Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Atheists Try to Steal the Founders Too

I'm defensive when anyone proclaims on which side of modern issues "the Founders" would land. I wrote a blog last year about the religious right's blatant attempt to superimpose the founding fathers into their warped version of history. They inaccurately and perpetually try to convince the world that the U.S. Constitution was founded on Judeo-Christian values. They rarely bother giving evidence because it would require them to take quotes out of context.  The truth is that the Constitution was formed by a group of great men who agreed that our government would be "godless" and to further express the idea, they amended the document to expressly restrict government involvement in religion and vice versa. When college drop out Sean Hannity or woefully uneducated and plagiaristic Glenn Beck claims we live in a Christian nation, I waste no time booing them from their undeserved stages. When the well-educated Newt Gingrich or Bill O'Reilly make the same claims, I demolish them with evidence. I don't care why they have twisted the truth to fit their ideologies; it is a despicable display of intellectual dishonesty, whether or not they are sincere.

That brings me to my disappointment in Dr. Richard Dawkins. In his book The God Delusion he devotes a few pages to the foundation of the United States and the men behind it. He too attempts to dispel the illusion that the religious right would thrust upon us.  Dawkins, however, doesn't seem well-versed enough in early American history to succeed without resulting to falsehoods. He seems to have relied on the testimony of more heavy-handed atheist writers and printed what they told him.  Dawkins declares at the head of the section, "Certainly their writings on religion in their own time leave me in no doubt that most of them would have been atheists in ours." That sentence sets the tone for the argument he lays before us over the next few pages. To give some perspective, a "few" pages in a book equals the amount of words dedicated to complete argumentative essays. Even though the section about the founders was aside the main point of his chapter, he dedicates more time to it than I do to most blogs.

I believe at least one impartial party should give an accurate refutation of his historical evidence. So far, only creationists have argued against the veracity of Dawkins' use of the Founding Fathers. I would rather people not get their facts from a group who dismisses solid evidence and considers it virtuous. (note: I have run into creationist websites that purposefully misquote Dawkins to make his point even less sustainable. It is another form of intellectual dishonesty and I doubt they even read the book.)

As with many atheists, Dawkins primarily uses Thomas Jefferson in his argument because Jefferson was an atheist or extremely skeptical deist.  Either way, he did not believe that God was an intervening force in the affairs of man.  Dawkins makes the same mistake that his opponents do. He fallaciously aggregates the beliefs of the Founders. His argument considers them parts of a hive mind with intellectual convictions in line with those of Thomas Jefferson. This was not the case. All of the men at the Constitutional Convention had their own opinions and frequently disagreed with each other.  Dawkins ignores this and by using very few examples, gives the impression that the founders were collectively anti-religious.

He makes an interesting observation about different eras perceiving religion differently, but overstates the difference by calling the founders atheists.  Christianity now bears little resemblance to Christianity of the Enlightenment and I touched on the subject in a previous blog. The intellectual Christians of the founding generation generally rejected the concept of miracles, conceded that the Bible was corrupted by a millennia of crooked priests, dismissed many fables in the Bible that were borrowed from other lore, they didn't treat the Bible literally, recognized its inconsistencies, and wholeheartedly believed that the only way to understand Christ's divinity was through reason. Though dissimilar to today's Christianity, they still believed that Jesus was God.

Dawkins leaves out a considerable amount of information in order to continue to more integral points of the book's primary argument: the existence of God. By doing so, he only quotes Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Adams and James Madison.  First of all, these four men do not represent the Founders' beliefs. There were 56 delegates to the Constitutional Convention who all had their own religious beliefs.  They made the United States Constitution to protect their right to those beliefs. Worse yet, three out of the four Founders used by Dawkins were obviously believers in a divine force that guided the actions of men. To say they were secularists is perfectly accurate in all four cases. To say they were atheists is blatantly false.

Adams was Ambassador to England during the Constitutional Convention. He was still an influential presence at the convention because of his Thoughts on Government, widely read among the delegates and many of his ideas made it into the final draft of the Constitution. Even if Adams could have been at the Constitutional Convention, he would have had no interest in forcing his religious beliefs on anyone.  He said in a letter to his brother-in-law about his ministerial education,"I shall have liberty to think for myself without molesting others or being molested myself."  John Adams could be anti-religious at times and openly doubted the truth to great passages in the Bible, but never rejected his belief in God.

Jefferson was not at the Constitutional Convention either. Though he corresponded with James Madison regularly at the time, he did not have an active hand in the debates.  Jefferson is often included in debates about the framing of the Constitution because the founders were essentially arguing over the correct interpretation of the Declaration of Independence, written by Jefferson. The founders argued for months over the correct way to honor the "spirit of '76." Jefferson was a non-believer and fought very hard for the separation of Church and State. He rejected Christianity and all superstition.  He is the only person on the list that could even possibly be considered an Atheist.

Benjamin Franklin, by that late point in his life, was religious and believed in divine intervention, though not the divinity of Christ.  Benjamin Franklin was a Christian...then a Deist...then...something.  He was never an atheist. He rejected Christianity quite early in his life and never went back to it. By the time he attended the Constitutional Convention, he could most accurately be described as a follower of Judaism.  He believed there was a divine presence that actively guided goings-on in the world and considered the Bible's tales as a moral guide.  He appreciated Jesus as a moral philosopher, but no more than that. During the Constitutional Convention he even requested prayer be said to focus the delegation's efforts.

James Madison was probably the most fervent in his efforts to create a wall of separation between church and state, but he was a clearly devout Christian.  This is why I'm so confused as to why Dawkins chose to include him in a list of people he considered "atheists."  Madison is the biggest ally to the cause so there's no need to twist the fact that he was Christian.  He wrote volumes about the separation of church and state and vehemently defended it all his life.  He went to church too.  Why Dawkins felt a need to claim him as an atheist, I don't understand.

In the end, Dawkins makes the point that no matter what the founders actually were, agnostics, atheists, theists, or deists, they were, above all, secularists. Above all else they wanted Religion and Government in opposite corners of the room.  For the most part, that is true.  Dawkins stumbled, groped and misinformed his way to a good point.  Because the Founders realized the importance of their role in the creation of the first secular nation, they preserved their writings on the subject.  It's very easy to get copies of the [almost] complete writings of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Adams. They can speak for themselves. There's no need to lie about it.

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