This is a transcript of my speech at this year’s convention for the National Atheist Party (minus spontaneous asides and ad-libs). Though this was an oratorical adaptation and rearrangement of my previous work online (Christianity Was Not Responsible for American Democracy), it is also much improved and contains new material, and I received multiple requests from the audience to make a transcript of it available (I have since improved on it further for publication in Christianity Is Not Great, which is now the definitive edition). This is my cue text, so it is not in every respect word-for-word what I spoke at the convention, but it is very near to it. I began with a quotation…
“I just have to say in all candor [that] this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles.” — John McCain (Presidential Candidate)
McCain also said:
“The constitution established the United States as a Christian nation.”
Many of you might already know that that’s bollocks. [Even McCain probably didn’t believe it or even care whether it’s true. But it’s a stock assertion these days, which he had to state to win over his base.] The Constitution does not even mention Christianity, and even explicitly denies that it is founded on any religious principles at all. Not only does the 1st Amendment prohibit the abolition or establishment of any religion, not only does the Preamble conspicuously omit “preserving Christianity” from all the aims and goals of the Constitution, not only does the President’s oath of office spelled out word-for-word in Article 1, Section 2 not even mention God, much less Christ, but Article 6 goes out of its way to explicitly state that, I quote, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” In other words, the Constitution not only doesn’t require anyone to be a Christian, it explicitly prohibits requiring it.
But you all know that. You probably also know that the Treaty of Tripoli, the English text of which was written at the behest of George Washington and signed by John Adams in 1797, said right out, “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” This English text was read on the Senate floor and passed unanimously among all the Senators present (only 9 Senators of the then 32 were absent). This text was also printed in several major newspapers and received little complaint. That pretty much kills John McCain’s notion that the Constitution establishes the United States as a Christian nation. Meanwhile, if it was in any other sense founded on Christian principles, the Founding Fathers evidently went out of their way to conceal this fact at every turn. Which seems unlikely.
To try and combat this fact, Christian apologists claim to adduce a quotation of John Adams from a private letter to Thomas Jefferson (of June 28, 1813). A private letter of course is the exact opposite of an official state document agreed by the entire Senate and read by the voting public. But that kind of distinction is inconvenient for Christians, so they rarely note where the quote comes from.
Anyway, the quote as you will see it repeated everywhere reads:
“The general principles on which the fathers achieved Independence were … the general principles of Christianity … [and] I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that the general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.”
Now, if you see this in print, you’ll see they are often honest enough to include several ellipses—which should make you wonder, what was left out of the quote. You would be right to be skeptical. I’m going to read the whole context, because it’s fascinating—and not least because it mentions, and praises, all of you—that’s right, it mentions and praises atheists.
Adams wrote to Jefferson, when questioned about his personal thoughts (and not any official state position), that he valued liberty above all, and that that had been the goal of the American Revolution. In speaking of that war and its outcome, Adams wrote:
Who composed that army of fine young fellows that was then before my eyes? There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists, and Protestants “qui ne croyent rien.” [“who do not believe anything”]. Very few, however, of several of these species; nevertheless, all educated in the general principles of Christianity and the general principles of English and American liberty.
Could my answer be understood by any candid reader or hearer, to recommend to all the others the general principles, institutions, or systems of education of the Roman Catholics? Or those of the Quakers, or those of the Presbyterians, or those of the Methodists, or those of the Moravians, or those of the Universalists, or those of the Philosophers? No. The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united and the general principles of English and American liberty in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence.
Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles.
In favor of these general principles, in philosophy, religion, and government, I could fill sheets of quotations from Frederic of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, as well as Newton and Locke; not to mention thousands of divines and philosophers of inferior fame.
Notice what he is actually saying. First, he is carefully distinguishing his own personal beliefs from any official state principles. But more importantly, he includes atheists in his list of praiseworthy American freedom fighters, and also says even atheist and anti-Christian philosophers (like Voltaire) were, in his view, advocating for the good principles shared by all Christian sects. In other words, Adams is not saying that America was actually founded on Christian principles in the sense John McCain means; rather, Adams is saying America was founded on universal moral principles shared by all good philosophies, even godless philosophies. He then says that it is his own personal opinion that the Christian God has so arranged it. But again, he is careful to say this is his own personal religious belief, not a state doctrine.
It’s worth remembering that John Adams (major founder and second President of the United States) was a Unitarian. He did not believe in an eternal Hell or the divinity of Christ or even in miracles. Thus, when he says “Christian principles” he does not mean anything we would consider distinctive of Christianity, such as the saving power of Christ’s sacrifice; he means simply a basic human morality common to all religions and philosophies. It’s worth remembering that for his views he would be kicked out of nearly every Christian church in America today.
