October 8, 2020

Thomas Jefferson on the Supernatural

Thomas Jefferson
To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise...without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence.

-Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, August 15, 1820

Thomas Jefferson was far from perfect. Still, I can't read these words without imagining how refreshing it would be to hear something similar from a modern politician. In many ways, we have made so much progress since Jefferson's time. In other ways, we have made surprisingly little.

I realize that Jefferson had retired from politics prior to 1820. He wasn't campaigning or worrying about his political future. And yes, I also realize that Jefferson was far from the only prominent figure at the time to hold these views. Still, I find it depressing to think that someone as prominent as a "founding father" could have held views like this back then but not today. I also find it depressing to think that Jefferson and other founding fathers, routinely held up as notable examples for American schoolchildren, are almost always presented to these same children without any mention of their views on religion. That seems like an important omission intended to preserve the very sort of religious delusion to which many of them objected. So much for honoring their legacy, huh? The lie must be preserved even when preserving it comes at the expense of reality.

It seems to me that any American who wishes to call themselves a patriot would at least want to be correct and complete in their presentation of what the founding fathers thought about subjects with continued relevance today. Then again, I suppose some might be emulating the example set by far too many Christians with respect to their "holy" book. It is holy enough to use as a cudgel against others but not sufficiently holy that one might read it and attempt to follow all of what it says rather than just the select parts with which one agrees or finds easy. By the way, there is an obvious way out of this predicament: stop claiming this or any other book is "holy."

Thomas Jefferson is often credited with championing the wall of separation between church and state. It was (and still is) a good idea. Without him, it is not clear that we ever would have had a secular democracy in the United States. Do we still have one? I think so, but it is very tenuous and is frequently threatened by those who strongly prefer a Christian theocracy. I can't help but think that Jefferson would be unhappy to see some of what we have done with his ideas.

As for the rest of us, there is plenty we can learn from Jefferson and his like-minded contemporaries. This is one of those cases where reading the works of the founding fathers can remind us of their vision for the United States and stimulate some critical thought about what we have done well and what we might still need to improve. Of course, none of this means that we must be bound by the entirety of their vision. The modern world we inhabit is very different from theirs, and this is always the challenge for those who are sometimes described as "strict constructionists." Much like fundamentalist Christians who want to impose irrelevant biblical dogma on the rest of us, there is a danger in refusing to recognize that our founders were not prophets who could see the future (i.e., our present).

Ultimately, it is hard to learn much of anything from Jefferson and the other founding fathers if we remain blissfully unaware of that they thought about subjects as important as religion. Doing so is not unlike the Christian who has never bothered to read their "holy" book but still has the nerve to thump it.

This is a revised and significantly expanded version of a post that first appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007.