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Gods of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment - (Page 3 of Arguably) 
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Post Gods of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment - (Page 3 of Arguably)
Gods of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment - (Page 3 of Arguably)

Please join us in reading and discussing Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens!

Arguably is a collection of essays by Christopher Hitchens. Each thread in this book discussion forum is named after the title of one of the essays in Arguably. The page number where the essay starts is included in the thread title to make finding it within the book easy.

Read all of the essays in order or jump around and read only the essays that interest you. Please keep your comments in the appropriate threads.



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Sat Sep 24, 2011 5:32 pm
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Post Re: Gods of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment - (Page 3 of Arguably)
Quote:
Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?
Attributed to Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, 1781, upon receiving the second (or third, or possibly both) volume(s) of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from the author, Edward Gibbon, quoted by Sir Leslie Stephen in the Dictionary of National Biography, (1921), vol. 21, p. 1133. (link)

Edward Gibbon makes an early appearance in Hitchen's damned thick book of scribble, in this essay, which is a remarkable precis of the atheist leanings of America's Founding Fathers. Like Gibbon, Hitchens is a mine of erudition, so I hope that readers will not take their cue from the illiterate Duke.

Hitchens cites a comparison "to the finest passages in Edward Gibbon" of an intriguing comment by Thomas Jefferson.
President Jefferson wrote:
the human mind may some day get back to the freedom it enjoyed 2000 years ago. This country, which has given the world an example of physical liberty, owes to it that of moral emancipation also." (p7)

This origin of America in the scientific enlightenment, rejecting the bondage of priestcraft, is where Hitchens sees the real Providence in both the manifest destiny of the USA and the original name of the town in Rhode Island. But the strange thing is how successfully this rational origin of American institutions has been suppressed by the rise of modern priests.

George Washington, the first President of the USA, is subject of another intriguing anecdote in this essay. Apparently, old 'never tell a lie' found some moral difficulty in sharing the Eucharist. Although a regular church goer, George made a habit of ducking out just before the sharing of the blessed body and blood of our Lord and Savior on communion Sundays. When the parson quizzed him on this unusual practice, Washington just stopped going to church on Sundays when the bread and wine ritual was held.

And of course, George Orwell rates a mention, for his insistence, like the founding fathers, that mathematics is reliable, and cannot simply be contorted for political purposes, despite the best efforts of idiots in power.

For those who have not yet bought Arguably, this essay is available online from The Weekly Standard.

Christopher Hitchens wrote:
Gods of Our Fathers
The United States of Enlightenment.
The Weekly Standard
DEC 11, 2006, VOL. 12, NO. 13 • BY CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS

Our Skeptical Founding Fathers

by Brooke Allen

Ivan R. Dee, 256 pp., $24.95

Why should we care what the Founding Fathers believed, or did not believe, about religion? They went to such great trouble to insulate faith from politics, and took such care to keep their own convictions private, that it would scarcely matter if it could now be proved that, say, George Washington was a secret Baptist. The ancestor of the American Revolution was the English Revolution of the 1640s, whose leaders and spokesmen were certainly Protestant fundamentalists, but that did not bind the Framers and cannot be said to bind us, either. Indeed, the established Protestant church in Britain was one of the models which we can be quite sure the signatories of 1776 were determined to avoid emulating.

Moreover, the 18th-century scholars and gentlemen who gave us the U.S. Constitution were in a relative state of innocence respecting knowledge of the cosmos, the earth, and the psyche, of the sort that has revolutionized the modern argument over faith. Charles Darwin was born in Thomas Jefferson's lifetime (on the very same day as Abraham Lincoln, as it happens), but Jefferson's guesses about the fossils found in Virginia were to Darwinism what alchemy is to chemistry. And the insights of Einstein and Freud lay over a still more distant horizon. The furthest that most skeptics could go was in the direction of an indeterminate deism, which accepted that the natural order seemed to require a designer but did not necessitate the belief that the said designer actually intervened in human affairs. Invocations such as "nature's god" were partly intended to hedge this bet, while avoiding giving offense to the pious. Even Thomas Paine, the most explicitly anti-Christian of the lot, wrote The Age of Reason as a defense of god from those who traduced him in man-made screeds like the Bible.