In contrast to Adams’ views, which scorned the notion of America becoming a “Christian” nation rather than a nation inclusive of all faiths and philosophies, several times Christians have tried to get the Constitution amended to declare this nation as founded on Christian principles. Such Christian Nation amendments were formally proposed in Congress in 1864, 1874, 1896, 1910, and 1954. Not once did these amendments even reach a floor vote. They were rejected out of hand. But it’s worth noting what these amendments proposed, so we can see what kind of American government Congress repeatedly rejected.
The first quite simply asked that the Preamble be changed to read:
We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government, and in order to form a more perfect union…[etc.]
This is of course exactly what the Preamble would have said if the Founding Fathers wanted this to be a Christian nation, to establish Christianity in the Constitution, or demonstrate that it was founded on distinctly Christian principles. Thus, the fact that this is not what the Preamble said, and still does not say after many repeated attempts to get it to say that, pretty much proves this nation was not, and is not, founded on Christianity.
And since the Christians want to misquote John Adams on this point, it’s worth looking at what John Adams himself said in his own book on the historical foundations of the Constitution. I mean, honestly. If there is anyplace you should check first, it would be a book he explicitly wrote on the very subject you want to know his thoughts on. Adams was a historian, and a pretty good one for his day. And among his works in that field he wrote a History of the Principal Republics in the World: A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, in 3 volumes, published in 1794, just a few years before he signed the Treaty of Tripoli.
Needless to say, Christianity gets virtually no mention in these three volumes, and not once does he identify it as having inspired the Constitution. As we just saw, what one meant by “Christianity” or “Christian principles” can be extremely wishy washy even in Adams’ own writing. It means almost nothing that isn’t already just as true of atheistic humanism. Which is not what people today mean when they insist the United States was founded as a Christian nation. So we need something more explicit. The Christian Nation amendment is perfect in that regard, but that it has repeatedly failed to pass, even slightly, pretty much rules it out.
Our nation was clearly in no meaningful way based on Christian principles in that sense. Rather, what is often claimed today is that the Ten Commandments are the basis for the Constitution. Never mind that the Ten Commandments are Jewish, and thus not distinctly Christian. Christians who don’t squirm at the notion of owing anything to the Jews will skate around this conundrum by saying instead that this nation and its constitution were based on Judeo-Christian principles. Other Christians will just gloss over the distinction altogether.
But even if we hypothesized that the United States Constitution establishes, and was founded on, Reform Judaism, we still have to ask if that is even true. It essentially amounts to saying that the principles of law and government established by Moses are the very principles of law and government that undergird and inspired our Constitution.
So when we look at Adams’ three volume treatise on this question, how much does Moses get mentioned there, or the Ten Commandments? Essentially nil. Same for Jesus. Adams was certainly a god-loving Christian (albeit a heretical Unitarian). And he offers much praise in various of his writings for Christian religion (in the Unitarian sense). But that has no bearing on whether Adams conceived or intended the United States to be a Christian nation, much less founded on the Ten Commandments.
To the contrary, he held to exactly the opposite principle. Here I quote from that very book:
The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature, and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. … It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had any interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of heaven, any more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture. It will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.
That’s a direct denouncement of the Law of Moses, which derived from an interview with God and the inspiration of heaven. Adams is saying they heeded no such things, but discarded them all, and derived American government directly from their own reason and observation, from the natural world alone. That’s not a foundation on Christian principles. That’s a foundation on atheistic naturalism.
Adams does also say that “morality and the Christian religion, without the monkery of priests” has helped to sustain America’s success, but he never once credits any specific principle from that religion (like the Ten Commandments) as lying at the foundation of the American Constitution. That idea isn’t even considered.
Instead, volume 1 is entirely about the example and influence of Greece and Rome (in other words, the advances in government produced by pagans); volume 2 is about that of the secular Italian republics of the Renaissance (in other words, advances in government produced without Christian creeds or dogmas); and volume 3 surveys more of the same, and concludes with the precedent of the British Commonwealth.
In the words of his reviewer in the August issue of the year 1795 American Monthly Review, the authors Adams considers as most influential in his survey are these (I quote):
“Particularly among the ancients, Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Dionysius Halicarnassus, Cicero, and Tacitus; among the moderns, of Machiavelli, Sydney, Montesquieu, Harrington, Locke, Milton, Swift, Hume, Franklin, Price and Nedham.”
From this list, Moses is conspicuous for his absence. So is Jesus. By contrast, an extensive section in volume 1 is devoted to the Athenian constitution established by the pagan statesman Solon of Athens. Adams in fact credits the first invention of representative government to yet another pagan, Lycurgus of Sparta, and then credits Solon with its improvement. No mention of Moses. Or Jesus.
