Atheist Monument Critique: Founding Father Freethinkers

Atheist Monument Critique: Founding Father Freethinkers September 16, 2013

Read part 1 of this series on a new American Atheist monument installed on public property in Florida as a protest against a Ten Commandments monument.

The back of the monument contains quotes by some founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin Wiker (the Christian whose article I’ve been critiquing) responds:

The problem with the American Atheists using these quotes is that, while Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin were certainly Americans, they were certainly not atheists.

That’s debatable, but let’s let that go. Wiker continues:

They warmly approved of the moral doctrines that arose from Christianity. These moral doctrines were understood, by all three, to be essential to forming the character of the citizens for free government.

What moral doctrines are exclusively from Christianity? Good principles like “don’t murder” or “don’t steal” are hardly unique to Christianity or even to religion. (Admittedly, neither are stupid principles like Christianity’s support for slavery or genocide.)

Moral principles come from people and society. We don’t need to imagine the supernatural to explain them.

Thomas Jefferson

Here’s the first quote:

“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.”
— Thomas Jefferson

Wiker tries to handwave a response:

The first quote shows a confidence by Jefferson that the foundation of belief in God is rational, not that reason leads to atheism.

Wrong again. Why would Jefferson demand that we question the existence of God if he meant that belief in God is rational? How stupid does Wiker hope we are?

John Adams

He has no rebuttal to the Adams quote:

“It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service [writing the Constitution] had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven.”
— John Adams

Benjamin Franklin

Here’s the final atheist quote:

“When religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
— Benjamin Franklin

Wiker responds:

[This] is spoken against having an established church (as England had its own established church).

I’d say, “Nice try” except that this is quite a pathetic try. No, that’s not what Franklin is saying. He’s saying that any god so ephemeral that he won’t support his own religion isn’t much of a god.

But that does not prove that secular atheism invented the separation of church and state. … The separation of church and state is (like hospitals and universities) the invention of Christianity.

I guess the church forgot that during the period when the Pope had his own country, ordered Crusades, crowned emperors, and in general meddled in the political affairs of Europe. Or when kings imagined a divine right to rule. Or when Henry VIII took the role of head of the Church of England. The church was up to its well-appointed elbows in politics.

True, “atheism” (whatever that is) didn’t invent separation of church and state, but let’s not pretend that Christianity did, either. Martin Luther’s doctrine of two kingdoms, for example, is hardly the First Amendment.

But focus on the positive. Wiker is so adamant that church/state separation a good thing that he wants to take credit for it. His claim of invention is wrong, but let’s instead focus on his celebration of church/state separation.

Not only are we on the same page, we’ve come full circle. The initial news story was of a county in Florida giving exclusive use of their property for a Christian message. Wiker’s support for church/state separation makes clear he would stand alongside American Atheists in demanding either no religious messages or free access for all.

Continue: Atheist Monument Critique: Ten Commandments and Ten Punishments

We do not err because truth is difficult to see.
It is visible at a glance.
We err because this is more comfortable.
— Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Photo credit: 21st Century Wire

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  • RichardSRussell

    It is entirely consistent for Christians to contend “That’s good. It must have come from God.”

    It goes right along with “That’s bad. It must have come from Satan.” (Or failing that, from his agents on Earth, those wicked atheists.)

    It’s only taken a couple of thousand years, but at least they’re now putting SOCAS (separation of church and state) into the “good” category. (Or at least this guy is, perhaps until his fellow fundies start trashing him for it.)

    • I applaud your looking for points of agreement, but I bet if we actually talked with this guy in person, something would fall apart. I realize he actually did strongly embrace church/state separation, but I just get the sense that that’s too good to be true.

      • MNb

        Not so pessimistic. If European christians can, why not their American counterparts? Imo as an outsider this monument is the right strategy. In the end, after a period of christian confusion a la Wiker, American christians won’t have a choice. They are just a bit late.

        • B Dallmann

          I absolutely believe that one day America will be as secular as Northern Europe. I just wish that day would come during my lifetime.

  • Greg G.

    Isn’t it amazing how god-goggles can make someone overlook an entire inconvenient phrase?

  • So how does a Christian reconcile the religious liberty provided in the first amendment with the commandment “thou shalt have no other gods before me”? How can those both be Christian concepts when they’re mutually exclusive?

    Oh, right. Cherry picking and compartmentalization.

    • patrick.sele

      If one regards the
      Church as the heir of Israel and not some Christian state these two concepts can
      be easily reconciled.

      • You realize the Biblical penalty for having another god before Yahweh is death, right? Please, explain how you put people to death without interfering with their right to freely practice religion.

        • patrick.sele

          Death is the OLD
          TESTAMENT punishment for worshipping other gods, and it is confined to Israel
          (see 2 Kings 5,17-18). In the New Testament the punishment for someone who sins
          and is not willing to cease doing so is exclusion from the Church (see Matthew
          18,15-17), and this punishment only applies to members of the Church (see 1
          Corinthians 5,9-13).

        • Ron

          Exactly. The Old Testament is a product of the Jewish people and Yahweh is a tribal god of the Middle East.

