Abraham Lincoln's Views
On God And Religion
Steven Taylor

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Steven Taylor"
Subject: Re: Abraham Lincoln
Date: Friday, August 25, 2000 1:07 PM

Why would it be so bad for them to have been atheists? Does atheism equal wickedness? Does faith itself make one good? or is there more?

The biography by Lincoln's close associate, William Herndon, should remove most doubt about Lincoln's infidelity. Also, Robert Ingersoll, John E. Remsberg, and Joseph Lewis have compiled some thorough studies on Lincoln's lack of religious belief (links below). Follow these arguments and compare how the same thing happened to Paine and others (and is now happening to Jefferson of all people) and you will see that certain people live in their own world and follow no rules when it comes to historical inquiry -- they will claim any hero that it is convenient for them to claim and that they can get away with.

When the country has a genuine hero, the tendency among all citizens is to claim that hero as their own. Thus, whoever you are, Lincoln was just like you. Also, if one's system involves a method that alleges to make people moral (or worse, that one cannot be moral without that method), advocates of that method will naturally claim national heroes as their own. And since Christianity began to flourish shortly after the time of Lincoln, the myths of his piety flourished along with the factual accounts of his heroism.

While it feels good to know that Lincoln, along with Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Paine, and many other American heroes were either flat-out atheists or bordered on atheism or would have been atheists had Darwin lived back then, we are not claiming that atheism is superior or that all moral people are motivated by their lack of faith, etc. (Though some do make this claim, most of us teach that you're on your own and must make your own life. Some of us do, however, claim that faith impairs morality; I do not teach this as it simply is not true.)

Sure, I'd like to think JFK or MLK or Gandhi were in our camp, but all were devout theists (a argument can be made for Gandhi's eventual atheism, but this is almost impossible to establish). The type of atheism we advocate relegates one's religious beliefs as incidental to one's character. The only time religious dogma really plays a role is, I think, when one becomes a hero within the religion (such as a missionary or a preacher -- someone who stumps specifically for the faith).

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Steven Taylor"
Subject: Re: Abraham Lincoln
Date: Friday, August 25, 2000 10:37 PM

My question tried to point out the indignity heaped upon atheists throughout history -- especially in America today. This aspect is guaranteed to get me riled, as I have suffered from this stigma since childhood.

As for atheism being an untenable position during the Revolutionary period, Richard Dawkins concurs with you, as do I, but Dawkins explained it the most nobly:

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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.
     -- The Blind Watchmaker, p. 6

 

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Most of the Founding Fathers were Deists, as were most intellectuals in America during the Revolutionary era. After Darwin they became Freethinkers or Ingersoll-esque agnostics (though Ingersoll more resembled an atheist of the dogmatic variety than any who would call themselves agnostics or even atheists today; Ingersoll's are hard core even amongst atheists). Only relatively recently, amidst the stigma of being an atheist, have scientists begun to say they are pantheistic, but this variety of pantheism is atheistic as well. It's like that old joke:
 

The same can be said for the atheistic pantheist, the Unitarian, and any number of "in the closet" terms we use to describe ourselves.

Abraham Lincoln, though, knew about evolution, having been elected to the presidency a little over a year after the publication of Origin of Species. By then, speculation on evolution had been making the rounds within Freethought circles for years, and one of Lincoln's favorite activities, according to Herndon, was to argue Freethought issues with his rough-and-tumble Freethought buddies.

Is that the Lincoln we learned about in Sunday School? or even Public School?

Oh, and Washington used to duck out of Church whenever the Communion ritual was about to commence. He also is known to have forsworn the mealtime prayer at home.

And Adams and Jefferson: Recently, American Atheists published book covers for students to counter the Christian Nation book covers being distributed in Texas and elsewhere. The schools initially tried to ban the book covers as "hate literature" because they contained anti-Christian quotations from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. We have a thorough collection of these quotations in our Big List of Quotations, and just yesterday completed a separate Jefferson file, probably the biggest collection of Jefferson's quotes on religion on the entire Web -- and it's just a drop in the bucket. John Adams was outspoken as well, but he was not as adamant as Jefferson, speaking only to Jefferson and a few others, and only later in life.

Paine was so outspoken that his anti-Christian sentiments have cost him his rightful place in the cultural-historical memory of America. But it was he who coined the phrase "The United States of America," it was he who sparked the Revolution with is "Common Sense" series of pamphlets, and it was he who kept the Revolution going by glomming millions from Louis XVI and by publishing his "The Crisis" series to strengthen morale.

Call them rogues if you wish, but don't call them Christians. They may have had vague sentiments of a god, out there, somewhere, but they were not devout by any means.

And they were the rule rather than the exception for the post-Enlightenment colonies. Church membership had died off to a mere five percent during the Revolution. Church membership peaked a little during the Civil war, but didn't get that high until during the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s, and it peaked again during the Reagan administration. Today, though, the fundamentalists Christians consist mostly of the elderly and the poor; the under-30 crowd is least likely to believe, for example, in young-earth creationism or the immanent return of Christ within our lifetimes. And in Europe, Christianity is passe as to not warrant any notice; atheists in Europe have little or no work to do these days.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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