Those of you who were aware of your surroundings in the 1980's will recall the rise the the Religious Right at that time: their "discovery" (read: "invention") of their favorite scapegoat, "secular humanism", the rise of Jerry Falwell and his "Moral Majority" (even though it was neither), the founding of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, and Pat Robertson's bid for the Republican Presidential candidacy.
Much of their rhetorics at the time was based on the historical revision that the American government had been founded on Christian principles and that church-state separation was just a myth. That just did not make any sense to me, especially given their denouncement of "secular humanism" as people acting for themselves and in their own interest, which is what the Preamble to the US Constitution describes.
Then circa May 1988 on one of the fora on CompuServe -- I forget now which one -- I read one message thread in which a James Abe was using the "founded on Christian principles" claim. Since my approach is to ask a supporter for information, I joined in. I do not have a copy of my first posts, but according to my notes:Then in my last message on the subject, I stated that I found the founding principles to be more humanistic than biblical.Unfortunately, I also did not save James Abe's response. I was shocked at how viciously he flamed me before he left the discussion in a big huff. At least I had the consolation of knowing that he could offer no response to my reasoning other that anger and hatred. I must have completely destroyed his position.
James Abe's response, which referenced the Declaration of Independence, displayed an unfamiliarity with Deism. It is that which this text addresses, as well as to justify my earlier statements.
Sb: #93186 - Our National Heritage
To: James Abe 72250,15530
Fm: David C. Wise 72747,3317
I'm sorry that I have taken so long to answer your response to my comments about our national heritage, what with completing the semester, moving, and performing my two weeks of active duty piled on top of a normally hectic work schedule. Yet your own comments do warrant a response on my part, because I honestly am mystified at the claims that the principles upon which our country was founded are Christian when they clearly are not. With all due respect, I think that your contributions to the discussion generated more confusion than already existed.
First, I noticed some confusion of terminology, especially in Message 93235 (8 May 1988 to Mike Pearson) in which you practically equated theism and Deism. The former is a general term for belief in a god or gods while the latter is a specific and very small subset of the former; it would be like equating canids with dachshunds or the whole of humanity for all time with one James Abe.
Theism is the belief in a god or gods and so forms a set which includes most religions, formal and informal, past, present, and future -- although I am not certain at what point theism degenerates into animism. Theists include Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Deists, as well as worshippers of Amateratsu, Mithras, Zeus, Apollo, Horus, Baal, Anu and Bel, and the Krishna avatar of Vishnu. Simply because members of two different subsets of theism are theists does not necessarily mean that they hold same beliefs and worship the same gods -- most probably they do not.
In contrast, atheism is the lack of belief in any god or gods, which may range from simple incredulity to active denial of the possible existence of the supernatural. Since the term "atheist" is so often used pejoratively, atheists stress the former, more basic definition. It may seem ironic to some that, here in Southern California, it is the atheists who are the strongest supporters of religious freedom and the preservation thereof.
Contrary to Dr. Duane Gish's flippant remark that "agnostic" is just a polite word for "atheist," agnosticism is an acknowledgement of the limitations of the human mind, that we are incapable of knowing the divine, absolute "Truth." While an honest agnostic could not commit himself to the illusionary certainty of religious dogma, he could either believe or not believe in a god or gods, i.e. agnosticism can be either theistic or atheistic.
Humanism stresses human values, human rights, and the realization of human potential. Humanism does not appeal to the supernatural for the resolution of human problems, but rather seeks human solutions. In doing so, humanism often denies that the gods intervene in human affairs, but does not necessarily deny the existence of the gods. Humanists are not, by definition, godless; that is the prerogative of the atheists. Like agnosticism, humanism can be either theistic or atheistic.
Now we finally come to Deism, also known as "natural religion," which was a by-product of the Enlightenment in eighteenth-century England and America. With the growth of science, men of learning and reason became dissatisfied with religious dogma. They abandoned revealed religion (which Thomas Paine called hearsay and hearsay upon hearsay) and turned instead to the beautifully running mechanical universe, wherein Natural Law ruled absolutely. They were theistic in that they believed in a Creator who had created this clockwork universe and the Natural Laws by which it runs without the need for divine intervention.
Yet the creation had become more powerful than its Creator; the Natural Laws are so binding that not even their Creator could violate them. No miracles were possible and the Creator did not intervene in human affairs, leaving people to take care of themselves. Deists studied the moral lessons of the Bible, but dismissed the fabulous tales of miracles; one Deist, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, is supposed to have tried to edit the Bible by cutting out the miracles and keeping the morals. A more radical Deist, Thomas Paine, the Father of the American Revolution, even denounced Christianity as atheistic because it had rejected the true "God of Nature" to instead worship a man. While the Deists were theists and their faith was derived from the Judeo-Christian traditions, their "God of Nature" was definitely not YHWH.
