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Nov 01 2011

Atheist Group Uses Fake Quote on Billboard

Color me irritated. Having spent a great deal of time debunking all the fake quotes from the founding fathers used by Christian Nation apologists, I find it highly annoying to find an atheist group doing the very same thing in a billboard. The Huffington Post reports:

A billboard in Costa Mesa, Calif., is getting some attention, but it’s certainly not the kind its sponsors were hoping for.

The sign, paid for by atheist group Backyard Skeptics, includes a quote about Christianity attributed to Thomas Jefferson. But further research reveals there’s no solid evidence that Jefferson ever uttered or wrote the words, the Orange County Register first reported.

The billboard includes a picture of Jefferson with the quote: “I do not find in Christianity one redeeming feature. It is founded on fables and mythology.”

Experts at the Jefferson Library Collection at Monticello are constantly asked about the quote, theOrange County Register reports. Some say the former president wrote the words in a letter to a Dr. Wood, but officials cannot find trace of any correspondence to a person by that name.

Bruce Gleason, a member of the group, told the Orange County Register that he should have done a bit more research before putting the words on the sign. The billboard was unveiled on Wednesday, the newspaper reports. Gleason explained that purpose of this sign and others around the city was to “expunge the myth that this is a Christian nation,” as well as to “share the idea that you can be good and do good without a religion or god.”

At least he owned up to it rather than doing what David Barton and Ellis Washington have done when caught passing on fake quotes, claim that they at least thought it even if they didn’t say it. But this kind of thing really has to stop. If we are going to criticize the other side for doing this, we must avoid doing it ourselves.

And yes, there really are atheists who behave exactly the same way Barton does, and worse. On Facebook about a year ago, a guy named John Stone posted a quote from John Adams saying, “This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it.” I left a comment informing him that, in context, Adams was actually saying the exact opposite:

Oi. No, that is a highly inaccurate quote, completely out of context. It’s as dishonest an out of context quote as the ones the religious right uses all the time from the founding fathers. He actually says exactly the opposite if you include the next sentence. This is from an 1817 letter to Jefferson. This is the full quote:

“Twenty times, in the course of my late Reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it.! But in this exclamation I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without Religion this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell.”

And he let loose with a torrent of childish abuse that missed the point entirely:

@Ed Brayton the meaning of the quote doesn’t change, what you have provided shows that it affords the opportunity to introduce the concept of xian hell. Contrary to your assertion, that portion is NOT dishonest at all. It is Adam’s words …and does NOT say the opposite. You have not read what it actually says.
BTW Ed, you have confirmed the quote was accurate. Thanks and I appreciate the additional quote. Adams is saying, without xianity there is no hell — something not to discuss — at that time in history — in polite company.

Ed, the meaning of the quote doesn’t change, what you have provided shows that it affords the opportunity to introduce the concept of xian hell.

@Ed Brayton, Let me put Adams in more context:

“The question before the human race is, whether the God of nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles?” ~John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, June 20, 1815

‎@Ed Brayton, Let me put Adams in more context:

“The frightful engines of ecclesiastical councils, of diabolical malice, and Calvinistical good-nature never failed to terrify me exceedingly whenever I thought of preaching.” ~John Adams, letter to his brother-in-law, Richard Cranch, October 18, 1756, explaining why he rejected the ministry

@Ed Brayton, Let me put Adams in more context:

“God is an essence that we know nothing of. Until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world.” ~John Adams, “this awful blashpemy” that he refers to is the myth of the Incarnation of Christ, from Ira D Cardiff, What Great Men Think of Religion, quoted from James A Haught, ed, 2000 Years of Disbelief

@Ed Brayton, so Ed, now you know what Adams meant! It is not what you wanted, but — as you said — the opposite.

Don’t fuck with me Ed. You are not smart enough!

This is absolutely the last thing we need in the skeptical community. Accuracy matters.

27 comments

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  1. 1
    ManOutOfTime

    Does he play poker? Coming into a game thinking you’re not that smart could be an advantage.

  2. 2
    lofgren

    This isn’t about “sides,” it’s about honesty. Even if everybody and their mother’s dog did it, it would still be wrong.

    Also argument by quote is almost always stupid even when everybody agrees the quote is accurate.

  3. 3
    Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    Here’s a legitimate Jefferson quotation (from a letter to his nephew), and one of my favorites:

    Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.

    I’d love to see that on a billboard.

  4. 4
    Bronze Dog

    I generally make it a point to look up the origin of a founding father’s quote before I post it. By that, I mean I look for an associated article, letter, or whatever documented event it originally took place at. If I were putting up a billboard or some similar commitment, I’d double-check and try to look for legitimate disputes.

