The Atheists Should Have Been Better Skeptics

The Backyard Skeptics in Orange County, California — no strangers to controversy — just put up this billboard yesterday afternoon:

“I do not find in Christianity one redeeming feature. It is founded on fables and mythology.” — Thomas Jefferson

That’s a pretty powerful statement. A Founding Father arguing that Christianity is based on lies? Damn. That’s gonna make people think! That’s gonna stir up a lot of controversy! That’s gonna get a ton of media attention!

Just one problem with the quotation… Jefferson never said it.

According to the Monticello website:

We are asked about this one on a fairly regular basis. As with many spurious Jefferson quotes, it is frequently seen on various Internet sites. Many sites do not cite a source, but a good number of those that do attribute this quote to a letter from TJ to a “Dr. Wood.” As far as we know, TJ never wrote to an individual calling him/herself Dr. Wood. Another suspicious element is the statement that he does not find in Christianity “one redeeming feature.” One presumes that Jefferson did, in fact, find some redeeming features in Christianity, otherwise he would not have taken the time to paste together his own versions of the Bible.

At least Bruce Gleason, the leader of the (ironically-named) skeptics group, admitted he screwed this one up:

He agreed that Monticello was an authoritative source.

“You’re absolutely right,” he said. “I should have done the research before I put my billboard up.”

He still argues, though, that the sentiment is accurate.

Hmm… misquoting someone, not having a credible citation, and arguing that the subject would’ve agreed with your revised quotation?

If Gleason’s not careful, people are going to start accusing him of being a Christian.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://twitter.com/deanrobertsnet Dean Roberts

    I don’t know how true that statement/quote is. It depends on how you look at the Bible, truth claims and the history of the church.

    http://deanroberts.net

  • Trina

    Yikes.  Research, research, research.  For one brief quote, it just isn’t that difficult.  Really not good for atheist credibility.

  • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com Rev. Ouabache

    He still argues, though, that the sentiment is accurate.

    That’s an excuse that David Barton uses all the time. We’ve gotta do better than him at least.

  • TiltedHorizon

    I find it disingenuous and damaging to our position to assert criticism of Christianity using quotes also guilty as being ‘fables and mythology’.

    To argue the that the ‘sentiment is accurate’ is moot, this is the same explanation Christians offer for the Bible.

    Personally, ‘we’ can do better. Where can I send my complaints?

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    Being OK with admitting in public that you did something wrong is an uncommon virtue.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.zamecki Joe Zamecki

    This is one reason why I don’t like to quote long dead historical figures who didn’t make harsh criticism of religion at least one of their main goals in life. Not only is it difficult to verify a lot of those quotes, a lot of them are mistakenly attributed to the wrong people in what can look like very official ways, but there’s still another good reason to not make someone else’s quote your up front argument: YOU can probably do better. 

    We have a lot more education and long-term social history to look back on, when deciding how we feel about social issues. That’s one giant advantage we now have over past historical figures, that shouldn’t be ignored, imho. :) 

    • Rich Wilson

      Good point.  Unless they’re making an argument about the nature of the U.S. as founded, then it’s simply Argument From Authority.  Even if Thomas Jefferson really found no redeeming features in Christianity, that in and of itself wouldnt’ be a reason to not be a Christian.

  • Conner

    What’s the point of putting up a billboard like that in the first place? Even if the quote was correct what are they trying to proclaim to the public? That Thomas Jefferson didn’t like Christianity. You think that’s going to do anything but inflame believers.

    • Philbert

      An accurate Jefferson quote would be useful because a great many people are convinced that all the founding fathers were Christians who would agree theologically with modern evangelical conservatives. The reality needs to be known.

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        For that, TJ’s quote about divine immaterialism (his 1820-08-15 letter to Adams) would probably be the best choice. Of course, the full version of that one looks pretty whacky to contemporary atheists, too.

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      Various people (including a good chunk of my own family *sigh*) believe that America was founded as a Christian nation, and believes this means Christians have, and should have, special consideration in this country. They believe this means it’s ok for the government to do things like give privileges to Christian groups, take Biblical principles into account when making policy, and have prayer in school, endorsed by the school. 

      Had the quote been accurate (which, until this post, I believed was accurate — great link at the Monticello), it would have been a good counter to the argument that the US was founded as Christian, and everything else they think follows from that. 

  • Erik

    The quote was wrong but the sentiment was correct? That is NOT how you apologize. Atheists should take things like misquotation and attention to the source of information very seriously and be quick to call out members of our own movement that do not do the same.