Considering these limitations, it is quite astonishing how irreligious the Founders actually were. You might not easily guess, for example, who was the author of the following words:

Oh! Lord! Do you think that a Protestant Popedom is annihilated in America? Do you recollect, or have you ever attended to the ecclesiastical Strifes in Maryland Pensilvania [sic], New York, and every part of New England? What a mercy it is that these People cannot whip and crop, and pillory and roast, as yet in the U.S.! If they could they would. . . . There is a germ of religion in human nature so strong that whenever an order of men can persuade the people by flattery or terror that they have salvation at their disposal, there can be no end to fraud, violence, or usurpation.

That was John Adams, in relatively mild form. He was also to point out, though without too much optimism, the secret weapon that secularists had at their disposal--namely the profusion of different religious factions.

The multitude and diversity of them, You will say, is our Security against them all. God grant it. But if We consider that the Presbyterians and Methodists are far the most numerous and the most likely to unite; let a George Whitefield arise, with a military cast, like Mahomet, or Loyola, and what will become of all the other Sects who can never unite?

George Whitefield was the charismatic preacher who is so superbly mocked in Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography. Of Franklin it seems almost certainly right to say that he was an atheist (Jerry Weinberger's excellent recent study Benjamin Franklin Unmasked being the best reference here), but the master tacticians of church-state separation, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were somewhat more opaque about their beliefs. In passing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom--the basis of the later First Amendment--they brilliantly exploited the fear that each Christian sect had of persecution by the others. It was easier to get the squabbling factions to agree on no tithes than it would have been to get them to agree on tithes that might also benefit their doctrinal rivals. In his famous "wall of separation" letter, assuring the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, of their freedom from persecution, Jefferson was responding to the expressed fear of this little community that they would be oppressed by--the Congregationalists of Connecticut.

This same divide-and-rule tactic may have won him the election of 1800 that made him president in the first place. In the face of a hysterical Federalist campaign to blacken Jefferson as an infidel, the Voltaire of Monticello appealed directly to those who feared the arrogance of the Presbyterians. Adams himself thought that this had done the trick.

"With the Baptists, Quakers, Methodists, and Moravians," he wrote, "as well as the Dutch and German Lutherans and Calvinists, it had an immense effect, and turned them in such numbers as decided the election. They said, let us have an Atheist or Deist or any thing rather than an establishment of Presbyterianism."

The essential point--that a religiously neutral state is the chief guarantee of religious pluralism--is the one that some of today's would-be theocrats are determined to miss. Brooke Allen misses no chance to rub it in, sometimes rather heavily stressing contemporary "faith-based" analogies. She is especially interesting on the extent to which the Founders felt obliged to keep their doubts on religion to themselves. Madison, for example, did not find himself able, during the War of 1812, to refuse demands for a national day of prayer and fasting. But he confided his own reservations to his private papers, published as "Detached Memoranda" only in 1946. It was in those pages, too, that he expressed the view that to have chaplains opening Congress, or chaplains in the armed forces, was unconstitutional.

Of all these pen-portraits of religious reservation, the one most surprising to most readers will probably be that of George Washington. While he was president, he attended the Reverend James Abercrombie's church, but on "sacramental Sundays" left the congregation immediately before the taking of communion. When reproached for this by the good Reverend, he acknowledged the reproof--and ceased attending church at all on those Sundays which featured "the Lord's supper." To do otherwise, as he put it, would be "an ostentatious display of religious zeal arising altogether from his elevated station."

Jefferson was content to take part in public religious observances and to reserve his scorn and contempt for Christianity for his intimate correspondents, but our first president would not give an inch to hypocrisy. In that respect, if in no other, the shady, ingratiating Parson Weems had him right.

