Sunday, July 4, 2010

Why the Texas Taliban fears Mr. Jefferson.

Here is a nice essay that my friend Dave Miller had published (as a guest essayist) in the July 1st issue of "The Hook" newspaper. Hawes Spencer (or some other Hook editor) cut it down a bit (possibly to help it fit) so you might be interested in the full Monty, the unedited original article. Here it is in full. Thanks to Dave Miller for graciously permitting me to reprint it here.

Have a happy 4th of July everybody!
Richard Drumm The Astronomy Bum
The impending celebration of Independence Day comes about four months after the powerful Texas Board of Education voted to undermine one of our Constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms; namely, that of religion. Freedom of religion goes hand-in-hand with separation of church and state. The government is neither to establish religion nor prevent it from being practiced, according to the First Amendment. The Texas School Board’s recent acts of textbook censorship and revision of American history suggest that a Christian Taliban is on the rise.

Unfortunately, the extreme religious right is of the belief that our government is based on Christianity and should be recognized as such publicly. Often, the arguments are given that the founders were Christian men and the laws of the land are based upon the Biblical ten commandments. Although the founders in general did attend Christian churches of one kind or another, they wisely realized that the populace was religiously diverse and that no particular religion or sect should be formally recognized. Our laws and their antecedents basically agree with the ten commandments, but so have the laws of most civilizations throughout history. Non-Christian religions all teach similar rules of morality. They were all drawn from human experience down through the ages.

The thinkers who formulated the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were deists, not theists, and were inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment movement in England and Europe. Among the leaders of that movement were Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot of France, and Francis Bacon, Isaack Newton, and John Locke of England. Americans Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Alexander Hamilton accepted the tenets of Enlightenment philosophy. These men believed in a creator, but not so much in the tradition of the familiar Hebrew/Christian God. They referred to that creator with terms such as “the First Cause”, “the Creator of the Universe”, “the Divine Author of all Good”, “the Grand Architect”, “the God of Nature”, and “Divine Providence”. The Declaration of Independence uses exactly this kind of wording, speaking of “Nature’s God”, “Supreme Judge”, and “divine Providence”; all echoes of enlightenment terminology.

Orthodox Christians, if they think about it at all, usually consider deists not to be Christians because, even though deists believe in a creator of the universe, they base their beliefs on reason rather than faith, rejecting supernatural revelation. According to the deist view, once creation was accomplished, the creator essentially no longer took part in directing the course of events. By and large, deists don’t believe in the Trinity; communication with God; the miracles described in the Bible; or the divinity (via the incarnation), virgin birth, atonement, resurrection, or ascension of Jesus.

Thomas Jefferson was raised in the Anglican Church, which was the Church of England in colonial America. He spent his school-boy years at the Reverend James Maury’s academy and his college years at William and Mary, both Anglican institutions, and he attended Anglican and Episcopal churches with some regularity all his life. Yet he was proud of his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which disestablished the Anglican church as the official church of Virginia, thus removing it from its chief source of income, which was from taxes on the public. Authorship of that statute was one of the three things that he requested to be inscribed on his grave monument (none of the three were to be his political offices, even his service as President of the United States).

While in Philadelphia, he attended Joseph Priestly’s Unitarian church and probably would have done so in Virginia, if one had been available. Priestley had founded the Unitarian Society in London in 1791, three years before immigrating to America. Jefferson had entered many notes from the writings of the leaders of the Enlightenment into his copy books at William and Mary and found that he greatly admired Priestly’s similar philosophy. While Jefferson served as a member of the Board of Visitors of William and Mary, he helped to abolish its divinity school and replace its two professors with professors of science and law. Jefferson did revere Jesus, but as a great religious reformer, teacher of ethics, and as a moral example to, not as a savior of, mankind. In his later years, he produced an edited version of the New Testament, from which he redacted the “corrupted” passages, which he considered to be illogical and unreasonable, added by partisan priests promoting their new religion. The resulting “Life and Morals of Jesus” was published after his death. We often call it the “Jefferson Bible”.

Now, seemingly unaware that our Constitution is a secular, not religious, document the reactionary members of the Texas Board of Education push Creationism as an opposing view and they have downplayed Jefferson to just a few short sentences in their approved history books. To see why his ideas provoke such fear, one need only read Jefferson:

"I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."
--to Benjamin Rush, 1800

"I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others."
--to Edward Dowse, 1803

"The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty Gods or no God."
--in Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-83

"Whenever... preachers, instead of a lesson in religion, put [their congregation] off with a discourse on the Copernican system, on chemical affinities, on the construction of government, or the characters or conduct of those administering it, it is a breach of contract, depriving their audience of the kind of service for which they are salaried, and giving them, instead of it, what they did not want, or, if wanted, would rather seek from better sources in that particular art or science."
--to P. H. Wendover, 1815

"I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this [i.e., the purchase of an apparent geological or astronomical work] can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offense against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion? and are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatize religious opinions for our citizens? Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? Is a priest to be our inquisitor, or shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set up his reason as the rule for what we are to read, and what we must believe? It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not, and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason. If [this] book be false in its facts, disprove them; if false in its reasoning, refute it. But, for God's sake, let us freely hear both sides, if we choose."
--to N. G. Dufief, 1814

" .. I am myself an empyric in natural philosophy, suffering my faith to go no further than my facts. I am pleased, however, to see the efforts of hypothetical speculation, because by the collisions of different hypotheses, truth may be elicited, and science advanced in the end."
--to George P. Hopkins, 1822

"History I believe furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purpose."
--to Baron von Humboldt, 1813

"And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors."
--to William Roscoe, 1820

Regarding the University of Virginia, which he founded:

"This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."
--to Thomas Cooper, 1814

"… a professorship of theology should have no place in our institution."
--to John Adams, 1823