    • Bob Becker

      Exactly right. When you screw up, what’s required is simple:  (a) admit you screwed up (b) apologize (c) fix the problem if you can.  Period.  No whinging whining about “well the sentiment is right” .  

      • Hollyhood

        It’s nothing to apologize for. He could have taken plenty of Thomas Jefferson quotes criticizing religion. If you really wanted people to apologize for screwing up, then you would ask the Republican Party to apologize for continously assuming America is a Christian nation.

        • Bob Becker

          He has much to apologize for. He put up a phony quote.  Didn’t do the research necessary to make his point in a highly public place. When you screw up, you admit your mistake, apologize for it and fix the problem.  It is no defense to screwing up to say “well, Republicans are worse!”  They are of course, but that mitigates the screw up in no way. 

          Admit it, apologize, and fix it.   Nothing else will do when you mess up big time in public. And in this case, they did. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Macker/518709704 Brian Macker

      What do you think Hemant just did?

  • Xeon2000

    I see a redeemable feature in how Christianity can help build a community where people can find a sense of belonging. At least for some people. And if you ignore the people it alienates.

    Christianity is also a powerful source of philanthropy. Though building churches, proselytizing, and converting “heathens” tends to take precedence over actually helping.

    I agree though, that Christianity is built on fables and mythology.

  • Gus Snarp

    Jefferson is probably in competition with Einstein for the most misquoted historical figure. Usually it’s the Christian right misquoting both of them. We should endeavor to do better, especially since there actually are some brilliant quotes from founding fathers, including Jefferson, that are critical of religion. The internet makes it really easy to accurately source a lot of things that are commonly misquoted, that Monticello link you supplied is a great place to start!

    • Rieux

      More than Twain? Lincoln? “Weird Al” Yankovic? I dunno.

      • Gus Snarp

        The competition is stiff, to be sure.

        Weird Al?

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2C6XFSMIUYAZUDZ4CWUWLV7CEY Josh Pearson

          What about Jesus? Surely Christians misquote him all the time, hell the majority don’t even like a Christ-like life.

          • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

            Zing!

          • Gus Snarp

            The advantage with Jesus is that his quotes are all over the place, they don’t have to misquote, they can just cherry pick.

          • Rieux

            Ech. The Jesus depicted in the Gospels is not a swell guy. He promises to order genocide; he condones slavery; he spews racist hatred on a desperate mother begging for health care for her daughter; he sneers at people around him who dare to suggest that helping the poor is more important than lavishing swanky luxuries on Jesus; and, more frequently than any other message he delivers of any kind, he shrieks that people who defy his commands will be brutally tortured. Mumbling something here or there about love and peace just doesn’t make up for that mountain of vicious insanity.

            You’re right that “the majority” of Christians don’t “live a Christ-like life,” but that’s only because the vast majority of Christians are not whackjob reprobate freaks the way their mythological Savior is.

        • Rieux

          Numerous stupid e-mail forwards and the like claim that some half-assed (and frequently vulgar) song parody is by Weird Al. Al’s FAQ addresses the problem, and there’s at least one online list of songs that have been falsely credited (debited?) to Al.

          How this compares quantitatively to misquotes of Jefferson, Einstein, Twain, or Lincoln I’m not sure, but given the breadth of the Internet (and thus the high number of dopes who forward stupid e-mails—gee, guess who recorded a new song about that this year? No, seriously…), I suspect Al’s up there.

          • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

            Yeah, it’s happened with George Carlin, too.

  • Anonymous

    He saw Jesus is more of a teacher or philosopher. Maybe a bit more like Mohammed: a human prophet and founder of a religion. If he saw some value, it’s in the message. But he didn’t buy any of the supernatural crap.

  • Rich Wilson

    Bruce should apologize by putting an edit on the billboard itself.

  • Anon

    ouch!

  • Marfknox

    I was further surprised by the false statement made on the Backyard Skeptics website about the quote. They write: “This quote by a President who authored the Constitution clearly states that our ‘heritage’ was not based in religion but the enlightenment.” Regardless of what role Christianity or the Enlightenment play in the founding of the United States, that quote were it accurate (which it apparently is not) makes no such statement. The quote is a statement of personal opinion. And Jefferson was only one of many authors of the Constitution, so to assume that the document embodies only sentiments that he was 100% in agreement with is foolish.

    • Travshad

      Actually Jefferson was not even an author of the US Constitution at all.  He was serving as the minister to France during the 1787 Constitutional Convention.  Of course Jeffersonian ideas influenced the actual authors.

