The Godless Constitution

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There is, among rightwingers predominantly, though not exclusively, a rather persistent misconception that the United States is at its roots a religious nation.

This is demonstrably false, and rather easy to verify, as we shall see in a moment, but first let us note that the subject is significant (and becoming more so) not because of any particular issue I or anyone else may have with religion in the capacity of religion, but rather because the true founding premise of this country cannot survive upon a religious base.

That founding premise is the principle of individual rights.

The United States, as we’ve noted before (and can never note enough), is the only country in the history of the world founded explicitly upon individual rights.

It was the principle of individual rights — the sheer strength of it — that corrected the contradictions and the great injustices that were also once a part of the United States.

It was the principle of individual rights that successfully overthrew the barbaric institution of slavery:

It was the principle of individual rights that brought this country to civil war, and it was the principle of individual rights that won out.

Among many other things, individual rights mean that if you choose to worship a Christian God, you are free to do so.

It means that if you choose to worship a Pagan God, you are free to do so.

It means that if you choose to worship no God at all, you are free to do so.

In this country, you are free to do anything you wish, provided you do not infringe upon the equal rights of any other person.

Your rights stop where another’s begin. In this way, rights are compossible — i.e. they do not and cannot conflict.

Such is the nature of individual rights.

Rights are a formal codification of human freedom.

Rights state explicitly the fact that no other person or institution has rightful jurisdiction over the person or property of another.

Rights are discoveries, not inventions.

One proof of this is found in the fact that the only alternative to acting by right is acting by permission. Whose permission?

Answering that question is where you’ll begin to glimpse the true nature of rights: if humans only act by permission, who gives permission to those whose permission the rest of us are acting under? And who gives permission to those above, and so on?

Answer: no one — because rights are inalienable in the literal sense: they are not granted, and they cannot be revoked or transferred.

The reason rights cannot survive a religious grounding is that religion, by definition, is built upon faith, whereas rights are the exact opposite: they are demonstrably rooted in the human quiddity — namely, the faculty of volition, moral agency, and human individuation.

From a philosophical perspective, a religious defense of rights is absurdly unequipped to withstand the onslaught of secular attacks, as recent history has also proven, and indeed it is this as much as anything else that has eroded the principle of rights down to virtual non-existence:

The most prominent defenders of rights have sought to defend rights from a religious rather than philosophic premise, and rights have suffered immeasurably from it.

So much so, in fact, that the concept of individual rights is understood by only the slimmest minority of people, and that is why the subject of rights has all but vanished from political discourse today.

Religion must be separated from rights if rights are to survive.

It is a fact that neither the word “God” nor the word “Christ” appears anywhere in the United States Constitution. When asked why, Alexander Hamilton replied: “We forgot.”

The Jeffersonian “wall of separation” was actually originated by a Baptist minister named Roger Williams, who fought mightily to remove religion from government and vice-versa. Thomas Jefferson fully sanctioned this idea — all rightwing propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding — when, in 1801, he wrote the following in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Church:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore man to all of his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

Please note the First Amendment echoes there. The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

And Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust of the United States.”

Note also in Jefferson’s native state of Virginia, the 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which he and his friend James Madison helped draft, read, in part:

“No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions of belief….”

John Adams: “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion” (Article 11, Treaty of Tripoli).

James Madison: “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

James Madison: “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise…. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution” (Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments).

In a letter from 1819, James Madison wrote that “the number, the industry and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church and state.”

In an undated essay, Madison also wrote the following: “Strongly guarded is the separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States.”

Benjamin Franklin: “My parents had given me betimes religious impressions, and I received from my infancy a pious education in the principles of Calvinism. But scarcely was I arrived at fifteen years of age, when, after having doubted in turn of different tenets, according as I found them combated in the different books that I read, I began to doubt Revelation itself” (p. 66 of Ben Franklin’s autobiography).

Thomas Paine: “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and of my own part, I disbelieve them all” (The Age of Reason, p. 89).

Thomas Paine: “All natural institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit…. The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries that have afflicted the human race have had their origin in this think called revelation, or revealed religion…. What is it the Bible teaches us? Rapine, cruelty, and murder…. Loving of enemies is another dogma of feigned morality, and has beside no meaning. Those who preach the doctrine of loving their enemies are in general prosecutors, and they act consistently by so doing; for the doctrine is hypocritical, and it is natural that hypocrisy should act the reverse of what it preaches” (The Age of Reason).

George Washington: “I oppose the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution…. [Every American should] worship according to the dictates of his own heart.”

In 1783, George Washington rejoiced that in this country “the light of truth and reason had triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition.”

John Adams: “Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, ‘this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it’” (Letter to Charles Cushing, October 19, 1756).