  5. 5
    scienceavenger

    …there really are atheists who behave exactly the same way Barton does

    Yes, but so what? In any large group a few examples can be found of just about anything. What matters is how the bulk of the group treats these people, as pariahs (the atheists) or sages (the Bible thumpers). John Stone has 1/1,000,000th the support Barton does.

    This is the same false equivalence used by GOP defenders who respond to examples of Palin’s/Cain’s/Gingrich’s ignorance and stupidity by pointing at some treehugging homeopath moron no one ever heard of and saying “see, liberals say stupid things too”. Yes, yes they do, but we make fun of them and criticize them. We don’t nominate them for (vice) president.

    I’m totally with you Ed on demanding nonbelievers hold themselves to a higher standard than the Christians, but they already do, as Mr. Gleason’s reaction to the correction attests. The way you are presenting the issue sends an inaccurate image. IOW, rounded to the nearest whole number percentiile, there are 0% atheists that act exactly like Barton.

  6. 6
    Area Man

    Putting aside the fact that it’s fake, did they have to use a quote that’s so hostile?

    I think the aggressive, in-your-face style of the gnu atheists has some advantages, but it’s mostly useful for people who are on the fence, or who want to actively argue about religion. Passers-by minding their own business are unlikely to think you’re anything but an asshole when you start insulting religion.

  7. 7
    Spanish Inquisitor

    Apparently you can also buy the T-shirt.

    In fact, there’s an ad for it over there on this site, Ed. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

  8. 8
    Eamon Knight

    Wow. That Facebook dude is displaying creationist-level obtuseness.

    The error by Backyard Skeptics illustrates a common human failing: when you find some factoid that confirms your own views, you’re less likely to double-check than when you find an opposing factoid. No one is immune, just because they’re atheists or movement skeptics.

    The first duty of a skeptic is to test the evidence. Then test whatever support you found when you were testing the evidence.

  9. 9
    f. brianfetherstonhaugh

    My response to this issue on HuffPo (as UnderTheHedgeWeGo)was;

    “Where atheist went wrong is in making only one unverifiable quote. If they were to write an entire book of unverifiable quotes they could declare it divinely inspired and call it a ‘bible’.”

    But I agree Ed. This sort of sloppy work does us no good. If you are correct ninety nine times and wrong once, your opposition will only remember the one.

  10. 10
    escuerd

    scienceavenger @ 5:

    Yes, but so what? In any large group a few examples can be found of just about anything.

    Agreed. But I saw this example as merely reminding people of the fact that atheism doesn’t imply rationality (which is obvious when stated directly, but still something one can lose sight of in debates). It’s most important for us to be skeptical about things that support our own position, since we’re the easiest people to fool.

    I don’t think he was implying an overall symmetry between atheist/secular arguments and religious ones, just that both span a wide, sometimes annoying spectrum.

    Area Man @ 6:

    I think the aggressive, in-your-face style of the gnu atheists has some advantages, but it’s mostly useful for people who are on the fence, or who want to actively argue about religion. Passers-by minding their own business are unlikely to think you’re anything but an asshole when you start insulting religion.

    I think an aggressive tone is fine. Moving people who are on the fence is how you shift the margin. If atheists always go too far out of their way to treat religion extra-nicely, then they give legitimacy to the idea that religion itself is something respectable.

    I suspect that most people who get angry over an atheist billboard with tone like this would not be much more likely to reconsider their views based on a gentler one.

  11. 11
    joshuaz

    Yeah, this is very uncool. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you stand for, research quotes before you use them. Repeating false quotes is essentially lying. Giving false information because one is lazy or incompetent is not that much better than giving false information due to bad intentions.

  12. 12
    Ed Brayton

    scienceavenger wrote:

    This is the same false equivalence used by GOP defenders who respond to examples of Palin’s/Cain’s/Gingrich’s ignorance and stupidity by pointing at some treehugging homeopath moron no one ever heard of and saying “see, liberals say stupid things too”. Yes, yes they do, but we make fun of them and criticize them.

    I made no such false equivalence. Of course it’s true that atheists are much better in reacting to this sort of thing than Christians are; I never implied otherwise. I simply said that there are atheists who behave themselves like Barton does, that this is a bad thing and that we should all condemn it. And we generally do. I didn’t equate atheists with Christians, I equated John Stone with David Barton. I even gave the guy who put up this billboard credit for owning up to it instead of acting like that.

  13. 13
    Eamon Knight

    @10:

    I suspect that most people who get angry over an atheist billboard with tone like this would not be much more likely to reconsider their views based on a gentler one.

