Philosophical and Historical Foundations of American Secularism 2 – Freethought Unbound by Geography, Nationality, and Ethnicity

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Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019).

Here we talk about the revisionist attempts on American history.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Another issue comes in the form of the historical revisionists in the current period from Evangelical Christian fundamentalists who amount to selective literalists with the intent to ‘correct’ the American historical record – from their point of view – into an Evangelical Christian ethos and framework for looking at the world. How far back does regressive activism exist in America? How can this obscure the American record? How has the history of America been damaged by this form and branch of fundamentalism? How did American fundamentalism erase some traces of pre-American, Native American, history, permanently, to the detriment of the possible knowledge base of the Americas about human history? Who might count as the first Native American freethinker who went against the grain of the traditions of the Native American religions or ways of life with supernaturalisms assumed in them, though different as described? Who might count as the first American freethinker at or after the founding of the nation?

Dr. Herb Silverman: Why do some Christian fundamentalists claim that our founders wanted America to be a Christian nation? Most efforts to connect the United States with Christianity rely on quotes and opinions from a few colonial-era statesmen who professed a belief in Christianity, but their statements of beliefs say nothing about Christianity as the source of the U.S. government.

Patrick Henry proposed a tax to help sustain “some form of Christian worship” for the state of Virginia, but Thomas Jefferson and other statesmen did not agree. In 1779, Jefferson introduced a bill for the Statute for Religious Freedom which became Virginia law. Jefferson designed this law to completely separate religion from government. None of Patrick Henry’s Christian views ever got introduced into law in Virginia or our national government.

Unambiguous language from our founders really should settle this debate over whether America is a Christian nation. In 1797, the Treaty of Tripoli was negotiated by George Washington, signed by John Adams, and ratified unanimously by the Senate. It stated in part: “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” I wonder what part of “not” that Christian-nation advocates don’t understand.

There have always been people who erroneously believe the Founders intended to establish a Christian nation, but the framers were careful and thoughtful writers. Had they wanted a Christian republic, it seems highly unlikely they would somehow have forgotten to include their Christian intentions in the supreme law of the land. And I challenge anyone to find the words “God” or “Jesus” in the U. S. Constitution.

In debates I’ve had with those who think America was founded as a religious country, my opponents sometimes point to words in the Declaration of Independence as evidence of religious intent. However, the Declaration preceded the Constitution and does not represent the law of the land. The Declaration was a call for rebellion against the British Crown. The emphasis on people having inalienable rights was a way for our founders to distinguish us from an empire that asserted the divine right of kings. The Declaration mentions “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and does not endorse Christianity or religion. “Nature’s” view of God agrees with the Deist philosophy. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration, was a Deist and opposed to orthodox Christianity and the supernatural. 

Another argument I’ve heard supposedly supporting religion in government is the constitutional requirement that elected officials take an oath or affirmation before they can serve. Oaths are not necessarily a call to God. At that time, kings would swear oaths by their crowns and knights would swear oaths by their knighthood, so the concept of swearing an oath to something other than God goes back a long time and was well-known when the Constitution was adopted in 1787. Had our founders wanted officeholders to invoke God, they could have worded the oath to accomplish that objective. Instead, the oath or affirmation to uphold the Constitution contains no reference to God, need not be administered on the Bible and need not even be considered an oath. The option to either swear an oath or make an affirmation was written into our Constitution for the purpose of including those who did not feel comfortable swearing an oath to anything, let alone to God or some other deity.

An even weaker argument is that the Constitution was signed with the words “in the year of our Lord.” But that was a standard way of dating important documents in the 18th century. Its use was conventional, not religious, just as today we may use B.C. (Before Christ) or A.D. (Anno Domini, Latin for “the year of our Lord”) without having any religious intent.

While the federal government was not a Christian nation, it didn’t initially prohibit states from establishing their own state churches. Some early state constitutions limited holding public office to Christians or even to the correct religious denomination. Such provisions represented a more intolerant time in our history. States with government-favored religions gradually began moving toward separating religion and government, with the last state disestablishment occurring in Massachusetts in 1833.

