An Atheist and a Christian Walk Into a Tavern . . .

September 30, 1816 – December 12, 1816

The American Bible Society was founded in New York in 1816. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are not fans.

JA to TJ: “We have now it seems a National Bible Society, to propagate King James’s Bible, through all Nations. Would it not be better, to apply these pious Subscriptions to purify Christendom from the Corruptions of Christianity; than to propagate those Corruptions in Europe Asia, Africa and America! Suppose, We should project a Society to translate Dupuis into all Languages and offer a Reward in Medals and Diamonds to any Man or Body of Men who would produce the best answer to it.”

TJ to JA: “These Incendiaries [bible-societies], finding that the days of fire and faggot are over in the Atlantic hemisphere, are now preparing to put the torch to the Asiatic regions. What would they say were the Pope to send annually to this country colonies of Jesuit priests with cargoes of their Missal and translations of their Vulgate, to be put gratis into the hands of every one who would accept them? and to act thus nationally on us as a nation?”

One might think, from these excerpts, that the problem for Adams is the King James Bible, and, for Jefferson, missionaries in general. But the context of these sentiments is an ongoing discussion of the historical corruptions of Christianity—particularly church authority (think Catholic hierarchy, the Inquisition, church-sponsored persecutions)—a topic that Adams seems particularly passionate about. He’s been reading Charles-Francois Dupuis, who, from my introductory readings, may have been the Christopher Hitchens of the late 18th century, although it isn’t clear to me if he was actually a self-described atheist. I’ve read one chapter of his abridged 12-volume The Origin of All Religious Worship, so I’m not going to pretend to know anything. (And, yes, JA read all 12 volumes.) Considering the scope of Dupuis’ work, essentially a history of religions revealing their common origins (in astronomy or something like that), Origin sounds more parallel to Robert Wright’s 2009 The Evolution of God (minus 11 extra volumes), but with a disdain for religion more along the lines of Hitchens.

For a taste of Dupuis, I’m going to include a few long excerpts from Chapter 10, “Of Worship and Religious Opinions, Considered in their Affinities with the Duties and Wants of Man.” He very well may be an atheist, so it’s worth considering why Adams finds him so enlightening.

Dupuis: “The evils which religious opinions have caused on Earth, are of such magnitude, as to authorize the enquiry, whether it is better, either to preserve or to proscribe, the institution of a religion. Its influence on the policy and morality, on the welfare and the misfortunes of mankind in particular, and of society in general, is too marked and universal, that the right to govern man, to modify at pleasure his inclination, his tastes and his modes of living, and above all to degrade his reason, should be lightly abandoned to the priests. Religion interferes with everything; it lays hold of man at the moment, when he issues from the womb of his mother; it presides over his education; it puts its seal on the most important engagements, which he may contract during his life; it surrounds the bed of the dying; it conducts him to the grave, and it follows him still beyond that, by the illusion of hope and fear.”

“From the Pope, who makes the people reverentially kiss his big toe, from the Lama, who makes them reverence his excrements, down to the last juggler, all the agents of religious imposture have held Man in the most shameful dependence of their power, and have amused him with the most chimerical hopes. There is not a spot upon the Earth, where he could have securely enough hid himself, in order to escape the illusions and prestiges, with which these impostors surround all those, who lent a willing ear to their lying promises. I shall mix often the priests with the augurs, with the oracles and with the magicians because all of them exercise their sway in the name of the Gods and the invisible powers.”

Having condemned religion generally, Dupuis now decries the idea that prayer to God is of any consequence:

“What can be more absurd and false, than to believe that the Deity is placed there [in nature] as a kind of sentinel, in order to listen to all the follies, with which the heads of all those are filled, who pray to it and whose wishes, for the most part, express only senseless desires, dictated by particular interest, which is always isolated from the general one towards which universal providence is tending.”

“What an absurdity is it not, to admit that a God of infinite goodness, who however does good only so far as he is urged to do it should be solicited and determined to it by prayers and offerings! How much more I prefer those nations, which address no prayers at all to a God of goodness, because they suppose his nature to be such, that he will do all the good he can, without any solicitation on our part being required! What a contradiction, to admit a God who sees and knows everything, and who notwithstanding wants to be notified and enlightened by Man about his necessities! A God, whose decrees are framed by eternal wisdom, and who yet modifies and changes them every instant, according to the interests of him who prays.”

“It is thus, that God becomes the trustee or confidant of all the most extravagant wishes, and the minister of all aspirations and passions of men; he must very often find himself perplexed to content them all; because, one asks sometimes a thing, which must necessarily damage another.”

