MY WORD: A proposal to atheists

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By John D. Willis

I wish to throw my support firmly behind Chuck Souder’s article (“The Founders’ Declaration of ‘In-Dependence,’” June 28),pertaining to the American Founders’ “dependence upon God” and the idea they taught Americans should be “grateful and accountable to God.” Sometimes, atheists like to selectively quote the Founders, as if the Founders were atheists, which they were not. Souder has the strength of history on his side.

Washington: Farewell Address to the American People,1796:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them….

“Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation deserts the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?

“And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar [Ed, that is, exceptional, rare] structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Go to http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.aspfor the entire Address. The reader who slows down, absorbs this, will have an arsenal of criticism against both political parties; against U.S. domestic and foreign policies; and, against “special friends” or “special enemies” abroad.

On April 9, 1803, Jefferson wrote to Joseph Priestley that he did not like Christian theologians – “those who pretend to be [Jesus] special disciples” – but of Jesus of Nazareth himself, he called him, “the most innocent, the most benevolent, the most eloquent and sublime character that ever has been exhibited to man.” Jefferson had put together a draft for a book, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” minus the miraculous. Jefferson believed Jesus should be studied for his moral content.

In a letter to Thomas Law, dated June 13, 1814, Jefferson discussed two kinds of morality: (1) morality from the love of God and (2) morality among atheists. He recognized some atheists were moral, but they did not believe in God. He explored the second type. Some atheists thought morality came from “self-interest” or “pleasure” in doing good. Jefferson explored those ideas, and said they were deficient oragainst the practice of morality:

“Self-interest, or rather self-love, or egoism, has been more plausibly substituted as the basis of morality. But I consider our relations with others as constituting the boundaries of morality – to ourselves, in strict language, we can owe no duties, obligation requiring also two parties.

Self-love, therefore, is no part of morality. It is indeed exactly its counterpart. It is the sole antagonist of virtue, leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others. Accordingly, it is against this enemy [i.e., self-love, egoism] that are erected the batteries of moralists and religionists, and the only obstacle to the practice of morality.”

Jefferson admitted gladly some atheists were moral. However, if they argued their morality was from self-interest, self-love, or egoism” Jefferson slammed them hard against the mat. Such motives were amoral (“no part of morality”); immoral (“exactly its counterpart”); and anti-moral (“sole antagonist of virtue”).

Notice Jefferson said secular moralists and “religionists” united against the “enemy” of arguing morality came from self-love:

“When [the moral sense] is wanting [i.e., lacking], we endeavor to supply the defect by education, by appeals to reason and calculation…other motives to do good and the eschew evil, such as the love, or the hatred, or rejection among whom he lives…whose society is necessary to his happiness and even existence…that honesty promotes interest in the long run; the rewards and penalties established by the laws; and ultimately the prospects of a future state of retribution for the evil as well as the good done while here.

“These are the correctives which are supplied by education, and which exercise the functions of the moralist, the preacher, and legislator; and they lead into a course of correct action all those whose disparity is not too profound to be eradicated.”

The moralist, the preacher, the legislator – all united together for public morality. He said nothing about putting a legal fence around religious moral ideas, religious discussions. The Constitution forbade establishing a church, not freely discussing whatever ideas – moral, religious, legal – educated people to become moral American citizens.

Atheists should note Jefferson included future rewards and punishments for public education and morality. Jefferson believed in a God who was moral and just, who rewarded and punished in a “future state.”

Atheists love to quote Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, wherein all Jefferson did was reaffirm the “wall of separation between church and state.” That was the U.S. Constitution, no big surprise. Not a single Founder wanted to “establish” any particular church.

Jefferson (after Washington) made completely clear that atheistic ethics – argued from self-interest, self-love and egoism – was amoral, immoral, and anti-moral. How were atheists “really moral?” Jefferson said they had implanted within them the “moral sense” – put there by the creator! So atheists might deny the existence of God, yet their morality was a kind of “trace of God” in them (though these are my words, not Jefferson’s).