In his 1784 book, Reason: The Only Oracle of Man, Ethan Allen wrote: "The doctrine of the Incarnation itself, and the Virgin mother, does not merit a serious confutation and therefore is passed in silence, except the mere mention of it." John Adams was prepared to be a little more engaged with theological subjects, in which he possessed a huge expertise, but he also reposed his real faith in the bedrock of reason. Human understanding, he wrote (seemingly following David Hume), is its own revelation, and:

[h]as made it certain that two and one make three; and that one is not three; nor can three be one. . . . Miracles or Prophecies might frighten us out of our Witts; might scare us to death; might induce Us to lie; to say that We believe that 2 and 2 make 5. But we should not believe it. We should know the contrary.

From David Hume via ridicule of the Trinity to a prefiguration of Winston Smith! The connection between religious skepticism and political liberty may not be as absolute as that last allusion implies, but there is no doubt that some such connection existed very vividly in the minds of those "men of the Enlightenment" who adorned Philadelphia and Boston and New York and Washington as the 18th century evolved into the 19th.

In a first-class closing chapter on the intellectual and scientific world that shaped the Framers, Allen discusses the wide influence then exerted by great humanist thinkers like Hume, Shaftesbury, Bolingbroke, Locke, and Voltaire. It became a point of principle as well as of practice to maintain that liberty of conscience and the freedom of the individual were quite incompatible with any compulsion in religion, just as they would be incompatible with any repression of belief. (This is precisely why the French revolution, which seemed to negate the promise of Enlightenment, was to become such a painful cause of disagreement, and worse, between Federalists and Republicans.)

In 1821 Thomas Jefferson wrote of his hope "that the human mind will some day get back to the freedom it enjoyed 2000 years ago. This country, which has given the world an example of physical liberty, owes to it that of moral emancipation also." I think that Allen is not wrong in comparing this to the finest passages in Edward Gibbon. She causes us to catch our breath at the thought that, at the birth of the United States, there were men determined to connect it to a philosophical wisdom that pre-dated the triumph of monotheism. It is the only reason for entertaining the belief that America was ever blessed by "Providence"--as Roger a named his open-minded settlement in Rhode Island, a refuge from the tyranny of Pilgrims and Puritans.

In a time when the chief declared enemy of the American experiment is theocratic fanaticism, we should stand together and demand, "Mr Jefferson: Build Up That Wall!"

Christopher Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair, is the author, most recently, of Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. His study of Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man will be published in 2007.


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Post Re: Gods of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment - (Page 3 of Arguably)
Yet one can take the public statements and private writings of the group called the founders and build up quite a picture of religiosity, relative to the secular standard of today. I think this needs to be said to emphasize that people of that time could go only so far past the norm of the day. We note that Jefferson cut out from his New Testament all the passages that described the miraculous, but we forget that he did this in order to have at his bedside the pure wisdom of Jesus, whom he revered as the greatest moral teacher ever. Even Tom Paine can sound positively pious to our ears.

It has often been noted that the U.S., with no established church, leads the modernized nations in religious belief, while European countries with established churches have become largely agnostic. It appears that hands-off strenghtened, rather than weakened, the hold of religion on the country. Mentioning Jefferson again, he felt strongly that religious institutions were important for the success of the young nation.



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Post Re: Gods of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment - (Page 3 of Arguably)
Hitchen's nod toward Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was written in 1776, suggests also a wink to Gibbon's most famous observation
Edward Gibbon wrote:
The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. (link)

This line must surely have been widely known among the Founding Fathers of the USA. In their unique role as philosophical magistrates and visionary pioneers, they seem to have combined the views of religion as false and as useful. As a matter of tact, referring to something as false undermines one's ability to treat it as useful. So it is hardly surprising that Jefferson, Washington, Franklin and the rest kept their counsel on this topic, while probably quietly cheering Tom Paine. Others with more knowledge of American history might like to comment.

Jefferson's excision of the miracles (did he have a one sided Bible?) indicates his contempt for the supernatural. I share his admiration for the Jesus of the Gospels, and suspect his rational view made it hard for him to see the allegorical meaning of the miracles. Another idea that was 'in the air', like Gibbon's aphorism, among Enlightenment Deists, would have been Spinoza's atheist equation between God and nature, although they relied more on Newton's first cause clockwork God. In any case, the Founding Fathers had high regard for the idea that it is possible to rationally understand the universe, a view that went into sad decline in American politics in the twentieth century as lobbyists and television made it more important (if perhaps more difficult) to rationally understand the focus group and the donor.