“There is a field of a dry and arrid soil, which is frequently in want of rain; but this would be rather injurious to the neighboring field: which one of the two proprietors shall Heaven favor? One would feel ashamed to be God, in contemplating the fantastical picture, which the various nations have made of him, and the actions and passions, which they put amongst his attributes.”

Whether or not one agrees with Dupuis’ conclusion about prayer, his words echo questions that most people who have ever prayed have probably asked. What is the point of prayer? What is the right way to pray? Does prayer matter? Does it make a difference? Should I really be praying for this? Is this real or am I just talking to myself?

The final two excerpts below are perfect reflections of Enlightenment thinking, including the elevation of reason and science and the rejection of religious authority—right up JA’s and TJ’s alley.

“Nature has placed within the reach of Man, in his strength, in his prudence and in the use of all his faculties, the means of his preservation and of his happiness, which are granted to him. Out of this sphere, all is illusion: hence the religion, which has essentially for object, to procure us assistance from above, to make Heaven subservient to our wishes, and bind the fate of Man to the action of invisible Genii, which may be conciliated by prayers and donations, is a monstrosity, a chimera, which ought to be extirpated by all the means, which common sense should furnish, in order to confound the works of imposture. It is the duty of the philosopher, of the friend of humanity, and above all, of a wise legislation: because society is degraded, when Man loses the pre-eminence, which he had over other animals, and he loses it, as soon as he permits his reason to be tainted.”

“For Man, there is only one worship, which could satisfy him and please the Deity: it is that, which is rendered to God by beneficence and by the cultivation of virtue and this worship is not in want of mediators between the supreme Being and Man. Every one ought to be here his own priest, and carry in his own heart the altar, on which he sacrifices every moment to that great Being, which includes in his immensity all the others. Let us trust in him, that he will provide for our necessities. Should Man still believe that other altars ought to be erected, then let them be built by gratitude rather, than by interest; but let it be known to him, that God is not in want of incense nor of the fat of bulls. Let Man contemplate Nature in silent admiration, but let him discard the flattering idea, that she will ever change her laws for him . . .”

Dupuis’ suggestion to extirpate religion by all means necessary, particularly through legislation, isn’t exactly a vote for tolerance or common sense. But I have to agree with JA that these kinds of challenges to Christian (and other religious) believers have potential to refine the good that comes from religious faith and spirituality, whether on a grand scale (like identifying the corruptions and abuses of religious institutions) or on a personal level (like pursuing a deeper understanding of how we communicate with or to God). JA is probably applying most of Dupuis’ criticisms to hierarchical structures like the Catholic Church and the Church of England, more than to his own Protestant background (his own dislike of the American Bible Society notwithstanding). More personally, some people may not allow prayer as anything more than an expression of gratitude to God, perhaps because asking God for something has meant only silence and disappointment, or because asking feels selfish, presumptuous, or, as Dupuis points out, unrealistic considering the contradictory requests flowing in on God’s help-lines.

JA to TJ: “Conclude not from all this, that I have renounced the Christian Religion, or that I agree with Dupuis in all his Sentiments. Far from it. I see in every Page, Something to recommend Christianity in its Purity, and Something to discredit its corruptions. . . The Ten Commandments and The Sermon on the Mount contain my Religion.”

The thing I like about Adams is that he wants to study it all—a worthy, albeit exhausting, approach to life. If you think Dupuis sounds like enough to keep you busy for a while, consider JA’s reading list for the past two years: 15 volumes of Baron Friederich Melchior von Grimm, 7 Volumes of Tuckers Neddy Search (?), 12 Volumes of Dupuis, plus an analysis of his work by Comte Destutt de Tracy, and 4 volumes of “Jesuitical History.”

And why not? It is worth contemplating Dupuis’ assertion that religion “interferes with everything.” If that is the case, then it might actually take a lifetime to sift through the truth and the not-so-truth to come to a conclusion about our reason for being here in the world. Of course, you could apply his statement to any belief system in general (say, atheism), and not necessarily in such negative terms: My belief system is the prism through which I see the world. Is it accurate? Best keep exploring, questioning, and refining to make sure. Or something like that.

Or maybe it’s not worth it.

JA to TJ: “Romances all! I have learned nothing of importance to me, for they have made no Change in my moral or religious Creed, which has for 50 or 60 years been contained in four short Words ‘Be just and good.’ In this result they all agree with me. I must acknowledge however, that I have found in Dupuis more Ideas that were new to me, than in all the others. My Conclusion from all of them is Universal Tolleration.”

If not Bible societies, I’m betting JA was a fan of Ecclesiastes.

Of making many books there is no end,
and much study wearies the body.
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.


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