So when we read in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, "that they [all Men] are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," we must inquire as to the identity of the referenced Creator. He was already identified in the first paragraph not as YHWH, but as "Nature's God." This reveals a Deist orientation.
Also in the second paragraph, governments are said to derive "their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed," which is contrary to the more properly Biblical belief in the "Divine Right of Kings." Instead, human standards are applied to governments, which derive their power from the people that they govern. The government's mandate does not come from heaven, but from the people. Is this not humanistic by definition?
In keeping with the Deist perspective that the Creator did not intervene in the affairs of man, the Founding Fathers took it upon themselves to create a religiously neutral, secular government through which to govern themselves for their own benefit with no help from divine guidance. Nowadays, that would be denounced as "secular humanism." Similarly, other principles upon which our government was founded (e.g. democracy, human rights, pluralism, religious freedom) are openly denounced by elements of the Religious Right as being humanistic heresy and inventions of Satan. So you see, I am not the only one to consider these principles as being humanistic.
But instead of haggling over what the authors of past documents meant or believed, it might prove more edifying to examine the founding principles more directly. Three that come immediately to mind are democracy, religious freedom, and human rights. If these and other founding principles are indeed Christian and/or Biblical in origin, then that fact should be evident by their concordance with Christianity and/or the Bible.
To begin with, democracy is not a biblical idea, but a pagan Greek idea. Since one definition of humanism is the renewed study of classical (i.e. pagan Greek and Roman) thought which led to the rebirth of Western Civilization (i.e. the Renaissance), democracy would also be a humanistic idea. Democracy is a human solution to the problem of self-government (which is also branded as humanistic). Even the Christian Reconstructionists, whose goal is to completely reconstruct American society into an Old Testament theocracy, denounce democracy as a humanistic heresy which places the will of Man before the will of God. On the other hand, humanism supports democratic thought.
Religious freedom presents a similar problem. Even though some of the colonies were founded in the search for religious freedom, seeking religious freedom for oneself and granting the same to others are two entirely different things altogether. The former is compatible with the Judeo-Christian traditions of rejecting the false gods of other religions in order to follow the One True Faith. The latter lapses into apostasy by respecting another's right to believe in those false gods and so is incompatible with Christianity. Religious freedom results in a pluralistic society, which Rushdoony, the founder of Christian Reconstructionism, opposes since, "in the name of toleration, the believer is asked to associate on a common level of total acceptance with the atheist, the pervert, the criminal, and the adherents of other religions." Humanism strongly supports religious freedom.
Human rights fare little better. As we saw earlier, human rights were derived from "the Laws of Nature," not Divine Law; they are a natural consequence of being human. To my knowledge, the Bible does not mention human rights and the Christian Reconstructionists oppose them; James Jordan writes, "...the notion of human rights was introduced by Satan in the Garden of Eden, and the notion that men have inherent rights is simply a way of affirming original sin." In contrast, humanism strongly supports the idea of human rights.
I admit that the idea of directly examining the founding principles of our country needs further and more rigorous development, but I think that this exercise helps to show that we cannot blindly pronounce them as Christian. Indeed, the leading proponents of forming a Christian government, the Christian Reconstructionists (upon whose teachings the Religious Right has based its political rhetorics; read "Democracy as Heresy," Christianity Today, 20 Feb 87), openly oppose democracy, religious freedom, pluralism, and human rights while humanists repeatedly affirm and strongly support these same principles. These principles are obviously humanistic; how can anyone call them Christian?
Since you seemed distressed over Robert Sherman's suit against the National Motto, a little history lesson is in order. In 1956, Congress passed a law making "In God We Trust" the National Motto, replacing "E Pluribus Unum." Two years before that, in 1954, Congress inserted the words, "under God," into the Pledge of Allegiance, so that we are no longer "one nation indivisible." Before these wanton acts of Congress, the National Motto and the Pledge of Allegiance both celebrated the ideal of national unity, whose importance is attested to by the long bloody war which was fought a century ago to preserve it. Now our "one nation indivisible" is divided by religion and our National Motto has us appealing for "foreign aid." We are all very much aware of the subsequent decline of American society. Do you think that there might be any connection?
I would love to stay and talk about morality (which is of vital importance, cannot be set arbitrarily, and is obviously not of divine origin), but I fear that I may have already overstayed my welcome.
-- David C. Wise
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First uploaded on 2001 November 01.
Updated on 2011 August 18.