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Post Re: Gods of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment - (Page 3 of Arguably)
I don't know if you're suggesting Machiavellian motives toward religion on the part of the founders. It's hard to generalize about an arbitrary grouping, but I think they had a sincere appreciation and admiration for religion (at least for Protestant religion) though their own views were often at variance with Christianity. Remember that they, too, were religious to a degree, every one of them. This would give them some affinity with other, more conventionally religious, citizens. They also believed that only the individual virtue of citizens would ensure the success of the nation, not its government. It appeared that religious institutions induced people to virtue. To me, their attitude shows the broadmindedness we associate with them. They didn't need to believe exactly as the common citizenry did in order to promote and protect the institutions that were important to the people.

Now, had Catholicism been more than a minor presence around the time of the Revolution, we might have seen a more aggressive stance against that religion. To the founders, the abusers of religion were the priestly class and its commanding popes. We probably can't appreciate the degree of separation perceived between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics practiced a totally separate religion, as strange as that sounds to us today. Even each Protestant denomination was seen as a separate faith. The Constitution, had it selected a state religion, would have chosen not Christianity but Methodism, Presbyterianism, Episcopalism, Congregationalism, or one of the other Protestant sects that had its unique flavor and devoted constituency. That would have been both arbitrary to the large-minded founders and a trigger, perhaps, for religious revolution.

On the Jefferson Bible, here's how he did it:

"To construct the Jefferson Bible, the nation’s third president used six different “source” Bibles — two in English, two in French and two that included both Greek and Latin. With an extra copy of each, Jefferson could use the front and back of pages without worrying about missing what‘s on the pages’ reverse side." http://www.theblaze.com/stories/dc-muse ... ste-bible/

If it were I doing this, I'd have to excise a good bit of what Jesus said as well. I don't admire his many statements about unbelievers landing in hell or his claims that he is God and the only way to salvation is through him.



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Post Re: Gods of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment - (Page 3 of Arguably)
The most important point for us to keep in mind is that the Founding Fathers, though being religious in their own way, established a Constitution that allowed for Americans to practice as they wished. Having newly come from England, they realized that church and state should be separate. It doesn't matter which religion they favored, or disliked, in the end the Constitution disallows a national religion, and that we must maintain.



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Post Re: Gods of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment - (Page 3 of Arguably)
I'll start off by saying that I really wish I had a better understanding of the Founding Fathers. I've read about half way through the Federalist Papers and I've read Founding Brothers but I've never read an in depth biography of any of the Presidents. No doubt, though, I still have a belief that during this 'Age of Enlightenment' the world witnessed some of the greatest political/philosophical writing and discourse.

The question of religion balancing and safeguarding our Republic has been tossed around since its inception. Checks and balances. It was always a fear that the forced equality made by a democratic system of government would render the individual quite powerless against the state and would allow tyranny to rear its nasty head. Institutions were to be the checks on our government's power. These institutions come in the form of any type of club or religion... anywhere that people with similar interests can meet, discuss, and plan. America has always had tons of these and they all serve in their own way to increase the individual's voice in government and therefore to protect their interests.

I can't imagine a more secure way to have freedom than to have checks and balances. Although it can hinder progress, decision making, and is more expensive, it does the best job of safeguarding the individual from tyranny. Without balance and when the scales are tipped, tyranny is inevitable. ( For me, this includes tyranny of the masses and tyranny of those with exorbitant amounts of money.)

To talk about religion back then and then again today in the context I have chosen above is to muddy the waters somewhat, isn't it? True, the argument still holds but it must be remembered that America was founded by people who wanted to escape religious persecution. The Founding Fathers would have felt that more intensely than we feel it today. Today it's a piece of trivia while back then it was THE issue, THE motivating factor, THE reason. Everyone wanted freedom and everyone feared and was in fact enraged at the prospect of persecution in this land of promise and new beginnings - persecution of religion most of all. These are people that went to war over increased taxes. It was a totally different country than it is today.

