message of this billboard?

As Hemant Mehta as well as various news outlets are pointing out, the message is that atheists, however much they may think of themselves as ultra-skeptical and critical thinkers, aren’t always. Having “skeptics” or “freethinkers” in the name of your organization or in your self-description doesn’t mean it fits all of the time, if at all.

You see, the quote is not an authentic quote from Thomas Jefferson.

Anyone who is familiar with the Jefferson Bible would probably have realized the need to investigate the quote’s authenticity. Jefferson didn’t discard the entire Bible. He took scissors to the Gospels, cutting out miracles and the like but leaving those things that he thought had “redeeming features.”

And so it is perhaps not surprising that a widely found version of the quotation online reads “I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature.” That would be a more plausible quotation to come from Jefferson. But even so, there is no evidence that he ever said it in that form either.

In addition to this recent episode involving a billboard with a spurious quotation making the point, Jefferson himself provides evidence that skepticism is not coterminous with atheism. Jefferson apparently did not altogether refrain from using the epithet “Christian” in reference to himself, and while Deist also seems apt to many, Jefferson would perhaps have preferred the term “Unitarian.”

Whether you are religious or atheist, Deist, Unitarian, or traditional theist, it is a mistake to assume that you are above the need for caution, skepticism and critical thinking.

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  • Pseudonym

    You have heard it said in the past, that you can’t be a Christian and a skeptic unless you don’t apply skepticism to your own religion. Truly I say unto you: you can’t be an atheist and a skeptic unless you apply skepticism to things other than religion.

  • Anonymous

    I think it’s great to see this kind of skepticism. What quotes of Jesus are better attributed than this one from Thomas Jefferson?

  • Just Sayin’

    There’s nothing as entertaining as gullible “skeptics”.

    • Anonymous

      Yes, it’s important to avoid being gullible or credulous. We would rightfully scoff at someone who said, “Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jefferson was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.”

      • Michael Wilson

        Would we scoff? Was Jefferson not critical of traditional Christianity? Of course the sentiment is an extreme exaggeration of Jefferson’s position, and as noted in the article, his edition took out the miracles because he thought the ideas of Jesus were worth study but not the supernatural. But none the less, this is unacceptable to conservative Christians and thus the quote is superficially plausible in regards to Jefferson in a way it wouldn’t be if it were attributed to Cotton Mather or Billy Graham. If this quote was all history preserved regarding Jefferson, it would still be usefull in discussing what he was about.

  • Revruthucc

    I’m not surprised to see that people of no claimed faith are making the same mistake as those trying to “reclaim” for America what was never true in the first place by misquoting or falsely attributing quotes to our founding fathers. I have taken to wanting original sources rather than quotes or quotes because of this “war of words” over the nature of our country.

    • Anonymous

      Yes, I am in complete agreement with the outrage expressed here over falsely attributed quotes. Jesus certainly never said, “Let him without sin cast the first stone.” I hope as much opprobrium is thrown at anyone suggesting otherwise.

  • james Harrison

    It’s odd that skepticism is associated with atheism these days since nobody invokes skeptical philosophical ideas more frequently than literal believers. To read the comment threads at Panda’s Thumb, you’d think that Fundamentalists were all votaries of Karl Popper, though, of course, they just find his falsification theory of science momentarily convenient. Faith has a deeper need for skepticism, however. Before the natural philosophers came to a consensus about evolution and so much more, their theories were much less threatening to received tradition. In those days, skepticism was often an expression of despair on the part of those who wanted to know. Now it has become a defensive reaction on the part of people who don’t want to know. After all, if you compare the situation in, say, 1600 with the situation now, a major change is that we now know, among many other things, the basic building blocks of matter and how they combine, the nature of heat and light, the age of the earth and the universe, the relationships between the various kinds of living things, and how new species arise from old species. Since modern scientific ideas clash with traditional conceptions, the traditionalists have every reason to badmouth the human ability to know. (For the record, I’m quite aware that skepticism was a weapon of apologetics  in previous ages also, as in the works of Erasmus and Nicholas of Cusa. Trying to make contemporary biology go away, however, is a somewhat more difficult operation than shooting down Averroes.)

  • Teephah

    I like how the article on proper attribution contains no citations whatsoever.

  • James F. McGrath

    I am not sure which “article” you are referring to, but if you were referring to this blog post, then you will find it has links to the sources it mentions embedded in the post, as is typical in blog posts.

  • JoeWallack

    ” Having “skeptics” or “freethinkers” in the name of your organization or in your self-description doesn’t mean it fits all of the time, if at all.”

    If only you were this critical of all the Christian Bible misquotes of The Jewish Bible this entire blog would be unnecessary.

  • James F. McGrath

    I am that critical, although I do not expect a posthumous change of behavior on the part of the New Testament authors – who sometimes seem to simply invent Scriptures, in other instances to reword or refashion identifiable ones. The actual pure inventions of fake “quotations” from the Jewish Scripture are relatively rare – Matthew 2:23, for instance.

    Addressing this sort of subject is precisely the sort of reason I consider this blog useful. You are free to disagree.

    • Beau Quilter

      Of course, the real difference between the NT distortionists (and the huge range of modern Christian apologists who try to force biblical texts to fit scientific and historic realities) 

      … and Gleason, the “skeptic” who put up the billboard, …is that Gleason actually admits to being wrong.

  • James F. McGrath

    Indeed! You’ll get no disagreement from on that point, unsurprisingly.

  • Gabriel Bienzobas

    I do agree, skeptics have to be skeptics for E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G :)