Indeed this was the pervading sentiment among the Founding Fathers [see bibliography at bottom]. Though the British philosopher John Locke inspired the Founders even more than Classical writers, even he, too was heavily influenced by ancient pagan thought. In fact, everything of his conception that became effected in the Constitution derives from the pagan Classics, not the Bible.
Christian apologists like to adduce examples of the Founding Fathers citing the Bible for everything under the sun, and argue from that, therefore, the Bible must have inspired their ideas, but this is a non sequitur. I address the same non sequitur in the context of a different argument, that we have Christianity to thank for modern science, in one of the books you’ll find for sale today. In the last chapter of The Christian Delusion I remark that:
“Finding in that period Christian or Biblical arguments for embracing new ideas does not confirm Christianity or the Bible was the cause of those ideas, rather than just the marketing strategy required to sell them at the time.”
Whereas, when we look to the pagan Classics, it is there, and not the Bible, where we find the language, concepts, and ideals that characterize the political theory manifest in the Constitution.
For example, that protection of private property is a principal function of government is explicitly stated by the pagan Cicero (in his treatise On Duties, book 2, paragraph 73). You won’t find this anywhere in the Bible. Cicero lived half a century before Christ.
Likewise, the notion that “all men are created equal” is originally, and most influentially, a pagan idea, derived from the ancient philosophy of Stoicism, developed centuries before Christ. It was the Stoic belief that all men and women are brothers and sisters of a common family and that all were citizens of the world who share the same natural rights.
The Stoics claimed this could be demonstrated directly from observation and reason, the very method Adams declares the Founders employed. By contrast, “searching the scriptures” gets nary a mention as a method ever resorted to, either by Stoic philosophers or John Adams. The Stoics likewise developed the philosophical concepts of ‘liberty’ and ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘equality under the law’, all words and phrases that feature prominently in their discourses on morality, law and government.
The link from Stoicism to the founding of our nation is demonstrated by the Declaration of Independence, which says “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” which plainly tells us the idea of unalienable rights is the foundational concept behind this sentiment. Yet no such concept appears anywhere in the Bible (and certainly not in the Ten Commandments, nor in the Gospels, nor in the Epistles).
Rather, the idea of “unalienable rights” derives from the Stoics and their subsequent influence on pagan Roman legal theory. So the Founding Fathers did not find this idea in the Bible. They saw the equality of man in the context of Cicero’s “rights of man” (which Cicero described with the terms ius gentium, “right of people,” and ius naturae, “natural right”).
Even the Apostle Paul’s alleged declaration of equality (in Galatians 3:27-28) does not relate to this, despite Christians claiming otherwise. There Paul says
“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. So there can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, there can be no male and female. For you all are one man in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.”
With this declaration Paul was not asserting a political concept, but a very prejudicial theology, where only those who “have been baptized into Christ” are equals (for only they are, as he says, “united in Christ”). And not only that, but they are equals only in the sense that they all share the same “promise” in the afterlife, not in the sense that they share the same legal rights.
The New Testament in fact denies equal rights: Paul himself is made to say (in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35) that women, even baptized Christian women, do not have rights equal to men, and again (in 1 Timothy 2:11-15) he is made to be even more explicit (quote):
Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided she continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
Though these remarks are likely forgeries, they are in the Christian canon all the same, and remained Christian doctrine for nearly two thousand years.
Not only do we see here a denial of equal rights, but we see here scriptural reasoning, rather than reasoning from natural facts. This is therefore the very kind of reasoning that Adams explicitly condemns: basing anything on scriptures or interviews with gods. Adams says the Constitution was written by men who repudiated that kind of reasoning, and used instead human reason in light of empirical evidence. And Adams praises this as the very feature that makes America unique and great. Not Christianity. But human reason and empiricism, absent any divine inspiration.
Likewise, of course, slavery is uniformly supported even in Paul’s letter to Philemon, and everywhere else in the New Testament. Neither Paul nor Jesus, and certainly not Moses, ever condemned slavery or asked that all slaves be freed. But of course, even the Constitution failed to do that. So perhaps there is indeed one explicit Christian principle enshrined in the American Constitution: the endorsement and perpetuation of human slavery.
Although I doubt Christians want to draw attention to that fact. And in any case, the pagans legalized slavery, too. So Christians can only escape being blamed for American slavery by admitting the Constitution was based on pagan, and not Christian principles after all.
But with the bad also goes the good. That all peoples, of all faiths, ought to share the same legal rights is a pagan concept, not a Christian one. Like our Founding Fathers, the pagans never fully realized this ideal in practice, but many pagans advocated it. Musonius Rufus, for example, living a generation after Jesus, declared that men should stop relying on the labor of slaves and work for their own keep. A radical notion then, as it was still in 1776.
