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Jefferson - 'Howling Atheist'

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Popular history avoids mentioning that Thomas Jefferson, chief creator of American democracy, was a skeptic who wrote many attacks on the clergy, and who was denounced as a "howling atheist", a "hardened infidel", and an "enemy of religion".

Jefferson was born into the Anglican Church and remained a lifelong member, nominally. Yet he rejected his church's supernatural dogmas, such as the belief that Jesus was divine. Jefferson concluded that Jesus was simply a human advocate of compassion and forgiveness - the finest such in history. Jefferson even compiled the moral maxims of Jesus into a condensation later called the "Jefferson Bible", from which he omitted what he called the "superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications" that perverted the gospels.

As a Virginia legislator and governor, Jefferson led efforts to separate church and state. He succeeded in disestablishing his Anglican denomination as the official state church, and wrote the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom outlawing religious tests for citizens.

Jefferson befriended English Unitarian leaders, deniers of the Christian Trinity, and called himself a Unitarian. He also was ranked among Deists, the Enlightenment-era thinkers who rejected mystical Christianity but felt they perceived God in the vastness and intricacies of nature.

Publicly, Jefferson was reticent about his disbelief, but he expressed it boldly in dozens of private letters to friends. He also revealed hints of doubt in his only full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia, published in London in 1787. In this work, Jefferson noted that Christian conflicts had killed millions, and that it did no harm for a person "to say there are twenty gods, or no god".

Jefferson's colleagues were well aware of his disbelief. President John Quincy Adams wrote of Jefferson in his diary (Jan. 11, 1831): "If not an absolute atheist, he had no belief in a future existence. All his ideas of obligation or retribution were bounded by the present life."

Biographer Fawn Brodie concurs: "No other statesman of his time could match Jefferson in his hatred of the established faith.... His distrust of clergymen as factionalists, schismatizers and imprisoners of the human spirit continued to his death."

During the presidential campaign of 1800, ministers and Federalist political opponents called Jefferson an atheist. He was denounced so frequently, and with such vehemence, that many historians regard the 1800 campaign as the cruelest in U.S. history. Although he narrowly won the election, accusations of atheism continued until Jefferson's death and for decades afterward. Gradually they faded, supplanted by the sanitized popular view that he was a conventional believer.

Today, Jefferson's immortal vow of "eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man" is engraved upon his memorial in Washington but few who read it know that he was speaking of the clergy.

Jefferson's views on religion

Private letters:

"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 classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." - letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823

"On the dogmas of religion, as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarreling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others, and absolutely beyond the comprehension of the human mind." - letter to Archibald Cary, 1816

"In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own." - letter to Horatio Gates Spafford, March 17, 1814

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight (more...)

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