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Oct 04 2011

Hitchens on Ben Franklin

I’m reading Christopher Hitchens’ new essay collection on my Kindle and the first essay is about religion and the founding fathers. He says of Ben Franklin:

Of Franklin, it seems almost certainly right to say that he was an atheist (Jerry Weinberger’s 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.


As much as I admire Hitchens as a thinker and a writer, he is flat wrong here. Franklin was a religious dissenter, to be sure, but calling him an atheist is simply absurd given his own statements. Most obviously, his 1790 letter to Ezra Stiles, written literally a few weeks before he died, in which he gave his beliefs in great detail:

Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho’ it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. I see no harm however in its being believed, if that Belief has the good Consequence as probably it has, of making his Doctrines more respected and better observed, especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the Believers, in his Government of the World, with any particular Marks of his Displeasure. I shall only add respecting myself, that having experienced the Goodness of that Being, in conducting me prosperously thro’ a long Life, I have no doubt of its Continuance in the next, tho’ without the smallest Conceit of meriting such Goodness.

You cannot possibly make him into an atheist. Had he lived in modern times, I have no doubt he likely would be an atheist. But he didn’t. And he wasn’t. And it is as absurd and dishonest for us to try to force him to wear the labels we’d like him to wear as it is for the David Bartons of the world to portray him and the other leading founders as fundamentalist Christians.

Unfortunately, he did much the same thing to Jefferson several years ago, though he was less adamant about that, saying that it “can’t be proved” that Jefferson was an atheist but it can be “argued.” No, it can’t. Jefferson believed quite firmly in a provident, interventionist god — not the Christian god, of course — and he even argued against Calvinism on the grounds that it would lead people to atheism, which he regarded as a very bad thing.

If we are going to criticize the Christian Nation apologists for this kind of thing, we must — absolutely must — avoid engaging in the same kind of sophistries.

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  1. 1
    jamessweet

    I agree, though I don’t think it’s quite as egregious to call the Founding Fathers “atheists” as it is to say they intended this to be some sort of Christian theocracy. Certainly many (not all, perhaps not even most, but many) of the FFs were distinctly irreligious by the standards of the time.

    But yeah, to call any of them atheists is a distortion, and an unhelpful one. Totally agree.

  2. 2
    Ellie

    Absolutely right. Neither side should be making stuff up. The truth may not be as comfortable, but it’s still the truth.

  3. 3
    386sx

    I had thought for a while Franklin and Jefferson were atheists too. Then I went and looked at their writings. It didn’t take long to see that they weren’t. It took a while to sink in though. Ah yes, denial. What a wonderful thing. Lol.

  4. 4
    ManOutOfTime

    If people really want to honor Jefferson and Franklin – and Paine and Washington and Adams – we should consider focusing not on what they “believed” – since this is in the end speculative whatever they may have professed – but on how they believed society and government should be ordered. My sense from their writings was that’s what they cared about, and it was their and their peers’ unique genius that envisioned a world where diversity class, creed, and belief would be tolerated and not on their own dispositive; civility, service, character, mercy, and other civic virtues woul be rewarded and allowed to flourish. I think Jefferson would puke if he knew 21st Century Americans spent more energy reading tea leaves to unearth his religious beliefs than we spend on living up to his civic ideals.

  5. 5
    Bronze Dog

    More agreement here. For some historical figures, there’s enough ambiguity to speculate if they might have been secretly atheist, but this doesn’t look like one of those cases.

  6. 6
    ManOutOfTime

    Much more interesting were Franklin’s letters to Ye Penthouse Forume. My favorite begins: “My Dear Forume: Never had I Believed that the Letters to thy Magazine were True, but listen Ye to This …”

  7. 7
    slc1

    It should be noted that the letter referred to here by Mr. Brayton was written in 1790 when Franklin was a very old man. However, one’s views can change over time and it would be wise not to infer from a letter that Franklin wrote in his dotage that it represents his views earlier in his life.

    A perfect example is the late Martin Gardner, who, for most of his life was, at the least an agnostic. It was only later that he reverted to a religious belief, albeit not a Christian one. One only need read what he said about Robert Hutchens and Mortimer Adler in, “Fads and Fallacies in Science,” and compare it with what he said about them 40 years later.

  8. 8
    anandine

    As Dawkins wrote in The Blind Watchmaker, until Darwin gave a plausible mechanism for evolution, the best explanation for the complexity of living things was God. After Darwin, that hypothesis was no longer necessary.

  9. 9
    Aliasalpha

    Franklin was one of those people who liked to put capitals at the start of random words?