The best-known Freethinker Founder was Thomas Paine. He influenced more early Americans than any other writer. In his pamphlet Common Sense, Paine made a case in clear and persuasive prose for independence from Great Britain, using arguments that had not yet been given serious intellectual consideration. Paine marshaled moral and political arguments to encourage common people in the Colonies to fight for egalitarian government. Common Sense was published at the beginning of the American revolution, and in proportion to the population of the colonies at that time (2.5 million), it had the largest sale and circulation of any book published in American history.

Nonetheless, Paine hasn’t received the credit he deserves, being mostly ignored in American history. The reason is because of his irreverentbook called The Age of Reason. In it he says, “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my church.” And furthermore, “Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is no more derogatory, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory to itself than this thing called Christianity.” Many contemporary politicians sympathized with the views of Paine but didn’t openly support him for fear of the Religious Right of that day.

Years later, President Theodore Roosevelt referred to Paine as a “filthy little atheist” even though Paine considered himself a deist. Thomas Jefferson, who was sympathetic to Paine, got in trouble when he said, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” It is only recently, with more open Freethinkers today, that Thomas Paine’s accomplishments have been given the credit they deserve.

Another unknown leader in the American Revolution was Philip Freneau, recognized as the poet of the American Revolution, and America’s first atheist poet. See a fine article about him in Free Inquiry, August/September 2019. Freneau’s definition of theology is “the study of nothing.” He also said that the profession of priest is “little better than that of a slothful Blockhead.” Freneau denied the existence of an afterlife and viewed death as “a sleep that has no dreams.”

I know of no Native Americans promoting atheism, perhaps because there is no doctrine that they are expected to believe or follow. I think the belief that there are no gods began when theism began. On the day that humans invented religion, other humans invented atheism. 

A case can be made that the Christian brand of fundamentalism today is a consequence of the Bible Belt mentality during the Civil War. The Baptist denomination split as Baptists in the South broke away from the North and formed the Southern Baptist Convention, so they could continue to promote slavery within their religion. Slave owners did not want a religion that would make them feel guilty about the source of their riches. Their ministers preached a doctrine that their flock wanted to hear—the right of white men to own slaves who owed obedience in return, and a message that promoted the subjugation of women, Native Americans, and others. There are certainly passages of the Bible that condone slavery, and none that oppose it. The rich and powerful took their riches as a sign of God’s blessing on them. They were not interested in social justice.

In their pursuit of worldly power and dominion, conservative American churches today have thrown away the moral authority they once possessed. Now, as their prestige declines and their membership ebbs, they pursue government support. But as Benjamin Franklin said, “When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”

Congress mandated “In God We Trust” on all currency in 1955, and it was adopted as the national motto in 1956. The original U.S. motto, chosen by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, is E Pluribus Unum (Of Many, One), celebrating diversity, not theocracy.

Although we don’t have an official established religion, the Republican Party has tied Christianity tightly to a narrowly partisan and conservative set of policy priorities. They’ve spent the past several decades insisting that being Christian means politically opposing LGBTQ rights, reproductive choice, and supporting war and tax cuts for the rich. Many Christians want to bring back school-sponsored prayers and demand that sex education classes in public schools teach “abstinence only” instead of preparing teens to avoid pregnancy and disease. 

You will not find any support in the Bible for treating with respect those who have different or no religious beliefs. Scientific advances are particular targets. When a science book is found to be wrong, the mistake is corrected in subsequent books. But for biblical literalists, if the scientific evidence contradicts the Bible, it is the evidence that is thrown out.

In 2002, President George W. Bush said, “We need commonsense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God.” But “rights derived from God” is a belief, not an understanding, and judges are supposed to make decisions based on the rule of law, not on their personal religious beliefs. Similarly, President Trump recently said, “In America, we’ve always understood that our rights come from God, not from government.” These are examples of government leaders who want to turn our democracy into a theocracy. If Christian nation advocates were ever to have their way, this would no longer be the secular nation our founders so proudly formed.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.

Previous entries in the educational series:

Philosophical and Historical Foundations of American Secularism 1 – Knowing History and Making History

Photo by Kupono Kuwamura on Unsplash

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