Atheist Monument Critique: Treaty of Tripoli

Atheist Monument Critique: Treaty of Tripoli September 11, 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 left side of the monument contains this statement from the Treaty of Tripoli (1797), a treaty between the United States and the Muslim state that controlled the coast of what is now Libya:

The Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.

That’s pretty straightforward. The young United States wanted to make clear that it had no religious motives for antagonism with any Muslim countries.

Benjamin Wiker (the Christian whose article I’ve been critiquing) cautions us against concluding from this statement that America was indeed not founded on Christianity. He raises two points.

WWFFD? (What Would the Founding Fathers Do?)

There are hundreds of other quotes [besides this treaty] from the Founders that show a Christian, or at least a Deist, grounding of their views.

Okay, so what?

Maybe in addition to supporting Christianity, some of the founders also liked fishing. Maybe they also believed in astrology. Maybe they also ate meat. Do we conclude then that the United States was founded for the benefit of fishermen or astrologers or carnivores? That it gives those people some sort of advantage over their fellow citizens? That the Constitution was inspired by the lore or wisdom from those activities?

Of course not. If the founding fathers wanted to institutionalize the eating of meat, for example, they had their chance. They could’ve put it in the Constitution, but they didn’t. The same is true for Christianity: if the founding fathers wanted Christianity to have some sort of advantage or cherished place or even acknowledgement within society, the Constitution would say so. It doesn’t.

Maybe Wiker is saying something else. Maybe he’s saying that Christianity is the origin of some of the ideas that are so foundational to American society and that the founders borrowed from Christianity.

If that’s the point, it’s a ridiculous one. Not only did democracy, limited government, freedom of religion and speech, the right to a jury trial, and prohibition against slavery not come from the Bible, most of these principles conflict with the Bible. How do we know? Because when Christianity was in charge in Europe a thousand years ago, those principles weren’t in effect!

If the Constitution is inconvenient, try elsewhere

Next, Wiker points to the Declaration of Independence,

which claims that the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” are the proper foundation of a nation, and that human beings “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” which must be respected by any government.

Whoa—you don’t want to go there. “Nature’s God” is a deist reference. This is not the Christian god.

And let’s see who’s in charge. The Declaration of Independence says that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” No, government doesn’t turn to God for its authority but to the people.

And what do you do when government becomes abusive? Do you appeal to God then? Nope. The Declaration says:

Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The government rules at the pleasure of the people, not God.

Wiker wants to trump the Treaty of Tripoli with the Declaration of Independence, but neither is law. The Constitution is, and it creates a secular government.

Radical secular atheism?

His knockout blow to the idea that the Treaty of Tripoli is relevant is:

we do not find support for the American Atheist’s notion that America should be grounded in a secular atheist government that is as radically opposed to Deism as it is to Christianity.

I don’t know what he’s talking about. The Constitution demands a secular government with no favors given or constraints imposed on Christian belief or unbelief. In a public school, the Christian can’t give a prayer, and the atheist can’t tell why the Christian god doesn’t exist. If Wiker is worried about a government that imposes atheism (and therefore makes things difficult for Christians and other believers) then I’m on his side, but I’m pretty sure that American Atheists’ goal of imposing this on America is just his fantasy.

After all thisperhaps I should’ve cut to the chase earlier: I never point to the Treaty of Tripoli in my discussions with Christians. Wiker doesn’t want me using it, and I don’t want to. It is tempting, given that it so clearly faces the question, but it’s an obscure treaty that’s no longer in effect. I see why atheists find it attractive, but I think that it’s too complex to make an effective argument.

What I do instead is point to the Constitution. If the founding fathers had wanted this to be a Christian country, that’s where they would’ve said so. They didn’t.

Continue: Atheist Monument Critique: Founding Father Freethinkers

I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do,
because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.
— Susan B. Anthony

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  • Ron

    Had the founding fathers been devout Christians, there wouldn’t have been an American Revolution, because the Bible commands its followers to “honor and obey the king” and submit to the governing authorities because “they have been established by God” (Eccl 8:2-4; Mt 22:21; Mk 12:17; Lk 20:25; Rom 13:1-7; Heb 13:17; 1 Pt 2:13-17; Ti 3:1).