  10. 10
    dingojack

    ManOutofTime – And don’t forget the note Franklin left for his milkman:
    Thursday, June 3rd, 1790.
    Two of ye pintes of milk, one of ye pints yogurt and one of ye smalle cheezes. – Ben Franklyn
    .
    PS: I’m really an raving atheist, in case one of those assholes Barton or Hitchens asks you, OK?.“*
    :) Dingo
    —–
    * Or at least that’s what Washington imagined it could have possiblely said, and that’s exactly the same as a direct quote, dontchaknow! ;)

  11. 11
    386sx

    Franklin was one of those people who liked to put capitals at the start of random words?

    Yes he was. And he often went into caps locks mode. And had a funny way of spelling too!

  12. 12
    Tim DeLaney

    To wander a bit OT:

    Regardless of the innermost beliefs of the founding fathers, it is absolutely crucial to the nation they founded that they agreed that government should not sponsor religion. This principle was a radical departure from the European thinking of that era.

    Then they made another crucial decision–to codify this principle in the Bill of Rights. The first 21 words of the First Amendment are so far reaching in their import that it is no exaggeration to say that we owe a major portion of our liberty to those 21 words (and of course to the idea of an independent judiciary).

    So, I pay special attention to every post entitled “Another Reason to Love the First Amendment”.

  13. 13
    Ed Brayton

    slc wrote:

    It should be noted that the letter referred to here by Mr. Brayton was written in 1790 when Franklin was a very old man. However, one’s views can change over time and it would be wise not to infer from a letter that Franklin wrote in his dotage that it represents his views earlier in his life.

    This is generally true, but in this case there is nothing in that late statement that is inconsistent with what he had said for decades, both publicly and in private letters.

  14. 14
    michaelfisher

    Comments from Feb ’07 HERE when you last covered this exact topic. An interesting comparison with now.

  15. 15
    Thomas Lawson

    Ben Franklin was an infidel, plain and simple. We’d call him an atheist today, but back then he was merely an infidel. No faith. He had no faith in the divinity of Jesus. Had he given it his time he may have doubted his actual existence. But Franklin was merely pandering. It was this pandering and this assumption that religion was “harmless” that has brought us to where we are.

    How could men that lived just a few decades from the Salem Witch Trials, and while the Catholic Inquisitions were going on, believe that such beliefs were “harmless?” Still today, with the toppling of the WTC towers, we have people that are blind to the power of superstition. And the pandering continues.

    His faith can be found in his actions. No church attendance, no prayers. In his day he would have been known as an infidel, which is why he had to write letters like the above. And he had to reassure others that he had not joined at the right hand of Diabolus. Franklin was neither Christian nor Atheist, but an in-between. A Christian/Atheist hybrid, much like the majority of America today.

  16. 16
    John Hinkle

    @ManOutOfTime:

    Much more interesting were Franklin’s letters to Ye Penthouse Forume. My favorite begins: “My Dear Forume: Never had I Believed that the Letters to thy Magazine were True, but listen Ye to This …”

    From reading about his many years in France, you may not be far off on this. John Adams was not approving of Franklin’s cavorting with lady courtiers, what with them fondly touching him and, IIRC, sitting on his lap on occasion.

  17. 17
    Ed Brayton

    Thomas Lawson wrote:

    Ben Franklin was an infidel, plain and simple. We’d call him an atheist today, but back then he was merely an infidel. No faith. He had no faith in the divinity of Jesus. Had he given it his time he may have doubted his actual existence. But Franklin was merely pandering.

    Sorry, but this is nonsense. He would certainly be considered an infidel by many Christians, that is true. But that doesn’t make him an atheist, not by a longshot. Nor does not believing in the divinity of Jesus make one an atheist. And since Franklin wrote about his belief in God in innumerable private letters to trusted friends, the notion that he was pandering is simply unsupportable.

    Franklin was neither Christian nor Atheist, but an in-between. A Christian/Atheist hybrid, much like the majority of America today.

    The first sentence is true; the second is gibberish. If you believe in God, you’re not an atheist. And Franklin believed in God. He even believed in a provident, personal, interventionist God. Just not the Christian. That does indeed put somewhere between Christianity and atheism, which makes it all the more baffling that you claim above that we should consider him an atheist.

  18. 18
    Assassin Actual

    Just finished Hitchen’s book (Got to love the Kindle).

    Now I have to reread a ton of autobiographic works! Also his stuff on the middle east was well informed. Got to love the Kurds.

  19. 19
    lpetrich

    Ben Franklin tells us “That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children.”

    Thomas Paine expressed a similar belief, and I would not be surprised if Thomas Jefferson had agreed.

    The interesting thing here is that many fundies dislike “works-based religions” that teach that it is very important to do good works. They’d read that and shout “Oh noes! Works-based religion!!!”

  1. 20
    Ytldb;bvjcnm

    Ytldb;bvjcnm…

    [...]Hitchens on Ben Franklin | Dispatches from the Culture Wars[...]…

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