Benjamin Franklin
And Deism
James Call

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: James Call
Subject: Re: Benjamin Franklin
Date: Saturday, September 16, 2000 11:45 AM

Deism existed mainly because Darwin hadn't lived yet. The Argument from Design was simply too formidable until Natural Selection came along and put it to rest in the minds of most biologists (though not the public). They were sharp enough to see that orthodox Christianity was pure fraud. Many had questions about the Design Argument but lacked the knowledge to answer it (until Darwin). So, Deism was a short-lived compromise which later lead to the Agnosticism of Huxley and Ingersoll, and finally led to the "weak" atheism or nontheism of Bradlaugh, and finally reaching the point where flat-out "strong" atheists such as Michael Martin to sound credible to some -- especially in light of the work in physics and the Big Bang model during the past twenty years or so.

From Richard Dawkins's book The Blind Watchmaker:

 

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: 'I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.' I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. (Page 6.)

 

Meanwhile, two things must be noted with dealing with quotations from known Deistic Founding Fathers, and a third must be noted about Franklin in particular.

First, much of the language of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Deists sounds, at first glance, like the language of a pious orthodox Christian. Conspicuously absent from this language, though, would be veneration toward Jesus Christ as a god, language describing any sort of redemption, and the entire notion of a "revealed" or "inspired" word of God. Lincoln, for example, meant "fate" when he used the word "God." Providence is a very common synonym for "God" in the language of Deism, as they did not think very highly of the notion of God answering prayers (though some gave more weight to this than others). When a Deist spoke of the will of God, think of the laws of nature: Paine, for example, argued from the laws of nature that human slavery was dead wrong; in Paine's language, "God" meant the laws of nature much in the same way that "God" meant fate in the language of Lincoln.

Secondly, some alleged quotations from Founding Fathers are flat-out fabrications. Many others are taken completely out of context. In our quotes section under James Madison, we document two fabrications popularized by preacher David Barton (right). Elsewhere, we have the exquisitely researched article from Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State called "Consumer Alert: WallBuilders' Shoddy Workmanship."

I recently logged on to David Barton's website and he was gloating over the "fact" that Jefferson dated a letter "In the year of our Lord Christ."

He even had a picture (left). In it, you could clearly recognize Jefferson's handwriting in the letter body, and that some other hand added the "In the year of our Lord Chrift" part.

David Barton seems like the type who would extract that phrase from the quotation in my letter to you and use it to argue that I was a pious Christian -- ignoring the fact that I've been an atheist almost my entire life, and that I have written prolifically on my views, as Jefferson did on his.

Without knowing whether the Gingrich excerpt is a genuine Franklin or a fraud, I will say that occasionally Franklin (but few of the others) waxed a little more religious sounding than one would expect from a Deist. I am not sure whether Franklin made the effort to see if some of his spoken or written sentiments conflicted with what he said his religious views were, but he said in his Biography that he was a Deist most of his life, and this is good enough for me. In light of this admission, I must take his sentiments and read them in light of that fact. So, if Franklin says "Our prayers, Sir, were heard and graciously answered," we can see in these words the language of one who believes in Providence (an almost personified Fate), fueled by the motives of a politician who eagerly seeks support from body of diverse men in order to to accomplish a specific goal (and even, perhaps, tossing the orthodox Christians a "bone" if you will), and restrained by the fact that he was representing a public which consisted (at the time) of about 17 percent of church-going Christians.

Seventeen percent is quite a chunk of the population and one would expect a politician to want to make sure that the Christians felt represented. Unfortunately, now that church-going Christians constitute 65 percent and the unchurched, in some parts, reach as high as 17 percent, the Christian politicians are not granting to us the grace that our forebears granted to the Christians when they were the minority.

As for this Franklin excerpt, even if he said it, it is certainly not representative of his views. It is, at most, the political posturing of a man who was trying to get his way. As more and more Christian charlatans grab this obscure material and use it to argue that the mainstream thinking of their day more closely resembled a raveling tent ministry our day, and as more and more youngsters wake up and realize that they've been duped (much like your and my generations woke up to imperialism and "Reefer Madness"), we will see the entire edifice of the move to Christianize America wither away as it's core supporters, the elderly, die off and become replaced by the now under-30 crowd -- the least likely to believe this bullshit.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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