Rufus also said women were as capable and as intelligent as men and should receive the same educations, just one step away from admitting they should be allowed to vote. Something our Founding Fathers also failed to allow. So again, the Constitution’s banning women from the vote could be another example of a Christian principle, in this case of not allowing women to “have any authority over a man,” as the Christian bible proclaims; or else it is just another holdover from universal prejudices about the nature of women, which were not based on religious dogma but erroneous reasoning from observed or imagined evidence. So again, the Christian can only escape blame for denying women the vote for 144 years if they admit the Constitution was not based on Christian principles.
But then we also have to admit that centuries before Christ, the Stoic philosopher Zeno originated the idea that “we should regard all people as our fellow-citizens and neighbors, and there should be one way of life and order, like that of a herd grazing together and nurtured by a common law” (as quoted in Plutarch’s essay On the Fortune of Alexander [329a-b]). The Stoics based this on the pagan idea (which they claimed to adduce from the evidence of reason and the natural world) that we are all created by God and thereby share equally in his nature (sound familiar? … remember that quote a while back from the Declaration of Independence?).
Half a century before Christ, Cicero imported these ideas into Roman legal theory, in his treatise on the ideal Republic (book 3, section 33), arguing that:
There is in fact a true law, from right reason, which is in accordance with nature, applies to all people, and is unchangeable and eternal. By its commands this law summons men to the performance of their duties; by its prohibitions it restrains them from doing wrong. … To invalidate this law by human legislation is never morally right nor is it permissible ever to restrict its operation, and to annul it wholly is impossible. … For there will be one law, eternal and unchangeable, binding at all times and upon all people. And there will be, as it were, one common master and ruler of men, that is God, who is the author of this law, its interpreter and its sponsor.
By which Cicero means through God’s governance of the natural universe—and not through any church mechanism employing men acting as God’s representatives (or through promises of heavens and hells, either). At the same time, John Locke’s idea of rights and government as a social contract derives from another pagan, Epicurus (you can see what Epicurus says about this in his Key Doctrines, parts 31 to 37, and by quotation in Prophyry’s treatise On Abstinence, book 1, section 7). Again, Locke did not find this anywhere in the Bible, and certainly not in the words of Moses, Jesus or Paul. He got it from pagans.
So with that in mind, I quote one of our Founding Fathers whom Christians would prefer we forget:
Those men, whom Jewish and Christian idolaters have abusively called heathen, had much better and clearer ideas of justice and morality than are to be found in the Old Testament (so far as it is Jewish), or in the New. The answer of Solon [the Athenian] on the question, “Which is the most perfect popular government?” has never been exceeded by any man since his time, as containing a maxim of political morality. “That,” says he, “where the least injury done to the meanest individual is considered as an insult on the whole constitution.” Solon lived above 500 years before Christ.
Those are the words of Thomas Paine (in volume 2 of The Age of Reason), the political activist who authored The Rights of Man, and The American Crisis, thus playing a crucial role in rallying Americans to the Revolution and keeping up morale and unity during the war. Paine knew where our constitutional ideals came from, just as he later declared in The Rights of Man.
There he wrote: “What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude.”
What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude. Not what ancient Israel was in miniature. Athens. [nor what the first Christian church was in miniature, which incidentally was explicitly Marxist: Acts 4:32-36; they even killed people who did not comply with their Marxist dictates, just like Stalin: Acts 5:1-11].
In other words, the Constitution was inspired by Solon, not Moses—nor Jesus.
Solon’s constitution for Athens was credited by Adams and Paine and many other Founding Fathers as what most inspired the American Constitution, with the equally pagan constitution of the Roman Republic a close second.
Solon gave us elections, and trials by a jury of our peers, two concepts never found in the Bible, Old Testament or New. Then it was from this and the Roman system of government that the Founding Fathers learned and enshrined the principle of a division of powers and the concept of checks and balances, including such ideas as the presidential veto. You won’t find any of that in the Bible.
But more conspicuous as inspiration is that neither the Roman nor the Athenian constitutions declared themselves as having come from a divine author or inspiration, unlike the laws of Moses and Jesus. They also did not prohibit religious freedom, nor require anyone adhere to any religious doctrine. They were, in other words, the original secular constitutions.
They were not wholly secular, though, in that they did not explicitly prohibit the establishment of religious laws or tests for office. And yet, our Constitution does explicitly prohibit the establishment of religious laws or tests for office. Which means the Founding Fathers made our Constitution even more secular than these pagan constitutions. Which sets our Constitution even further away from having any plausible basis in biblical religion.
Thus, while those pagan constitutions could permit outlawing the teaching atheism, even enact the death penalty for it, as happened to Socrates, our Constitution forbids that. This is exactly contrary to the legal principles credited to Moses.
