November 2010

C-Cubed: Discussion Group Changes?

We only had a few comments/opinions about our second meeting of the month and its format. The board will take the comments we did get and continue discussions on how best to serve our community.

Most agreed that a monthly book club is more than anyone wants. I think we may be looking at trying a variety of things. We’ll keep you posted, of course, and you are still encouraged to express your feelings and ideas.

The Conversation for November:

Do any of you do things to celebrate the equinoxes or solstices? The Winter Solstice is coming up and I’ve been thinking I’d like to start some fun traditions of my own to mark this day. What are some things you do or think would be fun for a Winter Solstice celebration?

Send your responses to Lisa at for next month’s newsletter.

–Lisa Miller

Thomas Jefferson on Religion

2010 Founders’ Day Lecture

Cake showing separation between State and Church
But unfortunately no Wall — these are perilous times

Thomas Jefferson is famous for his idea that there should be a “wall of separation” between church and state. But what were his personal views on religion? Although he never spoke in public of his religious views, they were a burning political issue in the elections of 1796 and 1800 and into Jefferson’s Presidency. This was particularly true in the bitter election campaign of 1800 when his Federalist opponents had little to run aside from attacking Jefferson’s character. There were two or three points of attack. Jefferson had expressed some views with religious implications in his one and only book, the Notes on Virginia, published in the mid1780s. He had questioned in a scientific manner the idea that there was once a universal deluge that covered the earth. He also raised the possibility that Africans were a separate species of man from Europeans-the so-called “polygenesis” thesis. Most famously, he advocated religious freedom on the grounds that:

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. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Jefferson’s apparent questioning of the story of Adam and Eve, the flood in the time of Noah, and his extension of toleration to atheists were all the subject of extensive commentary by both Federalist politicians and orthodox clergyman, especially in New England.

Perhaps more important than his Notes on Virginia was Jefferson’s early and continued support of the French Revolution which many Americans came to see as an attack on religion, in general, and Christianity, in particular. Closely related to Jefferson’s support for the French Revolution was his association with Thomas Paine–author of the Rights of Man and of The Age of Reason. It is common to decry the partisanship and vitriol of American politics today but things today are positively polite by the standards of Jefferson’s day. Federalists charged that if Jefferson were elected Jacobin tyranny would ensue, blood would flow, religion and morals would be destroyed, Bibles would be burned, wives and daughters would become prostitutes.

Throughout this onslaught Jefferson remained silent. His supporters did respond but Jefferson did not. Why did he remain silent? Why did he not address the issue head-on? There are, I would suggest, two answers. The first is that Jefferson’s views on religion were unorthodox and not easily explained. He was, as he always maintained privately, no “infidel” or “atheist” but, as we will see, his views were highly unorthodox. There was a second, more principled, reason for Jefferson’s refusal to comment. He thought that to respond would be to cede an essential right–that of freedom of conscience. As he wrote to Benjamin Rush in 1803,

I am averse to the communication of my religious tenets to the public; because it would countenance the presumption of those who have endeavored to draw them before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to erect itself into that inquisition over the rights of conscience, which the laws have so justly proscribed. It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances become his own. It behooves him, too, in his own case, to give no example of concession, betraying the common right of independent opinion, by answering questions of faith which the laws have left between God and himself.

Thus, to respond to such charges would be to make public opinion a religious inquisitor, something which the public had no right to whatsoever. In Jefferson’s version of social contract theory, the right to freedom of conscience is a natural right that one retains completely in civil society. No part of it is given to government or society.

So, what were Jefferson’s religious views? This is a question not so easily answered. His views were complex, they seem to have evolved over time, and he seems to have left some parts of them open to even further evolution. Jefferson did express his private views in letters to certain close friends. These letters seem to have been spurred by the political attacks Jefferson was subject to, but they also seem to have been part of a genuine intellectual inquiry. Jefferson was particularly stimulated by scientist philosopher Joseph Priestley’s comparison of the moral teachings of ancient philosophy with the moral teachings of the revealed religions. The first letter I would like to discuss is Jefferson’s letter to his nephew Peter Carr from 1787. After the death of Carr’s father, Jefferson took charge of young Carr’s education. The letter to Carr is interesting and important because it makes clear the general approach Jefferson took to religion. (Carr would have been about 17 at the time.) Jefferson tells Carr “to fix reason firmly in her seat and call to her tribunal every fact and every opinion.” He continues: “Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” Jefferson tells Carr that he must interrogate the Bible according to the standards of reason. He concludes with some words of comfort. “Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences.” Jefferson is adamant on only one point.