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        Mainly Madison… who was also the one who actually managed to round up enough votes to get TJ’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom passed.

    • Anonymous

      Jefferson wrote much of the Deceleration of Independence. They probably got those confused. It still doesn’t contain any explicitly secular statements though

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Macker/518709704 Brian Macker

        Which was a superior document although it had a different purpose.

    • Rieux

      ” “This quote by a President who authored the Constitution…”

      Ouch. That’s an embarrassing mistake.

  • Anonymous

    Ten minutes in Google would have avoided all this. 

    A guy I know whose politics can *charitably* labeled “extreme right wing” sent me an e-mail about financial aid for Hurricane Katrina a few years back. Some of you may have seen this; it accuses Louisana’s Democratic Senator Landreau of requesting $40 billion specifically for New Orleans.

    It was on of those “look how spendthrift these politicians are” rants. Of course, the request never happened. When I pointed this out, I was told I was missing the point of the e-mail. Which, of course, is bullshit. You don’t bolster an argument with a lie.

    It’s nice to see Mr. Gleason fess up to his mistake, but sad to see him try to use the rationalization outlined above.

    • Bob Becker

      “Ten minutes in Google would have avoided all this. ”
      Yup. If you’re going to put a statement out in public… bill board, letter to the editor, press release or blog post… fact check it. Then  proofread it.  Then give it to someone else and have them fact check it independently.  Then have it proof read one last time by someone else, not you.

       It saves a lot of apologizing and embarrassment in the long run. 

  • Michael

    If Jefferson had found no redeeming feature in Christianity, I rather suspect his customized Bible would have had no pages.

    • Rieux

      Why? Why do you presume that what he (if, contrary to likely fact, the quotation is accurate) meant by “Christianity” is equivalent to what can be found in the Jefferson Bible?

      Christianity and the Bible are not the same thing, and it is not self-evident that the former is defined by the latter.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Macker/518709704 Brian Macker

      It could consist entirely of the Old Testament, right?   I can think of many ways of reediting the bible and removing Christianity from the picture.

  • Philbert

    I just don’t understand how anyone can use the “fake but accurate” defense with a straight face.

    The sentiment is not accurate, and only appears plausible if you know little to nothing about Jefferson. The man produced his own version of the Bible! Would he have done that if he found nothing of value whatsoever in Christianity? 

    • Rieux

      That depends very much on how he conceptualized Christianity. It’s entirely conceivable that he thought the sentiments described in the Jefferson Bible and the ones advocated in the worldly system called Christianity had nothing to do with each other. (How many zillion people are willing to assert that whatever church doctrine they don’t like is contrary to the Bible?)

      I carry no brief for the billboard in question—to my understanding, the quotation is bogus—and I have no idea whether it even accurately reflects Jefferson’s thoughts about Christianity. But the fact that he published a severely expurgated version of the New Testament doesn’t really force any particular answer to those questions.

    • Anonymous

      Actually, yes.  Jerfferson was more of a Deist.  What he took out were the miracles.  Things that show the divinity of Christ.  Which Jefferson didn’t believe in, hence didn’t find much value in Christianity. ;)

  • Anonymous

    The earliest reference to this “quote” seems to be from Joseph Lewis’s book “Jefferson, the Freethinker” published 1925.

    An older version of the Monticello library site brought this to light and added that Lewis did have access to some source materials that have been lost, though they concluded the quote was most likely false. (I remember looking into this exact thing 5 years ago)

    That being said, since there is no (longer?) appropriate source material, claims of this quote being Jefferson’s should not be accepted. Further, as the current Monticello entry alludes to, Jefferson had stated in other letters (IIRC) that he did consider Jesus to be a valuable source of moral lessons, despite clearly rejecting the claims of divinity and supernatural activities.

    • Anonymous

      Though Lewis’s direct “quote” looked somewhat different:

      “I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition one redeeming feature. They are all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies. The Christian God is a being of terrific character — cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust.”

      In this light he appears to be saying something more along the lines of “there’s no reason that ‘our particular superstition’ [Christianity] should seem any more convincing than any other of the world’s religions.  They’re all the same.”

      Though my interpretation of the “quote” is moot since the “quote” is most likely not genuine.