Deuteronomy 12 states, when speaking of the laws handed to Moses by God, which included the Ten Commandments (quote):
These are the statutes and the judgments which you shall carefully observe in the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess as long as you live on the earth. … Be careful to listen to all these words which I command you, so that it may go well with you and your sons after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God. … Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it. …
“If your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul, entice you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’ (whom neither you nor your fathers have known, of the gods of the peoples who are around you, near you or far from you, from one end of the earth to the other end), you shall not yield to him or listen to him; and your eye shall not pity him, nor shall you spare or conceal him. But you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. So you shall stone him to death because he has sought to seduce you from the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt…
Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such a wicked thing among you. If you hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you to live in, anyone saying that some worthless men have gone out from among you and have seduced the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’ (whom you have not known), then you shall investigate and search out and inquire thoroughly. If it is true and the matter established that this abomination has been done among you, you shall surely strike the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying it and all that is in it and its cattle [!] with the edge of the sword. Then you shall gather all its booty into the middle of its open square and burn the city and all its booty with fire as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God; and it shall be a ruin forever. It shall never be rebuilt.
Just read passages like this, and let it never be said again that our Constitution was based on the Bible.
Remember, what I just read is simply an enactment of the first and second of the Ten Commandments, that it shall be illegal to have or worship other gods or their idols. What does “illegal” mean? That you shall be brutally executed by the state for it.
How can anyone think this is the basis of our constitution?
The Bible also condemns not just freedom of religion, but freedom of speech. In Leviticus 24 we read that:
The son of [an] Israelite woman blasphemed the Name [of God] and cursed. So they brought him to Moses. … They put him in custody so that the command of the Lord might be made clear to them. Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Bring the one who has cursed outside the camp, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head; then let all the congregation stone him. [Then] you shall speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘If anyone curses his God, then he will bear his sin. Moreover, the one who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him. The alien as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.’.
So much for the first amendment. And yet this just enacts the third of the Ten Commandments, that it shall be illegal to use the Lord’s name in vain, in other words, illegal to speak blasphemy. What does “illegal” mean? That you shall be brutally executed by the state for it.
Again, how can anyone think this is the basis of our constitution?
Yet I keep hearing the chant, variously phrased, that “the Ten Commandments are the foundation of Western morality and the American Constitution and government.” In saying this, people are essentially crediting Moses with the invention of ethics, democracy and civil rights, a claim that is of course absurd. But its absurdity is eclipsed by its injustice, for as we just saw, Solon of Athens is the lawmaker who is far more important to us, whose ideas and actions lie far more at the foundation of American government, and, as it happens, whose own Ten Commandments (he would sooner have called them “guidelines”) were distributed at large and influencing the greatest civilizations of the West—Greece and Rome—for well over half a millennium before the laws of Moses were anything near a universal social influence.
In fact, by the time the Ten Commandments of Moses had any real chance of being the foundation of anything in Western society, democracy and civil rights had all but died out, never to rise again until the ideals of our true hero, the real man to whom we owe all reverence, were rediscovered and implemented in what we now call “modern democratic principles.”
Again, that man is Solon the Athenian. Real or legendary, Solon is said to have been born around 638 B.C. and lived until the year 558. But the date in his life of greatest importance to us is the year he was elected to draft a constitution for Athens, said to have occurred in 594 B.C.
How important is this man? Let’s examine what we owe to him, in comparison with the legendary author of the so-called Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments.
Solon is the founder of Western democracy and the first man in history to articulate ideas of equal rights for all citizens, and though he did not go nearly as far in that direction as we have come today, Moses can claim no connection to either.
Solon was the first man in Western history to publicly record an actual civil constitution in writing. No one in Hebrew history did anything of the kind, least of all Moses. The very idea of a constitutional government derives from Solon.
Solon advocated not only the right but even the duty of every citizen to bear arms in the defense of the state—to him we owe the 2nd Amendment. Nothing about that is to be found in the Ten Commandments of Moses.
Solon set up laws defending the principles and importance of private property, state encouragement of economic trades and crafts, and a strong middle class—the ideals which lie at the heart of American prosperity (and are codified in the Constitution itself: just read Article 1, section 8, and the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Amendments). Yet these, again, cannot be credited at all to Moses.
Solon is the first man in history to eliminate birth-right as a basis for government office, and to create democratic assemblies open to all male citizens, such that no law could be passed without the majority vote of all. The notion of letting women into full political rights would not arise in any culture until that of modern Europe, but even just democracy never gets a single word in the Bible. To the contrary, under Moses and his successors, all supreme offices in church and government were hereditary (or appointed by the inheritors), and instituted by God, not the People.