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams wrote: “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved — the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!”

Also from John Adams: “The doctrine of the divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity…. Thirteen governments [referring to the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without pretence [sic] of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind.”

Reverend Jedidiah Champion, closing his Sunday service with a prayer in 1797, said this: “O, Lord: wilt Thou bestow upon the Vice President [Thomas Jefferson] a double portion of They grace, for Thou knowest he needs it.”

Reverend Timothy Dwight, 1798, said: “Why should the religious support the philosophers, the atheists, like Thomas Jefferson?”

Reverend William Linn opposed Thomas Jefferson in print for “his disbelief of the Holy Scriptures; or in other words his rejection of the Christian Religion …”

“And if,” continues the God-fearing Reverend, “this opposer of Christianity [were to become President it would] destroy religion, introduce immorality and loosen all the bonds of society.”

New York clergyman, Dr. John Mason publicly referred to Thomas Jefferson as “a confirmed infidel and lacks so much as a decent respect for the faith and worship of Christians.”

New England Palladium (a popular newspaper): “Should the infidel Jefferson be elected to the Presidency, the seal of death is that moment set on our holy religion, our churches will be prostrated, and some infamous prostitute, under the title of Reason, will preside in the sanctuaries now devoted to worship of the Most High.”

The Christian Federalist: “Can serious and reflecting men look about them and doubt that if Jefferson is elected president, those morals which protect our lives from the knife of the assassin — which guard the chastity of our wives and daughters from seduction and violence — defend our property from plunder and devastation, and shield our religion from contempt and profanation, will not be trampled upon and exploded?”

Thomas Jefferson was repeatedly called by clergymen “a howling atheist,” and even accused of “libel against Christ.”

Ask yourself: if he was devoutly religious, why was he slandered so? And why did he edit out all the miracles in his copy of the New Testament?

Thomas Jefferson: “An amendment was proposed by inserting the words ‘Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion’ but was rejected by a great majority in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammedan, the Hindu and the Infidel of every denomination” (From Thomas Jefferson’s biography; please mark well those last words: “Infidel” meant “unbeliever,” which in turn meant “atheist”).

Thomas Jefferson: “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions…. The legitimate powers of government extend only to such acts as are injurious to others. But it does me no harm for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg” (Notes on the State of Virginia).

Thomas Jefferson: “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classes with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter” (From the margins of Jefferson’s Bible).

Thomas Jefferson: “They [the clergy who denounced him] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition of their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the alter of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” (i.e. any faith forced upon us).

Thomas Jefferson: “I have examined all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology. Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make one half of the world fools and the other half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the earth.”

Thomas Jefferson: “Christianity [has become] the most perverted system that ever shone on man. Rogueries, absurdities and untruths were perpetrated upon the teachings of Jesus by a large band of dupes and importers led by Paul, the first great corrupter …”

Thomas Jefferson giving advice to his nephew: “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than the blindfolded fear…. If it end in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue on the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others which it will procure for you.”

Thomas Jefferson: “Our rights have no dependence on religious opinions.”

Faith and force are the antithesis of reason and rights.

Rights do not depend upon religion or God or gods but just the opposite: rights are an inherent part of the human faculty of rationality.

Rights are how we survive on this earth, and they exist without any reference whatsoever to a religious ideology.

Until that principle is fully grasped, rights are every bit as endangered by conservatives as they are by liberals — and that’s saying a lot.

14 Comments

  • Ricky James Moore II

    July 30, 2017

    Political ideologies are indistinguishable from religion. America is a religious nation, and the religion is revolutionary liberalism/universalist humanism. “Rights” are a spook.

  • Ray

    July 30, 2017

    I agree with the first part unequivocally: political ideologies and religion are identical: both are pure, unadulterated dogmatism.

    Rights, however, are hardly a spook, and here is why I say:

    The only alternative to acting by right is acting by permission. Ask yourself: whose permission? And who gives permission to the person who gives you permission?

  • Jeff

    July 31, 2017

    Colleges and Universities are indistinguishable from religion. Politics merely uniforms employed so the rabble can be divided, sides formed, and tickets sold. Rights, at best, a mirage and at worst the advertising precursor to Law. Freedom just the spots of chaos floating in-between the Laws. And everything you can do is protected only by those things you can not.

  • Ray

    July 31, 2017

    Jeff, my friend, you were doing so well — right up to the point where you decided that “rights are a mirage.”

    Rights, on the contrary, are indispensable to human flourishing. Where do rights live? They live in the human individuation and the faculty of volition, which gives rise to moral agency.

    Rights are not primaries: they are second-order principles that derive from something deeper. And that something is a thing which is very specific within the human condition. It is the faculty of choice.

