How atheists screw up religious freedom discussions.

Any atheist, or secular minded Christian for that matter, has probably heard one, or most likely all, of the following arguments from Christian fundamentalists/evangelicals while debating the meaning of freedom of religion. Fundamentalists assert that this is a Christian nation, that “church state separation” does not appear in the constitution, and that the founders wanted freedom OF religion not freedom FROM religion.

You may have even rolled your eyes at these arguments on occasion, I know I have. They are startlingly common and both historically and politically either inaccurate or at least serious oversimplifications.

However, the counters offered by atheists are often just as bad. It’s not uncommon for me to see atheists responding to these statements with equally extreme rhetoric.  I’ve seen atheists assert that most of the founders were deists, or even in a few extreme cases, outright atheists of which none of the U.S. founders were. I’ve also seen arguments which seem to imply that the founder’s vision of secularism was essentially the same as the one we have today. Think I’m exaggerating the problem?  Check out this meme which I’ve seen a lot of atheists pass around.


So only two of the men in this picture were founders, but I immediately recognize everyone in this image except for the man in the top left. The issue with this meme is that not a single one of the people that I recognize ever self identified as atheists. The two U.S. founders, Franklin and Jefferson identified as Deists. Sagan called himself agnostic as far as I know, and so did Darwin. Some of the others like Lincoln and Einstein were somewhat inscrutable about the subject so their exact beliefs aren’t known, but while they weren’t strongly religious it’s unlikely they considered themselves atheists. The point is that that there is a tendency among atheists to start bringing long dead people into the fold, so to speak, and this tendency seems particularly strong with our founders among atheists living in the United States.

So acknowledging that this is problem leaves us with two questions to answer. First, why do atheist so often fall into making these overzealous arguments, and second, how can we argue in favor of the progressive conception of the establishment clause in a way that is more historically accurate. As for why we end up making these extreme arguments, yes I’ve overstated things myself on occasion, I think there are several reasons. Some of this is due to political polarization, in a debate with an extremist we are more likely to take more extreme positions our self as a rhetorical defense because we think it makes our position unassailable when in fact it just causes us to say untrue things about the subject. Also many of us just don’t know that much about history or politics so we end up saying things that seem right or that we heard from someone else without fact checking it.

In this case though I think the largest factor is that pretty much everyone in the U.S. has been taught to give the founders of this country a great deal of respect and deference. When a fundamentalist says the founders agreed with them on some political issue are first reaction is to try to reclaim the founders ourselves because we think what the founders have to say about our current political situations matters very deeply. We can’t shake the feeling that if the founders disagree with what we are doing, or they didn’t intend a certain line in the constitution to be used the way we are using then we have done something wrong. What we really need to be saying when this is brought up is that what the founders intended may be useful information isn’t necessarily relevant, and certainly isn’t an unquestionable dictate from on high, which brings us to the second question.

I’m gong to say something here that might seem a bit controversial to some atheists. When the founders wrote the first amendment they did not intend it to be used to prevent government at any level from expressing religious ideals, and they certainly didn’t intend it to have any effect on intuitions managed by the state. They didn’t intend it as a means to keep prayers out of public schools (which didn’t even exist then) and would not have used it to prevent religious displays on government property. When religious fundamentalists argue these things they are actually right, and we just need to accept it. Now, that being said I think the current interpretation of the first amendment as prohibiting these things is reasonable and justified given a nuanced mixture of the more general intent of the amendment, and the accumulation of changes to the constitution, our politics, and our society.

To understand this we really have to look at a few events in U.S. history, so hopefully you like history. First off, out of the original 13 colonies 6 were founded to escape religious persecution. Now you might think that said persecution taught these people a valuable lesson about the need to vest religious freedom totally in the individual. With the exception of Rhode Island, you would be very wrong. It was not uncommon for colonies to have pretty strict laws governing peoples religious beliefs, even to the point of legally requiring people attend a church of a particular denomination. This has changed a bit by the time of the revolution but leaders in lots of colonies still wanted to be able to enforce their own specific religious beliefs on people within their states. Further, many of the founders felt the primary threat to individual freedom was a powerful federal government. So, the first amendment (and the rest of the constitution) was not designed to keep all government out of religion, but to keep the federal government out of the states business, and to protect those religious colonies from federally imposed religion or religious laws, so that they could impose their own. The founders, and the entire country had a very different concept of what religious liberty means than we do today.

In the legal sense very little about this situation changed until the post civil war era. However the country did grow a great deal and a lot of new states were formed. The populations from these states were made up of immigrants from both the original 13 colonies and abroad so they were much more diverse, but the most important changes happened in the late 1860’s after the end of the civil war. A lot of politicians, particularly the radical Republicans argued for a new view of states rights and on what was needed to preserve individual liberty. They argued that the focus on states rights that the founders had written into the constitution had allowed an immoral institution (slavery) to persist, and saw a powerful federal government as a means of protecting individual freedom instead of a threat to it.

The drafting of the 13, 14, and 15 amendments provided the federal government with a broader scope of power, which of course limited state power. The 14th in particularly has become very important over the years, and has effectively extended the limitations of government power set in the bill of rights to the states, which is a situation the founders never envisioned or intended. We also live in a society that is more diverse, more mobile and better educated. The fact that the founders did not envision using the first amendment to eliminate prayer from school or religious displays on government grounds is irrelevant. There were no public schools and if the founders even envisioned such a thing existing they would have envisioned them as state intuitions to which the 1st amendment didn’t even apply at the time. Further, as our society is more diverse at every level than it was in the 1790’s the government is obligated to represent all citizens equally.

The founders claimed to be trying to create a more equal society, but what they ended up with really only provided equality for white male Christians, and even that equality was rather inconsistent. Our modern concept of the establishment clause isn’t what the founders intended, but the founders actual intent was ethically flawed, as a result of the moral blind spots the founders suffered from. If we intend to create the more equal society that the founders never could then religious equality is a necessary component. This is what we need to be arguing when talk about religious freedom. Yes, it’s a much longer and more complicated argument than just claiming the founders are on our side, but I think being correct more than makes up for the lack of brevity.

Update: Several people have pointed out that the person I could not identify was Hemingway. His beliefs were also uncertain since he converted to Catholicism but may have done so only to please his wife.

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  • Robert L

    The guy in the top left is Ernest Hemingway.

    • Dylan Walker (Skeptimus Prime)

      Thanks for the info.

      Quick googling reveals he converted to Catholicism, but it’s unclear whether he just did it for his wife or actually believed any of it. So like most of these guys what he actually believed is somewhat unclear.

      • Robert L

        I’ve noticed that many of the “greats” of the past tended to keep their beliefs fairly close to the vest.

        • Dylan Walker (Skeptimus Prime)

          I’ve noticed that too, unless they were philosophers who specifically wrote about religion, many of them just didn’t say much publicly about their beliefs.

          Heck even some of Lincoln’s closest friends who wrote memoirs about him posthumously couldn’t say for certain what he thought.

  • JGravelle

    Sagan’s Huxley-an agnosticism = soft atheism…