Solon invented the right of appeal, and trial by jury, whereby an assembly of citizens chosen at random, without regard for office or wealth or birth, gave all legal verdicts. Moses can claim nothing as fundamental as these developments, which are essential to modern society.
Solon invented the separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, whereas Moses had them all united under a single aristocratic council (just read the book of Numbers, 11:16-17 and 27:15-23), yet even they were ruled by fiat from a god-appointed sovereign (Moses, then Joshua, later the Judges, and then Kings like David and his son Solomon).
The concept of taking a government official to court for malfeasance we also owe to Solon. We read nothing of the kind about Moses.
The idea of allowing foreigners who have mastered a useful trade to immigrate and become citizens is also an original invention of Solon—indeed, the modern concept of citizenship itself is largely indebted to him. There is nothing like this in the Bible.
And like our own George Washington, Solon declined the offer to become a king in his country, giving it a Constitution instead—unlike Moses who, in his own legend, gave laws yet continued to reign.
Solon’s selfless creation of the Athenian constitution set the course which led to the rise of the first universal democracy in the United States, and as we saw from the remarks of Adams and Paine, it was to Solon’s Athens, not the Bible, that our Founding Fathers looked for guidance in constructing a new State. Moses can claim no responsibility for this.
If we had Solon and no Moses, we would very likely still be where we are today. But if we had Moses and no Solon, democracy might never have existed at all.
So much for being the impetus behind our Constitution. The Ten Commandments of Moses have no connection with that, while the Constitution of Solon has everything to do with it.
Whether these men were fictional or historical doesn’t matter to that conclusion. Someone created the institutions credited to them, someone weaved these tales to communicate the values their stories embody, so their names still stand as symbols of two differing realities. Only one of them actually lies at the foundation of our Constitution. And he’s not in the Bible.
Let me close by examining two different lists of Ten Commandments, one offered by each of these men, and comparing their worth and significance to Western society. Of course, neither man’s list was unique to him—Moses was merely borrowing ideas that had already been chiseled in stone centuries before by Hammurabi, King of Babylon (and unlike the supposed tablets of Moses, the Stone of Hammurabi still exists and is on display in the Louvre). This point is already established in chapters 5, 6, and 8 of The Christian Delusion, so if you are interested about learning more, check that out.
Pretty much the only novelties Moses added to the ideas in Hammurabi’s code, in fact, were restrictions of religious liberty, exactly the opposite of both the American Constitution and American social morés.
In the same way, Solon’s Ten Ethical Rules were a reflection and refinement of wisdom that was already ancient in his day. And in both cases the association of these men with their moral precepts is as likely legend as fact. But the existence and reverence for their sayings in their respective cultures was still real—which means we can still validly ask:
- Which list of Ten Commandments lies more at the heart of modern Western moral ideals?
- Which contains concepts that are more responsible for our current social success and humanity?
- And which is more profound and more fitting for a free society?
The Ten Commandments of Moses (which you’ll find twice, in Deuteronomy 5:6-21 and Exodus 20:3-16) run as follows. And note that I am even going out of my way to leave out the blatantly religious language that surrounds them in the original text, as well as the tacit approval of slavery present in the fourth commandment, none of which is even remotely suitable for political endorsement by a free republic. Yet, even with all that expunged, the Ten Commandments of Moses reduce to this:
- Have no other gods before me (the God of the Jews).
- Make no images of anything in heaven, earth or sea, nor bow to them.
- Do not vainly use the name of your God (the God of the Jews).
- Do no work on the seventh day of the week.
- Honor your parents.
- Do not kill.
- Do not commit adultery.
- Do not steal.
- Do not give false testimony against another.
- Do not desire another’s wife or anything that belongs to another.
Now, we can see at once that our society is entirely opposed to the first four of these, as well as the last of them. Think about the fourth commandment: as a capitalist society, we scoff at the idea of closing our shops on a choice market day. And the tenth commandment is as unamerican as it gets: our very goal in life is to desire—desiring is what drives us toward success and prosperity. The phrase “pursuing the American Dream,” which lies at the heart of our social world, has at its heart the very idea of coveting the success of our peers, goading us to match it with our own industry. We owe all our monumental national success to this.
And then there are those first three commandments. Our ideals of religious liberty and free speech, essential to any truly civil society, compel us to abhor them. The Constitution of the United States in fact abolishes these Commandments, by the 1st Amendment alone. Article 6(c) also effectively repudiates the first four, while the Constitution’s Preamble contradicts the fourth and tenth, in its pursuit of liberty and happiness. Thus, already half of Moses’ doctrines cannot be the foundation of our modern society—to the contrary, they are anathema to modern ideals, and were effectively opposed and repealed by the American Constitution.