    If human behavior were automatic, as it is with animals, there would be no question of rights because any action we undertook would not be chosen. Human action would be neither moral nor immoral but amoral, and rights would therefore not exist.

    The grizzly bear who mauls the innocent child is not evil. The man who mauls the innocent child is.

  • Jeff

    August 2, 2017

    I think you are confusing “Rights” with “Beliefs”. Your belief is that if a man mauls a child then he is evil. Now a mother bear will fight another bear to protect its child. So therefore a bear must understand mauling a child is wrong. However, the male bear may maul its own child or those of another bear if it is protecting its territory or position. Yet we do not think of male bear as being evil.

    The Mayans committed human sacrifice of children so the idea that mauling a child is not evil to them. Since there is essentially no evolutionary differences between Mayans and us supports the idea of a belief system, not rights.

    If something is a true Right then it should be obvious to any human. But it isn’t. You have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness but if you go into the wrong part of many, many towns you stand a good chance of getting shot.

    Nope, I stand by my statement – rights are a mirage. You take away the laws or the ability to enforce them and your rights just disappear.

  • Ray

    August 2, 2017

    No, I’m not confusing beliefs with rights. I’m familiar with your line of thought. It comes up all the time, in fact. It’s called cultural relativism — or, more broadly, ethical relativism.

    If someone shoots you, that person is wrong— objectively, morally, legally. That someone CAN shoot you doesn’t nullify the principle of rights, and it is no accident that “wrong” is the opposite of “right,” in both senses.

    The sacrifice of children is also wrong — for the same reasons — even if whole cultures practiced it for millennia. The sacrifice of anyone — children or otherwise — is vile and wrong, and I wish that person the best of luck who would defend the barbarous institution of human sacrifice.

    Yanomami men clubbing their women as a display of “affection,” even if it kills these women, or causes them permanent brain damage, as it often does, is wrong. Also for the same reasons.

    No one and no institution has RIGHTFUL jurisdiction over the person or property of another.

    I do also believe that if a man mauls or murders or molests an innocent child, he is wrong. He has breached that child’s right.

    I don’t agree that this follows: “Now a mother bear will fight another bear to protect its child. So therefore a bear must understand mauling a child is wrong.” Bears are perceptual, not conceptual, and that is why they, like the rest of the animal kingdom, are neither moral nor immoral but amoral.

    I do, however, agree with your conclusion: “we do not think of male bear as being evil”

    But I don’t think it matters if the bear is male or female.

    Thank you for dropping by!

  • Jeff

    August 14, 2017

    “I wish that person the best of luck who would defend the barbarous institution of human sacrifice”.

    Well, let’s see. To start I believe your definition is too narrow to fully encompass the true meaning of human sacrifice.

    In the case of the Mayan, I assume but do not know, that they believed they were performing one of the greatest possible actions for their society. 1) If their belief was that the God(s) was essentially all powerful. 2) If they believed that gaining the God’s favor was a necessary action for survival. 3) If human sacrifice was the best/only way to achieve that favor then to them the only path for survival was human sacrifice. We can view this as barbaric because we do not share their belief system. Instead our own intelligence and beliefs are superior to the Mayans and believe their gods did not really exist and their actions made no changes to their future.

    But that’s just the Mayans, not us. We, the modern people, sacrifice humans everyday. We just don’t call it that. We have other words and methods removed from the Mayans but the reasons and the results are the same.

    Let’s take a sticky one – abortion. Some may say that no one has the right to abort a fetus. Others will say it’s the woman’s right to do with her body what she wishes. I will not judge either way but if a fetus is a human then we sacrifice them daily for such a trivial reason as not wanting to be a parent at this time.

    How about an easier one. Police and firemen die almost daily. This is a human sacrifice, we just don’t call it that. A police officer may die protecting another person, a fireman attempting to protect some property.

    In war many a general has sacrificed men in rearguard actions such as the Battle of Thermopylae. Or in an attack such as the Rokugo Rebellion. Neither had a chance of success but are still considered great sacrifices and held in high regard.

    And then there is self sacrifice. A soldier falling on a grenade. Zaevion William Dobson shielding friends from gun fire. Even a suicide bomber dies believing they are doing something right. Your thoughts probably jumped to the Middle East, not South Pacific.

    “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Who can not call that human sacrifice.

  • Ray

    August 14, 2017

    Hiya Jeff!

    Leaving aside the thorny subject of abortion, which I’ve discussed here before, the crucial difference in the examples you cite is this: voluntary versus non-voluntary action — or coercive versus non-coercive action.

    In fact, I’m against military conscription for this very reason: the rights of each individual are inalienable, and one may not rightfully be forced into the military.

    If someone chooses self-sacrifice, including choosing an occupation that he or she knows may require death, that is entirely his or her right .