…you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything, because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is your only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but for the uprightness of the decision.

Jefferson was surely relating to this favored nephew the approach he himself had taken and indeed was taking to religion.

Where did Jefferson’s reason lead him? It led him to embrace two doctrines, summed up in two affirmations: the first, “I am a Christian” and, the second, “I … am an Epicurean.” Jefferson said the first, “I am a Christian,” to Benjamin Rush a doctor, an educator, a political ally, and a friend. Rush and Jefferson, however, did not see eye to eye on the matter of religion. Rush was a believer in revealed religion and also a believer in the idea that Christianity, understood as a revealed doctrine, was a crucial support of republican government. He tried to get Jefferson to demonstrate to the public more clearly his support for Christianity. In the end, Jefferson left Rush disappointed but the request elicited a memorable letter from Jefferson explaining his idea of Christianity.

Jefferson described Jesus a moral teacher who took the religion of the Jews and perfected it. The great insight of the Jews, according to Jefferson, was their monotheism. However, the moral ideas of the Jews were, again according to Jefferson, “often irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason and morality.” It was these that Jesus reformed.

His moral doctrines, relating to kindred and friends, were more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and aids. A development of this head will evince the superiority of the system of Jesus above all others.

Unfortunately Jesus (like Socrates) wrote nothing of his own and as a result to understand his ideas we have read his chroniclers who were according to Jefferson “unlettered and ignorant men.” To these distortions of Jesus’s teachings introduced by the apostles were added the distortions introduced by the Church fathers. What were these distortions? Jefferson listed several in another letter on the same subject.

The Immaculate conception of Jesus, His deification, the creation of the world by him, His miraculous powers, His resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of hierarchy etc.

Jefferson became convinced that there was an authentic Jesus, a man, a moral teacher, whose doctrines could be extracted from the New Testament. Late in his life he devoted a great deal of time to assembling what he thought was true life and teachings of Jesus. His efforts became what is now usually referred to as the “Jefferson Bible.” Jefferson seems to have become genuinely convinced that there was an authentic and vitally important moral teaching conveyed by Jesus about our duties to others. I say genuinely because it does not seem to me that Jefferson was doing this for tactical political purposes–he did not publish his thoughts in his lifetime–or even for strategic political purposes, say making republicanism safe for the religiously heterodox like himself in the future. It seems to me more like a serious attempt to get the bottom of the subject and especially to explain the power of Christianity in the world.

The second statement by Jefferson–“I … am an Epicurean”–was made to William Short whom Jefferson described as an “adoptive son.” Short was Jefferson’s secretary while he was Ambassador to France. Short was an Epicurean. This was the ancient school of philosophy that was reputed and reviled for its atheism and for its notion that pleasure (in a refined and moderate form) is the highest good for human beings and the key to a happy life. How did Jefferson reconcile his Christianity, albeit highly unorthodox Christianity, with his Epicureanism? Jesus he believed taught us about our duties to others. Epicurus taught us our duties to ourselves and, especially, about how to find contentment in this life. Like Jesus Jefferson believed that Epicurus’s teaching had been distorted. In this case, it was by his enemies, the Stoics and the Platonists, that the master’s doctrines were distorted. The authentic Epicurus was, Jefferson believed, not an enemy of virtue. The real Epicurus believed that happiness consisted in “tranquility of mind.” Such a state is best achieved through living a virtuous life and pursuing pleasure in a moderate way so that neither the body nor the mind is disturbed by useless fears and desires.