So that leaves just five commandments. Murder, theft and perjury have been outlawed by all societies and thus are not peculiar to the Bible. No society could function that did not constrain them to some extent. Whereas by contrast, shunning adultery has never contributed to the rise of civil rights and democratic principles (despite much trying, there is no Adultery Amendment and neither is it against the law in most of this country). It is often regarded as immoral—but then it always has been, by nearly all societies, before and since the time of Moses, for the simple reason that it, like lying, theft, and murder, can harm others, and thus these commandments are as redundant as they are unprofound. There is nothing peculiarly Christian about them. Or Jewish.
Finally, we are left with only one commandment, to honor our parents. This of course has been a basic principle of nearly every society ever since such things as ‘societies’ existed. Yet the greatest advances in civil rights and civic moral consciousness in human history occurred precisely as the result not of obeying, but disobeying this very commandment: the social revolutions of the sixties, still abhorred by conservatives, yet spearheaded by rebellious teenagers and young adults, nevertheless secured the moral rights of women and minorities—something unprecedented in human history, and nowhere advocated by Moses. And by opposing the Vietnam war our children displayed for the first time a massive popular movement in defense of the very pacifism which Christians boast of having introduced into the world, yet are usually the last to actually stand up for. [And they didn’t invent pacifism anyway; Musonius Rufus, again, was already an ardent advocate of it, and actively preached against all war and violence.]
It can even be said that our entire moral ethos is one of thinking for ourselves, of rebellion and moral autonomy, of daring to stand up against even our elders when our conscience compels it. Thus, it would seem that even the fifth commandment does not lie at the heart of our modern society—it is largely an anachronism, lacking the essential nuances that a more profound ethic promotes. As a result, we have no laws against dishonoring our parents; and in fact no mention of parental privilege is to be found anywhere in the Constitution. [To the contrary, the Constitution even repeals the Ten Commandments’ corruption of blood clause: compare Article 3, Section 3 with Exodus 20:5 … so much for the Constitution being based on the Ten Commandments.]
Only two of the Ten Commandments are realized anywhere in the American Constitution. The nearest you’ll find is the declaration in the 5th Amendment that no one shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” which in effect agrees with the sixth and eighth commandments, against murder and theft. But like I already said, laws against murder and theft long predate The Ten Commandments, exist in all religions and societies (including Solon’s Athens), and are too obviously necessary for any functional society to have required divine inspiration. So those do not in any sense ‘derive’ from the Ten Commandments of Moses.
Which means the Constitution, and American society in general, are not rooted in the Ten Commandments of Moses.
Let us now turn to the Ten Commandments of Solon (which you’ll find listed in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, book 1, section 60). These were the ten ethical principles pronounced by Solon, not as laws, but as morals, a distinction that does not exist in the Old Testament, so once again that we distinguish public law from personal morality today is another example of how un-Biblical our constitutional society is.
The so-called Ten Commandments of Solon are:
- Trust good character more than promises.
- Do not speak falsely.
- Do good things.
- Do not be hasty in making friends, but do not abandon them once made.
- Learn to obey before you command.
- When giving advice, do not recommend the most pleasing, but the most useful.
- Make reason your supreme commander.
- Do not associate with people who do bad things.
- Honor the gods.
- Have regard for your parents.
Unlike the Commandments of Moses, when suitably interpreted, none of these is outdated or antithetical to modern moral or political thought. Every one could be taken up by anyone today, of any creed, to some extent (you might have cringed at only one of them, which I’ll get to in a moment).
Indeed, there is something much more profound in these commandments. They are far more useful as precepts for living one’s life.
Can society, can government, prevail and prosper if we fail to uphold the First Commandment of Moses? By our own written declaration of religious liberty for all, we have staked our entire national destiny on the belief that we not only can get by without the first commandment of Moses, but that we ought to abolish it entirely. And history bears that out.
Yet what if we were to fail to uphold Solon’s first commandment? (To trust good character more than promises.) If we ignored that, the danger to society would be clear. Indeed, doesn’t this commandment speak to the heart of what makes or breaks a democratic society? Isn’t it truly fundamental that we not trust the mere promises of politicians and flatterers, but elect our leaders and choose our friends instead by taking the trouble to evaluate the quality of their character? This can be said to be an ideal that is fundamental to modern moral and political thought.
Of course, two of the commandments of Solon are similar to those of Moses: do not speak falsely, and have regard for your parents. Yet Solon does not restrict his first injunction to false accusations or testimony against others, as Moses does. Solon’s commandment is more universal and thus more fundamental, and is properly qualified by the other commandments in just the way we believe is appropriate—for Solon’s rules allow one to lie if doing so is a good deed. Since his third commandment simply says “do good things.” By comparison, no commandment to do good appears in the Ten Commandments of Moses. Think about that.