    Forcing self-sacrifice, on the other hand, as in sacrificing children (whether it’s motivated by superstition or not), is the diametric opposite.

    It is also a breach of rights.

    I stand steadfastly by my original statement: rights are neither mirage nor spook but on the contrary: they are the bedrock of human civilization.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • Jeff

    August 15, 2017

    So you are agreeing with me concerning my examples because each one is voluntary. Even the military since it is currently not a mandatory conscription.

    But what is truly voluntary when each human is raised inside the bubble of their society and knowledge. If a person believes that sacrifice to a God is real and beneficial and lack of sacrifice is detrimental and dooming, how can there be evil. Evil must be a state of mind, not a tangible thing. Isn’t that why we have insanity pleas?

    Please give me an example of “forced” self-sacrifice? The example must include proof that the sacrifice is counter to that society’s beliefs. Don’t include conscription and conscientious objectors.

    Have your next gig lined up yet?

  • Ray

    August 15, 2017

    I’m NOT agreeing that they’re a breach of rights, and so, no, I’m definitely not agreeing with you.

    I think you’re conflating incommensurate things: someone who signs up to be a policeman is not remotely — not even fractionally — commensurate with the child ripped away from his mother and then having his brains dashed out in order to appease the serpent gods and jaguar deities, who do not exist in the first place.

    I say again: No, I’m not agreeing with you.

    I say again: rights are neither spook nor mirage, and the case has not been made for either.

    An example of forced self-sacrifice is (for example) the one you yourself gave: sacrificing children to a deity.

    Irrational beliefs, no matter how tightly they’re held, no matter how firmly entrenched, do not and never will justify the RIGHTFUL breach of another’s life.

    “The example must include proof that the sacrifice is counter to that society’s beliefs.”

    Says who!? Just because a whole society or a majority of that society believes something hardly makes it right! Or true. Or rational. That’s like saying Nazi Germany was justified in the sacrificing of Jews (another example, incidentally, of forced self-sacrifice) because the opposite of that ran counter to that society’s beliefs.

    Or slavery. Or any authoritarian regime.

    Et cetera, so on, ad infinitum.

  • Ray

    August 17, 2017

    P.S. No next gig lined up yet!

  • Dave Cochrane

    August 20, 2017

    Well said, Ray. It is this lack of understanding or appreciation of what rights are that has led to this culture of entitlement in the West. A good point of clarity is to remember that for every right (inaliable or assumed) comes someone else’s obligation to fulfill that right.

    The right of the peaceful man to be left alone comes with nothing more than the obligation of everyone else to leave him the fuck alone.

    The ‘right’ – as assumed by so many – to free education, free healthcare, free anything, comes with someone else’s obligation to provide them. Therefore these are not rights. They are grants.

    As I understand it, to follow on from the above examples, a test of a true right is its universal status. If Bob has a ‘right’ to have healthcare provided by Jim, then, by the definition of a universal right, so does Jim have the right to have Bob provide his. It’s easy to see how such an assumed universal ‘right’ over another’s property is a paradox.

    But the right of each individual to be left alone is universal; there is nothing paradoxical about it; it is a genuine Right.

    Please feel free to correct me where I’ve gone off track, Ray – I’ve rambled a bit!

  • Ray

    August 20, 2017

    Rambled!?

    My dear Mr. Cochrane, don’t you know your words are like honeyed sweetness to my ears? Don’t you know I’ve missed you?

    Regarding the substance of your speech, I could not have said it better myself: your rights, my rights, everyone’s rights stop where another’s begin.

    Now where the fuck have you been?

  • Dave Cochrane

    August 20, 2017

    I can’t remember, Raymundo… it’s all a bit fragmented, and I’m having a little trouble trying to put the pieces together. All I know is that suddenly one afternoon I’m sitting on my couch, seemingly a little older, heavier… balder – in other words, even sexier – and I’m browsing the web on my Android tablet, when it suddenly occurs to me that I need to visit a certain site, one that I remember celebrating two of my favourite passions, booze and philosophy; and I realise it has been far too long. But, alas, the last device on which this fine site was bookmarked has been lost somewhere along the way. I rack my brain trying to remember a detail, a lead, something to get me back, but all I can remember is a name: Sam… Sam! Wait, no, that was Cheers… Ray? Yes, that’s right: Ray, The Bartender. (Do you know how many bartenders there are called Ray?)

    For a moment all seems lost.

    But then – then I remember a particular old article of yours, with an accompanying monochrome video; I hear a soothingly familiar old voice – is it Clint Eastwood’s? I can’t be sure – and in a flash, out of nowhere, I Bing those immortal words:

    PUTTING THE COCK BACK INTO COCKTAIL.

    And here I am, right back on my old barstool. Cheers, Mr. Harvey.

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