    So in disobeying King George they also disobeyed “God’s” word.

    • BobSeidensticker

      Jugging Christianity and American patriotism is trickier than many Christians realize, IMO.

      • Kodie

        Independence and democracy seem to run counter to Christian principles should the latter be considered for law. I may go so far sometimes to say that some Christians hate America. There of course is the freedom to practice one’s religion, but once this imposes on the population at large, that decreases freedom for everyone else. There is so much cognitive dissonance at this part.

        It is a true part of American history that the land was a refuge from religious oppression for some people, who were themselves intolerant. That is being extrapolated as being the reasoning behind the Declaration of Independence, which was about escaping tyranny of a monarch and taxation without representation. Religious freedom is still here so important, they put it in the first part of the 1st Amendment. If the government imposes a religion, then the citizens have no freedom, and that includes Christians.

        For example, which Christianity is the true Christianity to be endorsed by the government? If one kind, then all other Christians are disenfranchised. It seems all Christians are satisfied with at least a veneer – the Christian president, the 10 commandments, crosses wherever you want, prayers in school, etc. Many also oppose marriage equality, abortion and birth control distribution, and evolution being taught in public school. Aside from fundamentalist creationists, I never really see any denomination (including Catholic) suggesting the government must endorse them explicitly. They seem more than willing to misconstrue “democracy” to mean the majority, the Christians, get to determine the laws for everyone else, according to their religious beliefs.

        The government should plain not be involved in their religious beliefs, or mine. I think it is like how siblings in a family, like, even if mom says she loves all her kids equally, one of them seems to get the favors, more positive attention, and the better part of a double-standard. They don’t think that they do, but it’s obvious to everyone else in the family. And when mom does have to pay attention to another kid, they become insecure and jealous. Christianity is seeking external, official government validation of their beliefs instead of the security I think they should feel that their beliefs are correct in and of themselves. That is what freedom of religion, freedom of a secular non-interfering government, is. The government can not and shall not impose their Christianity on them or help them spread it, so that they may come to their beliefs freely.

        Any other way is Un-American.

      • Ron

        I’ll say.

        “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” doesn’t exactly gel with “Submit, worship and do not covet” — does it?

    • And thus we got the “divine right of kings”, monarchy being another institution which Christianity long propped up.

    • R Vogel

      This is only true when their guy is in office, perhaps you missed the footnote…. ;p

  • RichardSRussell

    “Wiker wants to trump the Treaty of Tripoli with the Declaration of Independence, but neither is law.”

    Only half true — the half about the DoI. The Treaty of Tripoli, OTOH, is included within this provision from Article 6 of the Constitution: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land …”

    • wtfwjtd

      Exactly. The DoI was just that–a declaration, that was signed by something like seventy-some-odd prominent men in the colonies, and presented Great Britain. True, it was “adopted” by the Continental Congress, but it was not a governing document.

    • BobSeidensticker

      I hadn’t realized that about the treaties/Constitution connection. Good catch.
      Nevertheless, I doubt that this treaty is still in force. Tripolitania (or whatever country was on the other side of that treaty) doesn’t exist any more, and any succeeding country(ies) with new constitutions would have to explicitly take on the obligations of previous treaties. I doubt that there’s been a continuous chain.

      • RichardSRussell

        I’m not sure of this, but I believe it remains in effect indefinitely unless it’s specifically repealed, regardless of whether the other party is still in existence or not. It’s as if you promised your wife to give up smoking, but then she died.

        • BobSeidensticker

          Meh, you could be right, but I’m not sure. I think it’s more like you promise your ex-wife alimony and then she dies. In that case, there’s no one to hold up your commitment to.
          I don’t even know what the Treaty promises, but you’re saying that Libya or Tunisia or I dunno is still bound by this 1791 treaty? I’d be surprised if Libya and Tunisia agreed.