Likewise, whereas Moses calls us to honor our parents (the word in the Hebrew means “to honor, to glorify”), Solon’s choice of words is more appropriate—he only asks us to treat our parents in a respectful way (the Greek means “to show a sense of regard for, to have compassion upon”), which we can do even if we disobey or oppose them, and even if we disapprove of their character and thus have no grounds to actually “honor” or “glorify” them.
Similarly, instead of simply commanding us to follow rules, Solon’s commandments involve significant social and political advice: temper our readiness to rebel and to do our own thing, by learning first how to follow others. Take care when making friends, and stick by them. Be reasonable. Try to give good advice—don’t just say what people want to hear. Shun the company of bad people.
This advice is just the sort of thing we need in order to be successful and secure—as individuals, as communities, and even as a nation. The notion of exactly what is “good” or “bad” does require thought and reflection. But that’s as it should be. Even with that, the ideals represented by Solon’s commandments clearly do rest at the foundation of modern American morality and society, and would be far more useful for school children to learn, whose greatest dangers are peer pressure, rashness, and naiveté, the very sins Solon’s commandments denounce.
There is only one of them that might give a secularist pause: Solon’s commandment to honor the gods (in the Greek, the word means “to honor, to revere, to pay due regard”). Yet when we compare it to the analogous First Four Commandments of Moses, we see how much more Solon’s single religious commandment can be made to suit our society and our civic ideals: it does not restrict religious freedom, for it does not demand that we believe in anyone’s god or follow anyone’s religious rules, and it does not outlaw other religions than ours. It remains in the appropriate plural.
Solon asks us to give the plethora of gods the regard they are due, and we can honestly now say that some gods are not due much—such as the racist gods and the murderous gods of hellfire. One might at least argue it is good to be respectful of the deserving gods of others, which we can do even if we are criticizing them, even if we disbelieve in them, so long as those gods are respectable. This would remain true to our most prized American ethic of religious liberty and civility, which we enact in the way we respect the rules of a church, mosque or synagogue when we are a guest in them, and in the way we don’t aim to force anyone to stop paying cult and homage to their deities as they see fit [as long as public safety and human rights are not infringed].
Indeed, in perfect line with that fact, Solon’s commandment forces us to admit that there are many gods, not one—the many that people invent and hope for. People whose freedom to worship we protect rather than condemn. Exactly the opposite of the Ten Commandments of Moses.
It is clear then, that if anyone’s commandments ought to be posted on school and courthouse walls, it should be Solon’s. He has more right as the founder of our civic ideals, and as a more profound and almost modern moral thinker.
Solon already has more to do with the creation of courts and juries and the separation of powers that all define our courthouses today. But his moral commandments are also more befitting our civil society, more representative of what we really believe, and what we cherish in our laws and economy. And, in the end, they are essentially secular.
Is it an accident that when Solon’s ideals reigned, there grew democracies and civil rights, and ideals we now consider fundamental to modern Western society, yet when the ideals of Moses replaced them, we had a thousand years of oppression, darkness, and tyranny?
Is it coincidence that when the ideals of Moses were replaced with those of Solon, when men decided to fight and die not for the Ten Commandments of Moses but for the resurrection of Athenian civil society, we ended up with the great Democratic Revolutions, the American Constitution, and the social and legal structures that we now take for granted as the height and glory of human achievement and goodness?
I think we owe our thanks to Solon. Moses did nothing for us—his laws were neither original nor significant in comparison. They even stand against our Constitution and its ideals. When people cry for the hanging of the Ten Commandments of Moses on school and court walls, I am astonished. Solon’s Ten Commandments have far more right to hang in those places than those of Moses. The great Athenian’s Commandments are far more noble and profound, and far more appropriate to a free society. Who would have guessed this of a pagan?
Well, maybe everyone of sense.
Additional Sources and Further Reading:
- Carl Richard, The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment (1995)
- Gregory Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church (2005)
- Allen Jayne, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy and Theology (1998)
- Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (2003)
- Michael Zuckert, The Natural Rights Republic: Studies in the Foundation of the American Political Tradition (1999)
- Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1992)
- Heinrich Rommen, The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy (1936)
- Farrell Till, “The Christian Nation Myth” (1999)
- Secular Web, “James Madison on Separation of Church and State”
- David Wright, Inventing God’s Law: How the Covenant Code of the Bible Used and Revised the Laws of Hammurabi (2009)
- Richard Carrier, “On Musonius Rufus” (1999)
- Richard Carrier, “Reply to McFall on Jesus as a Philosopher” [subsection “What about Women?”] (2004)
- Richad Carrier, “The Will of God: 24 Evil Old Testament Verses” (2010)
- John Loftus, ed., The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (2010; chapters 5, 6, 8, 13, and 15)