Was Jefferson an atheist as Epicurus was reputed to be and certainly was? The answer seems to be, “No.” Jefferson saw too much order and harmony in the universe. As he wrote to John Adams:

I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the universe, in its parts, general or particular, it is impossible to for the human mind not to perceive ad feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition…it is impossible for the human mind to believe, that there is in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a Fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their Preserver and regulator.

Jefferson left some doubt about whether this first cause was a material cause and about whether the world was coeternal with its first cause or God. Yet there seems no doubt that at the end of his life just as when he wrote the Declaration of Independence that he believed that laws of nature were, in some sense, legislated by Nature’s God.

Among Jefferson’s letters there are some beautiful statements of the order and harmony he saw in the universe. Writing to Abigail Adams in 1817, Jefferson reflected upon the process of growing old.

Our next meeting must be in the country to which they (referring to departed friends) have flown–a country for us not now very distant. For this journey we shall need neither gold nor silver in our purse, nor scrip, nor coats, nor staves. Nor is the provision for it more easy than the preparation has been kind. Nothing proves more than this that the being who presides over the world is essentially benevolent. Stealing from us one by one the faculties of enjoyment, searing our sensibilities, leading us, like the horse in the mill round and round the same beaten circle… Until satiated and fatigued with this leaden iteration we ask our congĂ© (leave).

Thus, Nature’s God is benevolent and orderly in that it not only makes possible happiness in this life, but that it makes easy and appropriate our departure from this world.

These I believe were the results of Jefferson’s rational inquiry into the subject of religion. The answers he found are less important than the model he provides for our own inquiries when we make reason our only oracle.

–Peter McNamara
Utah State University

Thank You Dad!

This year marked the 60th anniversary of North Korea’s invasion of the Republic of Korea on June 25, 1950. Twenty-one member countries of the United Nations joined with the Republic of Korea to stop the invasion. One of these military personnel was my father, a young man of twenty-one. At the time, the Republic Korea was one of the most impoverished countries with an annual per capita income of less $40. Over a million people were homeless, living in whatever they could find for shelter; people were hungry. How does a daughter who believes that if war is the answer then the right question has not been asked, tell her father thank you for his military service?

This summer I joined my dad and other Korean War veterans for a seven-day tour of remembrance in the Republic of Korea. At the entrance of the War Memorial in Seoul was the following inscription: “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.” This is the same inscription at the Korean War Memorial in Washington D.C. Each of the member United Nation countries has a section of the wall that lists the names of those they have lost; there was a moment of silence.

One of the hardest things for me to see and hear was briefing prior to visiting the Demilitarization Zone near the 38th parallel. The Demilitarization Zone was established on July 27, 1953 in accordance with “The Armistice Agreement”; it is 155 miles (248 km) long. The military personnel informed that group of finding of a dead North Korean soldier. The Republic of Korea informed North Korea of their finding. To ease tension it was agreed by both sides that an independent country would perform the medical examination for the determination of cause of death. The determination was malnutrition. In the last sixty years the North Korean average height of males is five feet five inches, average weight 155 pounds, but the most amazing fact is that the size of average male cranial capacity of the North Korean has decreased in size. All of these things are due to lack of access to proper food. We arrive at Panmunjeom, the place where “The Armistice Agreement” was signed; the place where the county of Korea was divided and where the war broke out. What one must remember is “The Armistice Agreement” is a truce and not an end of war or a peace treaty. In reality this war is still ongoing. Panmunjeom is 30 miles (50km) from Seoul.

Touring the Korea Folk Village and seeing traditional houses from different parts of the country helped in demonstrating the rich cultural history of Korea. While we were listening to our tour guide numerous elementary school age children would interrupt by saying thank-you and asked to shake the veterans hands. The guide explained that this was the second generation that has benefited from what the Korean War veterans accomplished. What are some of the benefits? At the time of the Korean War the Republic of Korea was one of the most impoverished countries. In 2009 Republic of Korea became a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee, the first aid recipient to become a donor in only one generation. In the official “Welcome to Korea: Korean War and 60-years Later” ends with the following quote: “Republic of Korea is forever indebted to you for your service and sacrifice. We will continuously build trust and friendship among 21 United Nation Allied Nations.”

