More Fake Quotes in Santa Monica Atheist Displays

You probably know by now that Damon Vix and his group Atheists United managed to get a nativity scene out of a public park in Santa Monica by forcing the city first to open up the park as a public forum and then, by putting up lots of non-religious displays, prompt them to shut down the whole thing and not allow any unattended displays of any kind. And I laud him and them for that. But I wish they cared more about accuracy, which ought to matter to atheists and skeptics more than to our opponents.

I’ve already written about one display that contained a fake quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Religions are all alike — founded upon fables and mythologies.” This quote does not exist anywhere in Jefferson’s writings or speeches. But now, looking through the pictures they put up of some of the other displays, I see that isn’t the only fake quote from the founding fathers they used. There’s also this one, attributed to James Madison:

The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.

But again, this quote has never been found anywhere in Madison’s writings. It’s certainly something he would have agreed with, having written at some length about the long history of Christian establishments in Europe and the damage they did to religious freedom. In his Memorial and Remonstrance, he wrote:

“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution…In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people.”

But while he might have agreed with the sentiment, he never said what is attributed to him. When David Barton defends his use of similar fake quotes from the founding fathers by saying that they may not have said those exact words but they would have agreed with them, we rightly condemn him for intellectual dishonesty. That is equally true here. As atheists and skeptics, we should care a lot more about the truth than a liar like Barton.

11 comments on this post.
  1. F [disappearing]:

    Spluh. Well, atheists aren’t necessarily skeptics, and skeptics (i.e., those who adopt the label) aren’t necessarily skeptical about everyday life, but obviously wild claims about things like bigfoot.

  2. Michael Heath:

    Ed writes:

    As atheists and skeptics, we should care a lot more about the truth than a liar like Barton.

    I’d add secularists to that list.

    I remain somewhat concerned about the quality of arguments out of nones as they begin to become overtly active in politics as an organized group partly defined by their irreligiosity. That we don’t resort to motivated reasoning like we continually criticize conservatives and the religious for doing. To succumb is to lose one of our key competitive advantages over both groups.

    To not succumb requires us to confront the reality that the non-religious are also susceptible to such defective thinking when it comes to politics simply because political partisans are prone to motivated reasoning: http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/jocn.2006.18.11.1947 . So its work even for us to maintain the same high standards for our own political dialogue as we begin to better influence public policy as a group of nones.

  3. prestonstafford:

    Next I suppose you’re going to say Martin Luther King, Jr’s Text Message from a Birmingham Jail was a forgery…

  4. Orac:

    Well, atheists aren’t necessarily skeptics

    The number one reason why I associate with skeptic organizations and not with atheist organizations.

  5. laurentweppe:

    I wish they cared more about accuracy, which ought to matter to atheists and skeptics more than to our opponents.

    If they’re fighting for a tribe and not for high-minded principles, they will never give a shit about accuracy.

  6. heddle:

    Ed,

    And I laud him and them for that. But I wish they cared more about accuracy, which ought to matter to atheists and skeptics more than to our opponents.

    No. It should matter the same, i.e., be paramount to everyone. It should not matter more to one side than the other.

  7. Michael Heath:

    heddle writes:

    It should matter the same, i.e., be paramount to everyone. It should not matter more to one side than the other.

    How can you claim to subscribe to this notion while simultaneously belonging to groups who by design demand fealty to certain factual assertions and also by design avoid scrutiny of such? E.g., the precepts you use to declare the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

    I wish you were correct, but the reality is that an attribute of skepticism is to search for objective truth using the most rigorous and optimal methods feasible. Your religion instead subscribes to defending holy dogma and certain claims of divine revelation while not only avoiding the best methods possible to test those assertions, but demanding such avoidance at conservative Christian institutions which describe themselves as universities.

    “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is as far from your religion’s approach to understanding objective truth as one can get. In fact your religion promotes and celebrates those who by faith assert certain facts; while also demanding you to promote these assertions to others. In spite of those assertions going effectively unscrutinized by the faithful using the most optimal methods available.

  8. heddle:

    Michael Heath,

    Perhaps you should read what I wrote again. Your severe bigotry and chicken-little phiosophy, once again, clouds your vision. I commented that accuracy should be of equal importance to all people regardless of which side of the debate they are on. Let me spoon-feed it to you: Accuracy should be just as important to David Barton as it should be to these atheist liars.

  9. abb3w:

    A quick whack at Google Books suggests the “keep forever from these shores” phrasing originated in the New Yorker circa 1994, where it was given as a paraphrase of Madison rather than a quote. The next appearance presents it as a quote from an 1803 letter, given in a collection by editor of the Charleston Gazette James A. Haught… who thus deserves the blame (and is still alive to take it, last I can tell).

  10. Michael Heath:

    heddle writes:

    Perhaps you should read what I wrote again. Your severe bigotry and chicken-little phiosophy, once again, clouds your vision. I commented that accuracy should be of equal importance to all people regardless of which side of the debate they are on. Let me spoon-feed it to you: Accuracy should be just as important to David Barton as it should be to these atheist liars.

    I’ve yet to encounter you pointing out my vision is ‘clouded’, and that includes here. I understood your point perfectly; your using David Barton is not a good example in your response since I directed my challenge not to obvious con men like him but instead to you personally. Where you continue to associate and promote a group which does not spend hardly any resources on finding and revealing objective truth but instead focuses its energies on preemptively defending their faith in holy dogma and some evidence-less claims of divine revelation.

    So again, where does your moral authority come from to claim you to want accuracy while associating with groups who are one of the biggest and most effective opponents of seeking and revealing objective truth? To the point they refuse to test their claims using the best methods available to test factual claims and disallow such processes in their higher places of learning. Your actions speak far more and differently than what you write in your posts.

  11. Michael Khalili:

    Hi Ed,

    I’m the current President of Atheists United. Thanks for pointing out the information about the quotes but those signs were not put up by us. We participated in the Winter Display program by putting up the digitally printed banners like “Reason’s Greetings” and “Love is within you”.

    Here’s a link to our Facebook album with pictures from the display. It includes signs that we put up along with signs and displays from other people. http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.245495458850414.59471.140035622729732&type=3

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