Humanism, Thomas Jefferson and The Constitution
There are a large number of distinguished humanists but Thomas Jefferson does deserve more than a few words since he is responsible for the precursor to the First Amendment that is almost universally interpreted as the Constitutional justification for the separation of church and state; specifically: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The frequently used term, "Separation of Church and State", owes itself to a phrase in a letter written by Jefferson in 1802 to the Danbury Baptists Association. Part of the text reads, “...I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” Although some have tried arguing to the contrary, it does seem the preponderance of evidence suggests that Jefferson didn't believe in a Christian God. Regardless, we well know from his writing that he would have strenuously objected to and argued against the religious phrase, "under God," inserted by Congress in 1954 . (Previously,the "godless" Pledge of Allegiance was recited by generations of school children.)
His beliefs were complex but informed by scientific reason that may not necessarily have excluded some form of deism but did rule out established religions. Rather than argue the case here, readers unfortunate enough not to have had direct contact with Jefferson's mind can have a taste of its eloquence and brilliance from the following:
Reading, reflection and time have convinced me that the interests of society require the observation of those moral precepts only in which all religions agree (for all forbid us to steal, murder, plunder, or bear false witness), and that we should not intermeddle with the particular dogmas in which all religions differ, and which are totally unconnected with morality. (Letter to J. Fishback, 1809).
This one small sample of Jefferson's writing does suggest a relativist view to morality that would have been anathema to Christians of the time and might well be unpalatable to many today! Regardless, it has generally been recognized as a good thing for America and a number of other countries that followed the wise example of separating church and state.
The notion that the source of human morality lies in religion, particularly, one religion is again contradicted by Jefferson in another of his letters:
Reading, reflection and time have convinced me that the interests of society require the observation of those moral precepts only in which all religions agree (for all forbid us to steal, murder, plunder, or bear false witness), and that we should not intermeddle with the particular dogmas in which all religions differ, and which are totally unconnected with morality. ” (Letter to J. Fishback, 1809. )
Christianity, I argue elsewhere, deserves particular credit for the deep insight of the teachings of Jesus that speaks to our responsibility to others. It seems to me that the notion of loving your neighbor as yourself is particularly admirable – it's the kind of world I'd like to inhabit and the philosophy that lies at the heart of the teaching that Jefferson admires. In a letter to John Adams in 1813, quoted in an article on Jefferson's Bible, described his intention:
In extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves... There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.
Also, I have always liked and talked about The Parable of the Good Samaritan since I think that we are meant to learn that not only do we have a responsibility to those around us, we are not meant to check whether those needing help belong to the same race or religion as ourselves. These seem splendid and admirable goals and quite within the humanist spirit; and, further, I believe these are just the kind of things that we should hold as ideal and, I admit, are particularly appealing to the sentimental attraction I have for Medieval Platonic values.
But these ideas are not original to Jesus or Christianity, similar notions were and are to be found elsewhere. However these ideals do receive special emphasis and treatment by the Jesus of the New Testaments, and they have seem key elements in Christianity – although served more in the breach than the observance. Christians, like followers of all religions, have always been easy targets for the accusation of hypocrisy.
The present article on humanism was always envisaged as fourth in a series of articles. The first three address Christianity directly. They are published and are entitled:
The next article I'm writing examines atheism, particularly in its modern context that is quite different to the cultural milieu of only a few decades ago. This present article on humanism is the fourth in the series. And, among other things, it does seem necessary to emphasize the belief that we should serve our fellows is not nor ever has been the sole preserve or teaching restricted to Christians, any other religion or humanists; elsewhere, I should have probably made the same point, since many Christians and believers in other gods are woefully ignorant of each others' beliefs as well as those of humanists.
The beliefs of many secular humanists often mirror those espoused by those who follow the teachings of Jesus and the majority of other religions. The idea that Christians are the only ones who hold many values solely is simply untrue. No religion and no group can claim a monopoly on humane acts, although they may well claim to have direct access to the will of the one true god who happens to be theirs. If humans were judged by their behaviors, it would not necessarily separate any one group such as Christians, members of another faith or humanists. It is a thought shared by Jefferson, although the term "humanist" didn't exist in his time anymore than "Christian" did during Jesus' time.
Wikipedia summarizes a generally accepted definition of one form of humanism quite nicely. Secular humanism, it says, is “An ideology which espouses, ethics, and justice, whilst specifically rejecting supernatural and religious dogma as a basis of morality and decision-making.”
There are a number of rational steps that many humanists argue have led them to their position without the necessity of reverting to a prime mover or supreme being as a source for their ethics. I won't attempt to reconstruct the arguments now, since here the emphasis is to better explain that ethics are not the preserve of any one religion or even religion at all. Secular humanism has a history, and it is tempting to call it a prouder history than that of any religion since it proponents have been in favor of conserving rather than spilling human blood.
Had the Internet existed in Jefferson's time, he'd have taken to it like a duck to water to disseminate, debate and refine his arguments. It says something to the paucity of our times that so view literary and intellectual giants seem to have arisen from the Internet. But it perhaps says something about the medium and times that, not surprisingly, it is not friendly to those who deal solely in words. Jefferson, one knows, would have used all facets of the Internet to ensure that questions of theology were not the business of government using YouTube and any other means at his disposal to argue with anyone who thought otherwise.
Jefferson's last quotation is important for a number of reasons including addressing one of the principle arguments mounted by many theologians, namely the notion that humans would have not been able to develop a moral and ethical framework without divine intervention. Today, it seems quite reasonable to believe that general rules developed along with the species to ensure their survival. At any time, it would have seemed just as reasonable to suspect that humans living together in society would generally agree on rules that prohibited murder, theft and falsely accusing others of these and other crimes; also, it isn't difficult to see how all cultures would want to discourage behaviors such as lying and encourage behaviors like hard work and respect to authority.
Generally, almost every culture share many startlingly similar beliefs and myths that demonstrate that we are more alike than leaders of opposing religions or nations with conflicting political aspirations would have us believe. Indeed, leaders know that it is necessary to demonize and dehumanize the “enemy” as much as possible prior to sending their soldiers to war.
Historically, humanists stressed what people had in common whereas other groups such as extreme nationalists, racists, and many devout monotheists, from religions such as Christians and Muslims, have spent most of their histories emphasizing their differences. The differences often had more to do with politics than ethics and routinely let to killing, torturing, trying to convert or persecuting each other or others who didn't or don't share their viewpoint. My reading and understanding of Jefferson suggests he is firmly in the humanist camp since he recognizes how religion is divisive in a state and is a faction that will always strive for and abuse its power.
Jefferson's recognition of religions' place in society seems to be summarized in the following passage. It suggests that he would have not only been opposed to their interference in politics but quite against the tax breaks and any other special benefits they presently enjoy. I can do no better than let Jefferson have the last words on behalf of many humanists and their view of religion in society and politics, when, in 1813, he wrote in a letter to von Huboldt:
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 civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.
And, finally, in June, 1826, in a letter to Roger C. Weightman, in the last letter he ever penned:
May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.
Jefferson's view that notions of freedom and religion were antithetical to each other seemed to remain with him to the end as did his view that science should and, eventually, would trump superstition and religion.
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