On this Veteran Day’s this daughter has a better understanding of what all veterans are asked to do. That is to travel to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met. I would suggest if you see or know a veteran on this Veterans Day ask them what it was like and thank them for their services.

–Cindy King

President’s Message

In my message last month I mentioned that I would be attending a conference in Los Angeles hosted by the “Center For Inquiry” and their magazine Free Inquiry. I returned from the conference with some food for thought, and the energized feeling that I get by the conversations with the other conference goers. It is so refreshing to talk to likeminded people about the issues common to the freethought community.

At this conference the familiar theme of civility was dominant. I have discussed the subject of civility more times than I suspect some of you might wish so I apologize for bringing it up again. However, it was the subject of much of the conference, and deserves additional thought.

One of the plenary sessions was titled “Confrontation or Accommodation,” and started by putting forth three questions: 1) How should secular humanists respond to science and religion? 2) If we champion science, must we oppose faith? 3) How to best approach flashpoints like evolution education. Panel member, Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America was of the opinion that being too critical of religion only alienates the religious and prevents useful dialogue in areas where we may be able to agree. An example is the fact that there are some religious moderates who have recently become more willing to look at environmental protection as a good thing. On the other hand panelist, P.Z. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota Morris, and Victor Stenger, professor of physics and philosophy and author of God: The Failed Hypothesis and The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason, are not inclined to be respectful of those who believe in things like creationism, a young earth, crystal gazers, or apologists for religion, to name a few.

As I discussed this “Confrontation or Accommodation” subject with fellow attendees I found that most were of the same general opinion as me. That is, that it is a situational decision. When people of a differing viewpoint are willing to have a non-confrontational discussion of the issues at hand, then of course maintaining a civil tongue is the best approach. Yet there are times when the opposition is so strident and/or mean-spirited that they must be countered with strength and a willingness to confront and oppose them.

The next evening a dialogue between Sam Harris and Robert Wright took on the same tone, with Robert Wright expressing the opinion that being confrontational is counter productive. Sam Harris asserted that some things that are done by the religious are wrong and they are also bad and harmful and must be confronted.

There is not enough space here to go into detail about the proceedings that took place during 35-40 hours of sessions over the three days of the conference. CFI is selling conference CD’s, and I plan to purchase them. They should be useful for future discussions and will be a different and pleasant way to inform ourselves on many of the issues we often deal with as humanists.

We often use words like “respect” and “tolerance.” It seems to me that in our culture respect they should be “automatic” or a “given.” And I believe that respect for human rights of all human beings should be assumed.

But it is my opinion that respect is something that must be earned or given when one sees something as respectable. The same also applies to tolerance, in that something needs to first be tolerable. I know this sounds rather simplistic, but I think the idea that we need to tolerate and be respectful of the beliefs and actions of others simply because they have the right to have them is abused in today’s world, especially as it applies to the actions and beliefs of the religious. While I will agree to respect someone’s basic right to believe in a God, I draw the line when that belief leads to what I consider wrong and harmful actions. Sometimes their actions deserve no respect or tolerance and instead should be criticized and vigorously opposed, and if some of these people whine about being picked on, I have no sympathy and make no apologies.

Should we be respectful or tolerate people like the preacher Fred Phelps who protest at funerals of service men and women with hateful signs about homosexuals, or evangelicals who are pushing to make homosexuality illegal (even a death penalty offense) in parts of Africa? Do we respect a custom that punishes a woman for being a rape victim?

Should we respect those who blame secular humanism for all the ills of the world, who say we are in league with the devil, or who work to deny the gay community their constitutional rights to marry, or those who work to insert the absurdity of creationism in schools as science and remove Thomas Jefferson from school textbooks, What about those who would destroy the separation of church and state and ruin this nation by installing a theocracy? I don’t think so! And this is just a short list.

If we don’t oppose these people and their harmful actions we give them tacit approval just as the so called moderate religious do by not opposing those in their “flocks” who subvert their religions and use it in harmful ways.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU

University of Utah Middle East Center

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