    Given the backlash against even the mildest of the recent transit ads and billboards (“You can be good without God”, “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone”) I have to agree with this. The mere suggestion that God is a) non-existent and b) superfluous to anything that really matters, is enough to terrify and enrage a certain segment of the population (not sure whether that segment is numerous or just loud).

  14. 14
    abb3w

    For the curious: Google books indicates variants of the “fables and mythology” quote can be found in the 1917 “Nature suffrage” by Charles Ralph Mabee (p199) and the 1917 quote collection “Thomas Paine: the apostle of liberty; an address delivered in Chicago” by John Eleazer Remsburg (p96). The earliest report I can find of the quote is in Remsburg’s “Six Historic Americans”; it may date to Remsburg’s 1887 “The fathers of our republic: Paine, Jefferson, Washington, Franklin”.

    Though it might possibly just involved a letter he had access to that has since been lost, it looks likely to have originated with Remsburg. So, yeah, don’t use this one.

  15. 15
    lofgren

    Personally I am more partial to being aggressively pro-reason/rationality/evidence rather than aggressively anti-religion, but it’s not like we have to pick just one approach. It’s not like we even have the ability to pick just one approach.

    Also I am always suspicious whenever somebody says “It’s fine for me but individual XYZ will not get it.” If you are not XYZ and haven’t done any focus group testing then all you have is conjecture. Of course I am the same way, I am not person XYZ either. We don’t want to get too insular to the point that we are only talking to ourselves. But since nobody can say authoritatively what will sway person XYZ, the best approach is to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks rather than commit fully to one message and then cross our fingers. Eventually the successful tactics will make themselves known by convincing more people, and what better evidence could you ask for?

  16. 16
    Area Man

    I think an aggressive tone is fine. Moving people who are on the fence is how you shift the margin. If atheists always go too far out of their way to treat religion extra-nicely, then they give legitimacy to the idea that religion itself is something respectable.

    I mostly agree with you, I’m just saying that the medium and the intended audience calls for something a little more measured (not to mention honest). I mean, just look at the quote:

    “I do not find in Christianity one redeeming feature. It is founded on fables and mythology.”

    The second part I fully agree with, but the first? No redeeming feature? Not one? Even as an atheist, I find that silly. If I were a wavering Christian who liked my church but wasn’t sure about all the superstitious stuff, I would think that the person who put this up is an ignorant bigot.

  17. 17
    abb3w

    Eamon Knight:

    The mere suggestion that God is a) non-existent and b) superfluous to anything that really matters, is enough to terrify and enrage a certain segment of the population

    True; but that kind of terror and rage be similarly accomplished with legitimate Jefferson quotes.

    To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart.

    At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But a heresy it certainly is. Jesus taught nothing of it. He told us indeed that `God is a spirit,' but he has not defined what a spirit is, nor said that it is not matter.

  18. 18
    eric

    Three good quotes from Jefferson so far. Can we get more? This is the best sort of response to such a mistake; learn from it and improve for next time.

  19. 19
    shripathikamath

    This is in my neck of the woods, and unfortunately Bruce Gleason is not exactly the listening type.

    What is irritating is not that he made that mistake (that was embarrassing), but that he doubled down in interviews after that saying something like “well, it may not be an exact quote, but it summarizes how Jefferson thought of Christianity”

    I wish people wouldn’t double down on their errors. That is positively Palinesque.

    I can empathize with scienceavenger’s point that the balance of accountability is still skewed against atheists, even if I do not agree with all the specifics in http://bit.ly/tLLB02

  20. 20
    shripathikamath

    And Ed, as far as holding atheists to “standards”, can we expect to see a post on Sam Harris’s choice of a member on an advisory board? I pointed this out on at least a couple of blogs here, but it gets ignored.

    Sam Harris runs Project Reason

    It says it a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. The foundation draws on the talents of prominent and creative thinkers in a wide range of disciplines to encourage critical thinking and erode the influence of dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry in our world.

    Fine.

    But on its advisory board we have a Bill Maher.

    The same Bill Maher who sometimes shares with the likes of Jenny McCarthy a position against vaccines.

    Surely Harris should be asked to explain how he can have an anti-vaccer on the advisory board of an organization that is dedicated to spreading science, right?

    I have made this query on his site but to no avail.

    If a low-key atheist misquoting Jefferson deserves a post, surely someone as prominent as Sam Harris deserves to be asked this.

    Or is this somehow different and does not look as bad for an atheist promoting science?

    Then again, maybe you have already asked him.

