I Wish Atheists Would Stop Emulating David Barton

In the thread on Rep. Sam Johnson’s post about his bill to force military officers to swear on oath to God, I encountered the same kind of historical distortions I criticize so strongly when David Barton does it. But they came from an atheist claiming that some of the founders were atheists. His comment:

The founding fathers did not claim we are One Nation Under God. That was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 after lobbying by the Knights of Columbus. The error Sam Johnson and the rest of the Church Bullies make is assuming that people in the past couldn’t have been less religious than people today. But Thomas Jefferson was a deist. James Madison was at least a deist and possibly an atheist. Thomas Paine (tea party hero) was *definitely* and atheist.

My response: No, no, no. I think Rep. Johnson is a theocrat and a menace, but I wish my fellow atheists would stop trying to make the founding fathers into their mirror image (the kind of thing the Christian right has been doing forever, to much well-deserved criticism). Thomas Paine was not only not “definitely” an atheist, no case could possibly be made that he was. Have you actually read Age of Reason? It begins with a statement of his beliefs:

“As several of my colleagues and others of my fellow-citizens of France have given me the example of making their voluntary and individual profession of faith, I also will make mine; and I do this with all that sincerity and frankness with which the mind of man communicates with itself.

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy….

As it is necessary to affix right ideas to words, I will, before I proceed further into the subject, offer some other observations on the word revelation. Revelation, when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man.

No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases.”

Paine was a deist. He rejected divine revelation and almost all of the Christian creed. But he was not an atheist and no one who has read his works could possibly believe that he was. And there is not one shred of evidence that Madison was either and much evidence against it in both his public and private writings. Christian and atheist are not the only two religious options.

Comments

  1. matty1 says

    It is my understanding that Paine was not just a deist, he was the deist. That is the individual who did the most to publicise the use of the word in it’s modern sense of belief in a god who sets the rules of the universe* then doesn’t intervene ever again.

    *I think though I’m less certain that for Paine these included moral rules built into human nature, which was how he was able to see the things he supported as just in some universal sense.

  2. laurentweppe says

    But you forget the Jerry Coyne Rule: every intelligent individual is too smart to be religious, therefore, every intelligent men and women are obviously closeted atheists who lie about their lack of belief to not be lynched by the dumber-than-cattle religious rubes’.

    I’m much less charitable that you when it comes to this kind of behavior: I’m pretty much certain that the desire of rewriting famous “great men” biographies, whether it comes from the religious right or atheists, stems from people who wish to become pampered feudal lords and try justify their egotistical cravings by proclaiming themselves inherently superior to everyone else -therefore they try to turn every “great men” from the past (and sometimes from the present as well) into fake evidences of said inherent superiority-, and that the best thing to do is to put them all in the same contemptible-would-be-aristocrat bag, regardless of their proclaimed sectarian allegiances.

  3. says

    @3:

    I have a cure for that syphilis. It’s one weird trick; you mix saltpeter, arsenic, antimony, mercury and mescaline with enough scuppernong wine to get ‘faced and while it won’t cure the chancres you will, trust me, no longer care. The short pants and powdered wigs, I cannot help you with.

  4. generalfactotum says

    @4
    Ah, but you are assuming that he wants help with the short pants and powdered wigs. It’s a fab look, and I wouldn’t change a thing. Everyone will be doing it by fall.

  5. abb3w says

    @2, laurentweppe

    I’m pretty much certain that the desire of rewriting famous “great men” biographies, whether it comes from the religious right or atheists, stems from people who wish to become pampered feudal lords and try justify their egotistical cravings by proclaiming themselves inherently superior to everyone else -therefore they try to turn every “great men” from the past (and sometimes from the present as well) into fake evidences of said inherent superiority

    I’m not persuaded; while Altemeyer’s work suggests some correlation between high-RWA and high-SDO, my anecdatal encounters leads me to suspect the tendency to veneration of such “great men” comes more from the high-RWA, who do not themselves necessarily desire to dominate. There seem to be plenty of folk who apotheosize historical (or fictional) exemplars without themselves aspiring as candidates for such. I suspect the cannonization results from the correlated need for epistemic closure giving a preference for simple straightforward narratives, downplaying any flaws and inconsistencies in their paragons.

    Nohow, there’s probably something significant to the tendency that the Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic sorts might want to scrutinize — since another phrase associated to the tendency is hero worship. I suspect it ties to human instincts to storytelling and for “monkey see[/hear], monkey do” behavior.

  6. Childermass says

    Paine did not define deism as most people today do. He credited God with his survival of his ordeal in France. He did not believe in revealed religion because while God could reveal Himself to you, no one else can verify it.

    He repeatedly used the word “deist” as we use the word “theist” and indeed equated them.

    “Every person, of whatever religious denomination he may be, is a DEIST in the first article of his Creed. Deism, from the Latin word Deus, God, is the belief of a God, and this belief is the first article of every man’s creed.”

    “The word theology, from Theos, the Greek word for God, and meaning the study and knowledge of God, is a word strictly speaking belongs to the Theists or Deists, and not the Christians.”

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