Lincoln And Religion

Lincoln And Religion August 8, 2009

Christopher Hitchens reviewing Michael Burlingame’s new book, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, has this brief discussion of Lincoln and religion:

Lincoln sought a deft means of negotiating the shoals of the religious question. Burlingame’s highly diverting early pages show Lincoln being actively satirical in matters of faith, lampooning preachers, staging mock services, and praying to God “to put stockings on the chickens’ feet in winter,” in the words of his stepsister Matilda. Reminiscing about frontier Baptists many years later, he told an acquaintance: “I don’t like to hear cut and dried sermons. No—when I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees!”However, in his 1846 election campaign, Lincoln was cornered by the faithful and forced to deny that he was an “open scoffer at Christianity.” His handbill on the subject is rightly criticized as too lawyerly by Burlingame, who elegantly points out:

In this document Lincoln seemed to make two different claims: that he never believed in infidel doctrines, and that he never publicly espoused them. If the former were true, the latter would be superfluous; if the former were untrue, the latter would be irrelevant.

One thing that I’ve recently become to see quite clearly is how constrained great thinkers of past eras were by the need to placate the general religious public’s sensibilities.  In fact, this dilemma is still with us today for political figures, even if most scientists and academics are more frank about it (at least in polls).  But, again, even here I wonder if despite academica’s third person, critical studies of religion still don’t translate into a willingness in most unbelieving scholars to get themselves tangled up in the messy business of myth dispelling on the general culture level.

In other words, with so much a disproportionately higher percentage of atheists and agnostics in academia than in the general public and with the potential clout and outlets for public engagement at their disposal, it is somewhat suspicious that when you look for atheists willing to challenge the public to rethink its acceptance of faith as an eternally good feature of culture, you find a rather small list of them.  It seems as though for the most part they are just interested in cataloguing the truths of anthropology or sociology, or psychology or epistemology or physics without having any strong sense of a need to intervene in these areas in a challenging public way.  For the most part it seems like only those scientists whose work gets explicitly disbelieved and deceptively trashed by the religious public get their ire up, and not even all of them do.

Why is this?  Are academics just more interested in describing than affecting?  Is it cynical but benignly intended condescension that makes them uninterested in trying to change the minds of the public?  Is it that they fear backlash or sense futility in bringing the atheistic implications of their research to the public?  Or is it that being insulated within the ivory tower among other freethinkers isolates them too much from the greater irrationalism in the wider culture?  Or are they speaking out more than I realize?

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