  21. 21
    sbh

    The Monticello site lists two appearances in 1906: John E. Remsburg, Six Historic Americans, p. 74, and Rufus K. Noyes, Views of Religion, p. 259. (Both of these are available online and can be checked, by the way.) That version reads “I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition [Christianity] one redeeming feature. They are all alike, founded upon fables and mythology.” Remsburg attributes it to a letter to “Dr. Woods”; as Jefferson didn’t share these kinds of sentiments with random strangers, Dr. Woods would have to be well-known to him–but Jefferson authorities don’t mention him. Jefferson did correspond with several people named Wood, but none of them seem likely candidates. The quotation also seems slightly at odds with Jefferson’s known views on Christianity–though of course, as Christianity is in brackets, we only have an editor’s authority for its being Jefferson’s subject, even if the quotation were genuine.

    Obviously it could have come from some unknown letter in a private collection or the like, but the burden of proof is always on the person claiming a quotation as genuine. Until such a source is located, this fragment must be considered spurious.

    Incidentally the John Adams “awful blasphemy” quotation as given above is a fake; it consists of two out-of-context fragments soldered together from two different letters to Thomas Jefferson written years apart. I wrote about that one here.

  22. 22
    escuerd

    Area Man @ 16:

    I mean, just look at the quote:

    “I do not find in Christianity one redeeming feature. It is founded on fables and mythology.”

    The second part I fully agree with, but the first?

    OK, I agree with this. The first statement is indeed too strong, though I think that it could easily be just as offensive (and possibly more so) to most readers without saying anything that I would object to.

    If Thomas Jefferson had actually said this, then it would arguably still be worth pointing out even if one would personally like to add the caveat that Christianity is only a net evil, not an unmitigated one. If nothing else, it would create some much-needed cognitive dissonance in the Christian members of the cult of the Founding Fathers.

    The fact that the quote is made up is the only really substantial problem I have with the billboard. I wonder if Gleason will do the right thing now by taking the billboard down. The article didn’t seem to give any indication of such plans.

  23. 23
    Aquaria

    “I do not find in Christianity one redeeming feature. It is founded on fables and mythology.”

    The second part I fully agree with, but the first?No redeeming feature? Not one? Even as an atheist, I find that silly.

    So name the redeeming features of Christianity.

    And it has to be something that comes from Christianity alone, not from general human decency, like opposition to people being enslaved or helping the poor. Those are things anyone can do, with or without worshipping an emo slacker deity.

    If I were a wavering Christian who liked my church but wasn’t sure about all the superstitious stuff, I would think that the person who put this up is an ignorant bigot.

    How do you know that it would be seen that way? You’re not everyone. Other people respond might respond to hearing the reasons no one finds anything redeeming in Christianity. How do you know that it wouldn’t work?

  24. 24
    matty1

    I think some people are loosing track, the issue is the accuracy of the quote not the ‘tone’.

    However on the issue of tone there is a difference between claiming that Christian beliefs have no redeming features and claiming that anyone who calls themselves a Christain has no personal redeming features and wont have unless they publicly denounce religion. One is defensible and likely true the other is a silly insult that I doubt anyone really believes.

  25. 25
    jameshanley

    So name the redeeming features of Christianity.

    And it has to be something that comes from Christianity alone, not from general human decency, like opposition to people being enslaved or helping the poor.

    That’s it…move the goalposts.

  26. 26
    Spanish Inquisitor

    That’s it…move the goalposts.

    No. The goalposts are still firmly rooted in the same place.

    Asking that the redeeming feature be Christian is not redefining the request. It’s simply clarifying it so there is no misinterpretation.

    For instance, someone could claim that all the wonderful architecture and art created during the Christian era, by Christians, is a redeeming feature of Christianity.

    But every single example could have been equally created by a non-Christian. In fact, there is equally beautiful art and architecture in the Muslim world. Not exactly the same, but beautiful and priceless nonetheless. No Christians involved.

    The point is that there has to be something intrinsic to Christianity that is a positive redeeming feature. There might well be, despite my inability to come up with one.

  27. 27
    abb3w

    @26, Spanish Inquisitor:

    The point is that there has to be something intrinsic to Christianity that is a positive redeeming feature.

    That depends on whether the focus is the broader question of Christianity, or the narrower question of what TJ thought of it; in the latter case, there merely has to be something that TJ indicated he considered positive and redeeming — whether or not it really is.

    We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.

    So, buried in the morass TJ found what he clearly considered one redeeming feature — regardless if he would believe whether there was any second such feature or not, or whether the weight of that redemption was exceeded by or was inferior to the weight of the demerits.

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