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        The bit about “a being of terrific character,
        cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust” is from Jefferson’s letter to William Short of August 4, 1820, referring to the God of Moses in the Old Testament — but contrasted to the conception of God by Jesus by “taking for his type the best
        qualities of the human head and heart, wisdom, justice, goodness, and adding
        to them power, ascribed all of these, but in infinite perfection, to the
        Supreme Being”.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      Google books indicates variants can be found in the 1917 “Nature suffrage” by Charles Ralph Mabee (p199) and the 1917 quote collection “Thomas Paine: the apostle of liberty; an address delivered in Chicago” by John Eleazer Remsburg. The earliest report I can find of the quote is in Remsburg’s “Six Historic Americans”; it may date to Remsburg’s 1887 “The fathers of our republic: Paine, Jefferson, Washington, Franklin”.

      However, it looks likely to have originated with Remsburg, though it might possibly just involved a letter he had access to that has since been lost. But, yeah, don’t use this one.

  • Anonymous

    Wonderful. I foresee another blog post from Ray Comfort about his “friend” Bruce Gleason. And I’ll be asked to defend Gleason.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2C6XFSMIUYAZUDZ4CWUWLV7CEY Josh Pearson

    In five minutes of research, I found Thomas Jefferson quotes that are real, and just as pithy:

    Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because
    if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more
    than that of blindfolded fear.
    -Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787

    Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure
    from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment
    was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it
    would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the
    holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected
    by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend,
    within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile,
    the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every
    denomination.

    -Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, in reference to the Virginia
    Act for Religious Freedom

    I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed
    of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics,
    or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself.
    Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral
    agent.
    -Thomas Jefferson, letter to Francis Hopkinson, March 13,
    1789

    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 to Alexander von Humboldt, Dec. 6, 1813.

    Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common
    law.

    -Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10,
    1814

    In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile
    to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting
    his abuses in return for protection to his own.

    -Thomas Jefferson, letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17,
    1814

    And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus,
    by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will
    be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerve in the
    brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and
    freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this
    artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine
    doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors.
    -Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823

    Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him [Jesus] by
    his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct
    morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others again
    of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism,
    and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions
    should have proceeded from the same being.

    -Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Short, April 13, 1820

    Any one of these would have served the same purpose while being an actual, attributed, quote.

    • Jszeneri

      A few problems with what you posted:

      1. Most believing Protestants would agree with his statements about priests or Catholicism.
      2. You treat what Jefferson said as if he were infallable, but I doubt you are Catholic.
      3. Jefferson is in error in his statement about English common law, as Alfred the Great uses direct quotes from the Scripture in his Common Laws.
      4. Finally, Jefferson denied being an atheist over and over during his lifetime.

  • Stephen Goeman

    This type of thing isn’t new in our community though. Dawkins even misquotes America’s founding father figures on religion in The God Delusion (and these dubious quotes remain in the most recent pressing).

    TJ was a great thinker, and I don’t need to claim him as an atheist in order to admire him.

  • Jesse

    According to the current version of the website, they have asked the billboard company to take it down and replace it with a previous billboard they’ve had.  It appears that the pressure was effective.  Shame that it was needed, but it’s good that we are checking up on our own.

    http://www.webcitation.org/query?url=http%3A%2F%2Fbackyardskeptics.com%2Fwordpress%2F&date=2011-10-27

  • Robert Thille

    “The thing about quotes from the internet is that it’s hard to verify their authenticity.” 
    ― Abraham Lincoln
    http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/429731

  • keddaw

    Sounds quite a bit like Thomas Paine.

  • Anonymous

    He could have just asked Christopher Hitchens for a Jefferson quote seeing as Hitch did write a book on the third President.

  • Thomas Jefferson

    Okay, okay. One thing. I found ONE redeeming quality to religion. I did, after all, paste together my own version of the Bible. The thing I liked most about religion: the typeface.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Macker/518709704 Brian Macker

    Once he found out it was wrong he should have taken it down immediately.   Unfortunately this attitude is not restricted to those in the faith based religions.   There are quite a few atheists out there who don’t care about the accuracy of their statements or beliefs just so long as the “sentiment” feels correct to them.

    I now officially oppose the Backyard Skeptics and Bruce Gleason, as opponents to intellectual honesty. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Macker/518709704 Brian Macker

       At the “About Us” page of their web site they proudly recommend: Google “Atheist Jefferson Billboard” and find 200 other articles.I googled it and the first article in the search is: “Atheists’ Billboard Falsely Attributes Quote To Thomas Jefferson”.   Which is accurate.  I only wish it were more accurate and was titled “Backyard Skeptics Billboard …”


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