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Jefferson, the Bible and Education

Chuck Norris, who is on the advisory board of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, has been writing a series of columns on Thomas Jefferson, the Bible and education. Because he can’t find anything that Jefferson ever said about the Bible being a part of public education, he is forced, like his pal David Barton, to take little snippets out of context and distort them. To wit:

Rather than remain only in churches or private schools, Jefferson proposed religious education also be incorporated in the public education system, too, but with a twist.

True, Jefferson thought it best that it not be included among the curricula in the earliest stages of children’s schooling. In his own words, he said, “The first stage of this education being the schools of the hundreds, wherein the great mass of the people will receive their instruction, the principal foundations of future order will be laid here. Instead therefore of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children, at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history.”

But Jefferson immediately followed those words by clarifying, “The first elements of morality too may be instilled into their minds; such as, when further developed as their judgments advance in strength, may teach them how to work out their own greatest happiness.”

So Jefferson was not against religious education in public schools, but against it being inculcated upon those whose “judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries.”

Note that he went from the first quote, which says that the Bible should not be included in grammar school, to the second quote, which says nothing at all about the Bible or religion but says that those schools should teach “the first elements of morality.” Like most fundamentalist Christians, he equates morality with Christianity. But the man he is quoting, Jefferson, certainly did not. In an 1814 letter to Thomas Law, Jefferson wrote:

Some have made the love of God the foundation of morality. This, too, is but a branch of our moral duties, which are generally divided into duties to God and duties to man. If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such being exists. We have the same evidence of the fact as of most of those we act on, to-wit: their own affirmations, and their reasonings in support of them. have observed, indeed, generally, that while in protestant countries the defections from the Platonic Christianity of the priests is to Deism, in catholic countries they are to Atheism. Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.

But by all means, if Norris thinks that Jefferson wanted the Bible taught in public schools, let us teach what Jefferson himself thought about the Bible. What did he think of the New Testament, the gospels and Paul’s letters? Not much, to say the least. In an 1820 letter to William Short, he said:

Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence: and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being. I separate therefore the gold from the dross; restore to him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some, and roguery of others of his disciples. Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus. These palpable interpolations and falsifications of his doctrines led me to try to sift them apart.

Would Norris like to teach that in public schools? Somehow I doubt it. How about what he believed about the Old Testament? Continuing his conversation with William Short a few months later, he wrote:

My aim in that was, to justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers, which have exposed him to the inference of being an impostor. For if we could believe that he really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods and the charlatanisms which his biographers father on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations and theorizations of the fathers of the early, and fanatics of the latter ages, the conclusion would be irresistible by every sound mind, that he was an impostor…

There are, I acknowledge, passages not free from objection, which we may, with probability, ascribe to Jesus himself; but claiming indulgence from the circumstances under which he acted. His object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses. That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.

So the Old Testament conception of God was “cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust” and the New Testament mostly the work of a “band of dupes and impostors.” Okay, Chuck. Let’s teach that in schools.

Comments

  1. says

    The Bible should be a part of public education. If the public isn’t educated about it, how can they possibly hope to recognize and avoid it?

    Maybe I’m thinking of bears.

    (Note: The Bible should be a part of public education. In History class. In Comparative Religion class. In Philosophy class. In Literature class. Just not in Science class. Or Sex Ed class)

  2. Chiroptera says

    …he is forced, like his pal David Barton, to take little snippets out of context and distort them.

    That sounds like a lot of work. Why doesn’t he just make them up?

  3. says

    Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.

    I’m so used to seeing atheists described as vicious libertines during this period (not to mention later), that this comment really struck me. Quite perceptive of Jefferson.

  4. eric says

    This whole thing is their plan B. Remember, in 2010 Texas conservatives attempted to cut Jefferson from the curriculum altogether. They failed, so the makeover is just their lame attempt at making the best of a bad situation.

  5. AsqJames says

    Sorry, this is completely off topic, but I’d previously had no idea that “hundreds” (as administrative areas) were ever used in America.

    By comparison the idiocy of Chuck Norris is, thanks to this blog, something with which I’m all too well-acquainted.

  6. cjcolucci says

    It’s a shame. The Bible absolutely ought to be taught, for the same reason, and in the same way, that Shakespeare is taught — as one of the most important texts in Western Civilization. It should be taught in the appropriate courses in an academically honest way. But it won’t. Why? Because the Chuck Norrises of the world don’t want that. And a lot of other people who might otherwise support it won’t for fear that the Chuck Norrises of the world would, if given the chance, take advantage of the opportunity to lie and cheat for Jesus.

  7. says

    Thank you for the healthy does of academic responsibility, cjcolucci.

    That being said, isn’t appealing to anything Jefferson (or Adams, or Washington, or Hamilton, or Franklin, or any of the other ‘Founding Fathers’) merely an appeal to authority? That being said, why do we atheists/freethinkers/secularists treat the constitution as something holy (e.g., why do we—say—hold free speech as something that can never be violated [excepting certain radical circumstances])? I realize that the constitution consists of GREAT IDEAS, but I also understand that there is no logical, philosophical reason to act in such stringent accordance with its dictates. I imagine this is too radical an ‘entertainment of thought’ to be addressed in the comments section of a news post, but the idea just occurred to me…..

  8. says

    P.S.

    Nevertheless, I think our avoiding the question I posed above would be intellectually irresponsible.

    P.P.S. I’m not trolling.

    P.P.P.S. Even if I *were* trolling, my point is sound.