Most shocking of all – for the atheist who thinks Jefferson is his or her hero – Jefferson said three professionals all were involved in the same essential moral education of the democracy: (1) the secular moralist; (2) the religious preacher; and, (3) the legislator.

What this means, therefore, is that Chuck Souder – and other clergy of other religions, not just Christian, but where the “duties to God and neighbor are taught” – is fulfilling Jefferson’s second classification of moral instruction for the public.

Mr. Souder should be thanked as a True Jeffersonian, as he does what he did: “point out dependence on God” and “our duty to be grateful and accountable to God.”

Jefferson did not believe in miracles. He was a Unitarian. Yet he believed in a moral, benevolent God, who also would be the final judge for the good and evil we do.


Christianity as a “Barbaric Religion”

Compared with Atheism

Religious people built most of this nation’s hospitals. Christians started public schools so all people could read the Bible and other subjects. All but one of the first 123 colleges in early America were founded by Christians. Christians taught personal responsibility, the duty to work and earn one’s own bread, financial savings and thrift and sacrifice for the community.

Orphanages, prison reform, food pantries, homeless shelters, care for people struck by natural disasters, all were linked with Jesus’ doctrines. Christian congregations and organizations send groups all over the USA and world for disaster relief, to drill water wells, to build schools, educate the poor.

No other religion does more in this regard. Why do Christians do it? The Great Command is love God. The Second Command is love your neighbor. A Third Command from Jesus is “love as I have loved you, love one another.” A fourth teaching of Jesus is “inasmuch as you do it to the very least of these, you do it to me.”

Gee, those barbaric Christians are commanded to do a lot of loving, and they do, Thank God!

What have atheists done?

Karl Marx was an atheist. He created the Russian and Chinese Communist revolutions. Add up the millions murdered and enslaved. Really.

Adam Smith was an atheist. He designed “laissez-faire capitalism.” What’s that? The best short answer is, “Profits are more important than people.” Add up the millions in the USA affected by that atheist. Really.

John Dewey was an atheist. He is called the Father of American Education. Dewey pulled out religious values from public schools, from 1897-1950. Then Madalyn Murray O’Hare and others won their Supreme Court suit on Bible-reading on school time. Then more atheists got those nasty Ten Commandments pulled down from all courthouse walls, almost as if they were pornographic. Who wants divine commands against lying and stealing in county, state or federal courthouses? Glad we got those out of there. great achievement.


A Jeffersonian invitation to atheists

Atheists, skeptics, and cynics in Shelby County, let’s all buy copies of The Jefferson Bible—the Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (Beacon Press, 1989), and I’ll lead a Jefferson Bible Study! Here’s the offer.

All will buy the book. All (or most) will offer home on “rotation” for our meetings. We meet once or twice a month. We study Jefferson’s presentation of Jesus’ morals. Then, you get to grill a Christian clergyman about the failures of Christianity and other religions, Freud’s critique, Hume’s critique of miracles, all kinds of things – only during refreshment breaks!

There’s one caveat. You don’t believe in God. You are asked to indulge me in one favor for “free teaching.” I get to pray – briefly, for no more than two minutes – to nothing I will be addressing “nothing” as God; however, you can sit still for two minutes – before and after. That’s four minutes to be with a scholar with four degrees, the last two from one of the most humanistic institutions in the world – the University of Chicago (Crescat Scientia Vita Excolatur).

Do I have any takers? Here’s my E-mail: jwillis@leadershipethicsonline.com. I love Jesus as the Christ; however, you don’t have to. But maybe by the time we’re done, you may love him like Jefferson – as the best religious teacher around—and not someone “barbaric.”

Come on. I’m ready. Are you? This will be fun for you and a real blessing for me.


John D. Willis, PhD, is president of Leadership Ethics Online, which can be found at www.leadershipethicsonline.com. He was born, raised, and lives in Shelby County.