        • RichardSRussell

          No, I’m saying the United States is still bound by it. It’s the supreme law of our land. But, as I say, I’m not a constitutional lawyer, and you’d have to check with one of them to find out what our obligations are under it.

          In any event, it still serves as a historical document revealing the thinking behind most of the same guys who set up the government.

        • BobSeidensticker

          Right, but my concern is that the U.S. has a commitment to Nonexististan. That’s significantly different than, say, a commitment to France.
          But a correction to something I said before comes to mind. Some countries (Italy?) has enacted several new constitutions. I would think that any commitment we made to Italy-constitution-#3 (say) would remain in force to Italy-constitution-#5.

        • RichardSRussell

          Well, suppose I said “[A] Because I am an honest person of integrity, [B] I promise to pay you back the $100 you are lending me.” And then you up and die. Arguably, that releases me from Clause B. You’re saying that it also negates Clause A, the principle that describes me but does not constitute an actual obligation to you. I don’t think it works that way.

  • Nemo

    How would an atheist government be opposed to a deist government, unless the former tries to disenfranchise religious people? What would a deist government necessarily have that a secular government would not?

    • RichardSRussell

      An officially stated government religion.

      • Nemo

        But deism doesn’t really believe much except that there is a god (notice the lowercase g for deism). Individual deists often have their own beliefs, but there are no official “deist” rituals.

        • RichardSRussell

          Well, you asked what the difference would be, and that’s it. ANY religion could say “Our god is different from their god.”, and deism is no exception. Why would we want the government to officially choose sides in the debate between superstitions?

  • BillYeager

    IF Communism=Atheism THEN Atheism=Communism AND secularism EQUALS ‘slippery slope’ to Atheism THEN Secularism=Communism

    Which means that, essentially, you hate your country for its Xtian Freedom and you want to murder babies and have gay buttsecs. You commie bastard.

    • Itarion

      You’re damn right I… wait, what? When did any atheist spokesperson ever say that? It’s certainly not what *I* want. Scarecrows and strawmen.
      Also, this slippery slope thing has to quit. THERE IS NO SLIPPERY SLOPE. Except in Lemony Snicket books, but that’s a different story. Wanting equality has nothing to do with wanting oppression and murder of different groups than are currently oppressed.

      And I think I see a joke there, but sarcasm is hard to read.

      • BillYeager

        Of course no ‘atheist spokesperson’ has ever said such a thing. That would be giving the super-secret plans away. Trouble is, those super-clever Xtians have figured it out and they’re not going to let pinko commie bastards destroy God’s favourite country. It is God’s favourite country, because they say it is. It’s just damn fortunate that their God also happens to agree with every sociopolitical position held by each individual Xtian. Even the ones that contradict other Xtians. He can do that because he’s God, right!?! So don’t even go there.

        BTW, the sarcasm is easier to read from outside the US. Must be something to do with the NSA and CIA n’ shit (TM)

  • R Vogel

    Always happy to see mention of the Barbary Coast in print, he says happily humming the Marine’s Hymn “…to the shores of Tripoli…” 🙂

  • Ryan Jean

    Not only did democracy, limited government, freedom of religion and
    speech, the right to a jury trial, and prohibition against slavery not
    come from the Bible, most of these principles conflict with the
    Bible. How do we know? Because when Christianity was in charge in
    Europe a thousand years ago, those principles weren’t in effect!

    I prefer to advance that even one step further, and point out that the arguments used to support the adoption of the Constitution were based on enlightenment ideas but went out of their way to avoid connecting its tenets to the bible — an odd thing to do with a strongly-believing public who would be receptive to such ideas. Those arguing against adoption, however, used arguments positively saturated with biblical rationale, and explicitly pointed to the Constitution’s secular, non-God-affirming nature as a grounds for its rejection.

  • Derrik Pates

    Wiker pretty clearly has fallen for, and is trying to advance, the fallacy that “secular” == “atheist”. They’re not even close to the same, and that’s where the confusion comes from. The government shouldn’t be atheist, any more than it should be explicitly Christian; it should have no opinion on matters of religion.