  9. lofgren says

    The Bible absolutely ought to be taught, for the same reason, and in the same way, that Shakespeare is taught — as one of the most important texts in Western Civilization. It should be taught in the appropriate courses in an academically honest way. But it won’t.

    That’s how it was taught in my high school (Old Testament only). I learned perhaps the most important lesson I have ever learned when interpreting both literature and religion: God is an unreliable narrator.

  10. Ichthyic says

    isn’t appealing to anything Jefferson (or Adams, or Washington, or Hamilton, or Franklin, or any of the other ‘Founding Fathers’) merely an appeal to authority?

    yes, exactly.

    In fact, authoritarianism is what primarily underlies the modern fundamentalist movement.

    It’s actually got far less to do with traditional religious dogma, and MUCH more to do with group dynamics and empowered ignorance and authoritarianism. It’s right-wing authoritarianism we need to deal with as a society, once and for all, and learn to accept the personality differences and work with them, instead of having greedy asswipes empower it for their own gain. empowering ingorant authoritarianism has been at the root of the fall of most civilizations (the ones that didn’t starve themselves, anyway). It’s time we grew up and started dealing with it.

  11. tomh says

    @ #9

    why do we atheists/freethinkers/secularists treat the constitution as something holy

    Who treats it as something holy? Nobody I know. The Constitution is the law of the land and most people believe the law should be followed. When changes are made to it, as they have been a number of times, most people agree the new law should be followed. It has nothing to do with its being “holy”, whatever that means.

  12. khms says

    The Constitution is the law of the land

    Well, the US constitution is the “law of the land” in the US.

    The German constitution is the “law of the land” in Germany.

    The British constitution … is more of a concept than a document.

    Maybe you get my drift?

  13. says

    “I’m so used to seeing atheists described as vicious libertines during this period (not to mention later), that this comment really struck me. Quite perceptive of Jefferson.”

    I’m reading the “Atheist Manifesto” at the moment. It is a bit strident on some issues but the “libertines” issue is dealt with early on. If the author had wanted to do so, he might have changed the title to, “Lies the Clergy Told Me” and it could be a companion book to “Lies My Teacher Told Me”.

    Eric:

    “This whole thing is their plan B. Remember, in 2010 Texas conservatives attempted to cut Jefferson from the curriculum altogether. They failed, so the makeover is just their lame attempt at making the best of a bad situation.”

    is right, so far as it goes. What you and the rest of the atheomuslicommieterrarists ain’t seein’ is the sweet, sweet sound of the bitch slap that you’re gonna get when they PROVE that TJ is MLK., Jr.’s great-grandpa!

    “God is an unreliable narrator.”

    Not to mention, invisible and unknowable. Maybe it’s not so much that GOD is pissed at humanity; perhaps he just suffers from SBDS*. One day he’s Krishna or Kali, the next Ah Peku or Loki, maybe Ungud on the weekends. It’s understandable that in such circumstances he might have a little difficulty remembering the exact order of events. I picture the human scribes of the Wholly Babble as being a bit like David Spade’s character, Eli Turnbull, in the “Coneheads” move–helpfully steering an obviously over-worked GOD to a satisfactory bit of scripture.

    * Supreme Being Disassociative Syndrome

  14. sbuh says

    @Modus

    I learned a lot of early Christian history by studying post-Antiquity art and architecture.

    Our class also featured a fundamentalist who would constantly take up class time criticizing the theology expressed in early and medieval Christian art. I could tell the professor was exasperated by these constant distractions.

  15. freehand says

    sbuh@Modus

    I learned a lot of early Christian history by studying post-Antiquity art and architecture.

    Our class also featured a fundamentalist who would constantly take up class time criticizing the theology expressed in early and medieval Christian art. I could tell the professor was exasperated by these constant distractions.

    I took a Comparative Religion course some years back, a quick survey of the world’s major religions. Two young men signed up, saying they were going to be missionaries and wanted to know what they would be up against. OK, cool, one reason to take the class I suppose.

    The first religion covered was the Roman Catholic Church. A few minutes into the professor’s lecture. these two fellas squirmed in their seats, and one blurted out “That’s not what the bible says!” The Professor patiently replied “I’m not teaching what the bible says, I’m teaching what the Roman Catholics says it says. Next I will cover the Eastern Orthodox Church and then Protestantism.”

    In the second lecture they jumped up and shouted “That’s blasphemy!” and stormed out. We were all, believers, nonbelievers, and professor, flabbergasted. These religious fundamentalists could not understand the difference between making claims, and explaining or repeating claims made by others. And these were college students.

  16. caseloweraz says

    The home page of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools carries this message:

    Dear Friend,

    A program is underway to serve the public through educational efforts concerning a First Amendment right and religious freedom issue. This is to bring a state certified Bible course (elective) into the public high schools nationwide.

    The curriculum for the program shows a concern to convey the content of the Bible as compared to literature and history. The program is concerned with education rather than indoctrination of students. The central approach of the class is simply to study the Bible as a foundation document of society, and that approach is altogether appropriate in a comprehensive program of secular education.

    The world is watching to see if we will be motivated to impact our culture, to deal with the moral crises in our society, and reclaim our families and children.

    Please help us to restore our religious and civil liberties in this nation.

    That sounds moderate enough: “education rather than indoctrination.” But at the top of the home page is the banner image: “It’s coming back… and it’s our constitutional right!” This leads me to conclude that their true motive is indoctrination after all.

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