          Since the founding documents of the USA (a sovereign nation located in North America) mention neither by name, they serve no practical application in the public affairs of the state.

        • 2 Kings 5:17-18 is Naaman asking for special favors; Nothing about laws being confined to Israel. As for the law changing, why did it change? If the punishment described in Matthew is the one Yahweh wanted, why not use that one in the first place? And if the answer is “The law changed because of Jesus’s sacrifice” or some such, then why? And if that was necessary, then why not send Jesus to be a sacrifice immediately instead of waiting thousands of years?

          Additionally, the 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 passage tells Christians to shun various groups of people, including idolaters. Discrimination is illegal in the US, and discrimination against idolaters qualifies as not respecting someone’s religious liberty to make and worship idols if he pleases. I repeat, religious liberty is not a Christian concept.

    • WSHHTrotsky#RevolutionSquad

      ?I don’t understand your question. Religious liberty is not a diety or a God, so it does not violate the 1st Commandment.

      • Religious liberty includes the liberty to worship a god other than Yahweh, which does indeed violate the 1st commandment (not to mention the liberty to violate commandments 2, 3, and 4). In case you’ve forgotten, the very first thing Moses does in the legend after coming down from the mountain is perform a mass execution of Baal worshippers (Baal’s symbol was the golden calf). That’s rather difficult to reconcile with religious liberty.

        • WSHHTrotsky#RevolutionSquad

          I think you’re getting confused. Religious liberty is a two-way street. True that it opens the doorway to worship other gods, but it’s also opens to doorway to worship the Judeo-Christian God. Like I said religious tolerance from Christians and the 1st Commandment do not clash with each other.

        • I repeat: The punishment for not worshipping Yahweh is death. The fact that people have the liberty to worship gods other than Yahweh without being murdered for it makes the notion of religious liberty unbiblical.

        • WSHHTrotsky#RevolutionSquad

          I don’t think that death should be considered a punishment for sin. Even Jesus lived a supposedly sinless life and he still died; but that’s another conversation altogether.
          Yes the Biblical God does sound religiously intolerant, but the original subject was Christians, no the Christian God. In the Bible, it clearly states that God is the one true judge (I would use scriptures to support this, but I don’t know them by heart but this belief is a widely accepted one among Christians). So if God is the one true Judge then Christians have no right to judge others, this encompasses non-Christian beliefs as well.

        • The Bible also has many clear examples of Yahweh’s followers enforcing the typical punishment (death) for breaking one of Yahweh’s laws. In fact, it even explicitly states that it is the responsibility of Yahweh’s followers to enforce those laws. Read Deuteronomy 13:6-10 for an example of Yahweh’s followers being commanded to take an active role in executing someone.

  • patrick.sele

    In the 16th century
    the Anabaptists were supporters of the idea of a separation of church and
    state. In the 17th century the Baptist theologian Roger Williams (1603-1683) put
    this idea into practice in the colony of Rhode Island. As the following quote
    from the Wikipedia article about Williams suggests, his view of the
    relationship between church and state may even have influenced the respective
    points in the American Constitution:

    “He believed that soul liberty and freedom of
    conscience, were gifts from God, and that everyone had the natural right to
    freedom of religion. Religious freedom demanded that church and state be
    separated. Williams was the first to use the phrase “wall of separation”
    to describe the ideal relationship of church and state. He called for a high
    wall of separation between the “Garden of Christ” and the
    “Wilderness of the World.” This idea may have influenced the
    foundations of the religion clauses in the United States Constitution, and the First
    Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—though the language of the founders is quite
    different. Years later, in 1802 Thomas Jefferson wrote of the “wall of
    separation” in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, echoing Roger

  • Rain

    [This] is spoken against having an established church (as England had its own established church).

    Wiker is kinda half right since Franklin was writing about “religious Tests” and how he thought they wouldn’t exist if the clergy didn’t make lots o’ free cash from religion. Wiker seems to think that the one point Wiker almost gets right somehow negates all the rest of Franklin’s sarcastic jabs and famous wit in Franklin’s letter.

  • Learner

    I am not an atheist, though I do not adhere to any one religion. To the extent that a system of thought supports me in my search for the truth I am willing to listen. When that system’s institutions demand blind belief, and threaten retribution for my dissent, I part company with it. I say this to make it clear that I do not argue from a Christian Literalist point of view.

    That having been said, the three quotes offered here have been taken out of context. Certainly each of us is free to interpret according to our conscience and the dictates of our hearts, but these were not one-off statements. All three men quoted were Deists. They might have believed that God does not intervene in human affairs, but they all certainly believed in God.

    • they all certainly believed in God

      If by “God” you mean “Yahweh,” obviously they didn’t if they were deists.

      • Learner

        Granted, they all had issues with certain specific dogmas, and with what they considered the hypocrisy and irrationality of Christianity in general, but not agreeing with Calvinist dogma or even the Nicene Creed doesn’t automatically make one an atheist. It seems too often atheists fall into the fallacy of equating all belief with Christian Literalism. There are myriad ways of looking at the mystery. Christianity, with all its variety and nuance, is only one.

        • I agree–Christianity has myriad variations, and rejecting Christianity doesn’t necessarily make one an atheist.