People change, the world changes, and government's change. That said, we have it deeply ingrained in us to be about precedents. Laws... when you go to court you state precedents to win your case. You cite quotes from famous people to legitimize ideas. We thrive on precedent and when it comes to the direction we wish our country to go we constantly look back in the past, not so much to look for ideas, but to lend credence to our own despite these changing times.

Blacks aren't slaves and women can vote. Our Founding Fathers were fallible men (albeit highly intelligent in most cases).

This Washington thing? I don't know the man but this could be because he had a fear of drinking from the same cup as everyone else or did not want to be seen drinking wine in public. How do I really know that this was his religious view and if it was then why did he even go to this church?

I agree with the idea of the 'germ of religion'. It is the germ in everyone to question. Unfortunately, people are lazy and stupid and religion provides quick, easy, fantastic, and false info. There are other factors to such as the need to belong and the attraction of aligning with/becoming something almighty and immortal.

I'm rambling now. Anyway, ever wonder why we've never had a Jewish or a Muslim President? This isn't a new issue. I'll end this by saying that we are still, somewhat, of a democracy and that the majority of the population is Christian with all the other religions getting a much smaller piece of the population pie. Because they are the majority and because our system of government relies on bribes and voices (mostly bribes), you'll always see them elected and they'll always be heard by someone in our government who wants their pockets lined. This is nothing new.

What else isn't new? Checks and Balances. When the majority of Americans are Christian and the majority of contributions come from their corner to bribe our politicians - there's your tyranny.


I don't have my book anymore so thanks for posting the article RT!



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Post Re: Gods of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment - (Page 3 of Arguably)
"It has often been noted that the U.S., with no established church, leads the modernized nations in religious belief, while European countries with established churches have become largely agnostic. It appears that hands-off strenghtened, rather than weakened, the hold of religion on the country. Mentioning Jefferson again, he felt strongly that religious institutions were important for the success of the young nation."

This may be because those countries in the past had sought to destroy groups or institutions and limit public gatherings where politics were discussed? The state allowed one religion and all other institutions were annihilated. The people slowly came to realize that belonging to anything may be dangerous to their health. Here in the United States clubs, groups, gatherings, and religions are protected and so you see them all flourish.



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Post Re: Gods of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment - (Page 3 of Arguably)
lindad_amato wrote:
The most important point for us to keep in mind is that the Founding Fathers, though being religious in their own way, established a Constitution that allowed for Americans to practice as they wished. Having newly come from England, they realized that church and state should be separate. It doesn't matter which religion they favored, or disliked, in the end the Constitution disallows a national religion, and that we must maintain.


I heard retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter interviewed by NPR's Nina Totenberg the other day. Souter said that with regard to the Constitution, we shouldn't be solely concerned with the intent of the founding fathers. He gives the example of religious freedom, saying that the leaders of our country wanted only to to ensure that no particular brand of Christianity got government preference. But today freedom of religion extends to Christianity and various other religions (or no religion). I was surprised to hear Souter say that the framers were "all Christian" because I know that several of them were actually deists, including Thomas Jefferson.

http://www.npr.org/2011/10/04/141014851 ... reme-court


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Post Re: Gods of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment - (Page 3 of Arguably)
It's interesting that Jefferson called himself a Christian and didn't, so far as I know, claim to be a deist. But if you read the relevant passages, you see that Jefferson was trying to redefine Christianity as consisting of the philosophy of Jesus, and not including perversions such as the dreadful theology of Calvin. In this sense, he wasn't entirely logical, because Christianity must involve Christ, and Jefferson did not believe that Jesus was divine. Jefferson did revere Jesus above all other moral teachers, and he included in the wisdom of Jesus the duty to love God with all one's heart. TJ also believed there would be an afterlife, but I doubt that he put any credence in the notion of hell.

It might be true that pure deists were rare among the founders' generation. By pure deist, I would have in mind someone who deduced from nature that there must have been a creator who set the world in motion with natural laws, but who was not involved with more petty concerns such as human hopes and desires. It would be pointless to invoke such a deity. But there has always seemed to be a fair amount of invoking going on with American statesmen, including, at times, Jefferson. We just seem to have a religious proclivity.



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