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Sunday, March 13, 2005

Are Freethinkers the Essence of Our Nation?

Another reader disagrees.

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Objecting to A Reader Defends Atheists and Agnostics, another reader emailed:

“Mr. Brewton, socialism doesn’t equate communism.  A person can be a socialist as well as a religious one.  As for what our country was founded on, it was founded by deists, agnostics, atheists and theists, thank goodness for that. They sought a country where a citizen was free to practice whatever their beliefs might be.  They sought a separation of church and state just for the reasons of previously mentioned freedoms.  We are a country of freethinkers, fundamentalist and everything in between. We were founded by these ideals as well.”

My reply:

With all due respect, I must disagree with most of the foregoing assertions.

First, “socialism doesn’t equate communism.”  It was Karl Marx himself, together with Friedrich Engels, who coined the term scientific socialism to describe communism, which was envisioned as the culminating stage of socialism.

Second, “A person can be a socialist as well as a religious one.”  That is literally true, simply because socialism is a secular religion.  Describing the German Socialist Party, Bertrand Russell wrote: “For Social Democracy is not a mere political party, nor even a mere economic theory; it is a complete self-contained philosophy of the world and of human development; it is, in a word, a religion and an ethic.  To judge the work of Marx, or the aims and beliefs of his followers, from a narrow economic standpoint, is to overlook the whole body and spirit of their greatness.? 

However, most major socialist philosophers have pointedly rejected spiritual religions, Christianity in particular.  Marx called spiritual religions the opium of the masses imposed by the capitalist ruling class to oppress the workers.  Socialism’s two founders - Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte - both flatly declared that the ideas of God and spiritual religion are ignorant superstitions.  As Comte put it, the proper object of worship is mankind itself.  We just have to look into the mirror each day and say, “What a good boy am I.”

Third, “As for what our country was founded on, it was founded by deists, agnostics, atheists and theists, thank goodness for that.  They sought a country where a citizen was free to practice whatever their beliefs might be…...  We are a country of freethinkers, fundamentalist and everything in between. We were founded by these ideals as well.” 

This also is literally true, but deists, agnostics, atheists, theists (an offshoot of pantheism), and freethinkers were a small minority of the colonists who settled British North America.  The vast bulk of the settlers were Christians, either Anglicans or Puritans. 

Bancroft Prize-winning historian Clinton Rossiter, who described himself as a centrist, somewhere between labor union radicals and the late Senator Barry Goldwater, wrote in “The First American Revolution:”

?Finally, it must never be forgotten, especially in an age of upheaval and disillusionment, that American democracy rests squarely on the assumption of a pious, honest, self-disciplined, moral people. ? Whatever doubts may exist about the sources of this democracy, there can be none about the chief source of the morality that gives it life and substance.  From Puritanism, from the way of life that exalted individual responsibility, came those homely rules of everyday conduct ? or, if we must, those rationalizations of worldly success ? that have molded the American mind into its unique shape. ? The men of 1776 believed that the good state would rise on the rock of private and public morality, that morality was in the case of most men and all states the product of religion, and that the earthly mission of religion was to set men free.”

Fourth, “They sought a separation of church and state just for the reasons of previously mentioned freedoms.”

That is simply not a factual statement.  Even Thomas Jefferson, whose letter to the Danbury Baptists used the now completely misapplied term “wall of separation,” advocated only having no established Federal church.  In 1787, six of the thirteen states had officially established state religions that were in no way affected by the Constitution.? Such matters were left to the voters of each state.

In 1787 when the Constitution was written, the meaning of ?an establishment of religion? was crystal clear, and there was only one meaning:? to prevent an American version of the English Test Acts that had restricted holding public office to members of the Anglican Church, as well as the requirement that all citizens, regardless of their religious faith, pay taxes to support the Anglican Church.? In James Madison’s notes on the debates during the writing of the Constitution in 1787, this understanding is stated explicitly, on several different dates during the July deliberations.

For extensive details see The Religion Clause Upside Down.