Religious Freedom Day 2014

Obama, Atheism, and the Necessity of Separation of Religion and Government

Today is Religious Freedom Day, annually celebrated on January 16 to commemorate the passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786.

Thomas Jefferson, who served as the nation’s third President from March 4, 1801 to March 4, 1809, is buried at his estate at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia. His tombstone, a beautiful obelisk of granite, bears an epitaph of Jefferson’s design. From the Monticello.org website:

Before his death, Thomas Jefferson left explicit instructions regarding the monument to be erected over his grave.  In this document (undated), Jefferson supplied a sketch of the shape of the marker, and the epitaph with which he wanted it to be inscribed:

“…on the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more:

Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
Father of the University of Virginia

“because by these,” he explained, “as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.”

Jefferson further instructed that the monument was to be made of “coarse stone…that no one might be tempted hereafter to destroy if for the value of the materials.”

It should be noted that Jefferson chose NOT to include “President of the United States” among the accomplishments for which he wished to be remembered the most.

I have a bit of a personal connection to this; Jefferson’s headstone suffered repeated vandalisms beginning soon after his burial, not on account of anyone’s animosity toward him, but rather, because of visitors chipping off bits of it as souvenirs! As a result, a new headstone was commissioned, and Jefferson’s descendants made the decision to place the original headstone on the Francis Quadrangle at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, where I’m from originally, and where I went to college. It was unveiled on July 4, 1885.

I have walked by this headstone hundreds and hundreds of times, and stopped to examine it very often. A plaque accompanying it does identify Jefferson as our third president, explains the obelisk’s presence on the Mizzou campus, and quotes the original epitaph, which is illegible on the stone itself.

The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom meant so much to Thomas Jefferson because it served as a model for the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution. The statute disestablished the Church of England in Virginia and guaranteed freedom of religion. This is what Thomas Jefferson considered to be his penultimate achievement and what he wanted as a model for the entire United States.

Why is it so important that the government be secular?

This is a question frequently asked of us. Setting aside the fact that religions are dangerous and false, separation of religion and government is absolutely necessary because if any religion co-opts legislature, it means that no other religion is free to practice as that legislature pertains to their beliefs. The range of applications is nearly unlimited: Marriage equality, right-to-die, abortion, birth control, sex ed, science education, science funding, religious school funding, liquor sales, business hours, employment discrimination, the list goes on and on and on. And this is not only a problem for people who practice other religions, but especially for atheists. There was a time in this country when atheists were forced to pray Christian prayers. We still have major problems with our governing officials even acknowledging the problem of global climate change, let alone working to fix it, because they are convinced their god either will not let us die off, or because they don’t care if the world ends and actually look forward to that. Keep in mind that these are the same people who fund our wars. 

The only way to guarantee the free exercise of religion is to ensure that our government remains secular. This is something you’d think religionists would stand by us on.

In his address today, President Obama included atheists and agnostics as part of the cultural fabric that  makes up American society. This is an important step in government recognition of atheist rights and interests, and perhaps just as noteworthy, an important step in mainstream acceptance of the fact that atheists live here and are people, too. Although Obama has not sided with atheists on many things we care very much about, I do want to make sure we give credit where credit is due—Obama’s administration has recognized atheism as having a place at the table more than any previous administration. There is still a lot of work to do, and we have a long way to go, but this is progress.

- Dave Muscato, Public Relations Director

  • Miip

    Great commentary. I do not personally like Obama for his remarks about “the future does belong to those who insult islam”. However, I will give credit where credit is do for recognizing Atheism & Agnosticism …

    • Justin Jacoby

      Aye, the problem with insulting islam is that the insult is interpreted soley by the insulted and the insulted seem to feel anything short of mindless obedience is insulting.

  • fjpor

    Great piece, Dave, and good information of our favorite president. The religious leaders (?) of today SHOULD take a lesson from this but I believe it is lost on them, unfortunately.

  • Joel Redbeard Ricklefs

    Although I am not a huge fan of Jefferson, it can’t be denied that is words and actions helped improved this country immensely. It is too bad they were so tainted because of his history with slavery and the Native Americans. I didn’t know about Obama’s comments. That’s great.

    My Blog:
    http://www.myantitheism.com/2014/01/what-should-atheists-think-of-new-pope.html

  • rargos

    “Religions are dangerous and false”

    You’re certainly entitled to call religions “false” if that is your belief, but calling them “dangerous” in and of themselves is no different than people calling atheism dangerous. Neither belief nor disbelief is “dangerous” — what is dangerous are the actions of extremists on both sides of the issue.

    • NJH

      Ideas can be dangerous can’t they? The trouble with faith is that you can never tell if it is true or false (besides the many obviously ridiculous and self-contradictory ones) – they have a hallucinatory power and often an authority that is unwarranted. An (un-falsifiable) faith it is liable to be conflictual (with other faiths) and these are, by their nature, unresolvable conflicts. If you demand access to the minds of children or the leavers of power for your faith we will have a problem. Sure actions can be dangerous but the ideas that underpin these actions and their link to power; that is the issue being debated here. By all means call atheism dangerous but “please show your workings”.

      • rargos

        There are lots of things that can’t be definitely proved true or false, and there are a lot of contradictory viewpoints about a lot of topics in the world today.
        I’m not quite sure what you mean by “access to the minds of children” … are you implying I shouldn’t be allowed to share my beliefs with my own children? Or that children shouldn’t be exposed to mainstream religious beliefs? That sounds more controlling than simply telling them what people believe and letting them make up their own minds.
        And no, I’m not calling atheism dangerous in and of itself … and I would prefer that atheists treat believers in the same way. Demonizing (no pun intended) people who don’t agree with you doesn’t help either side.

    • Andrew

      How many deaths in this world are a direct result of religion? Religion was enacted as a form of control centuries ago. I am atheist and have no faith in a made up character. I have faith in our fellow man.

      • rargos

        It’s unfortunate that you have such a distorted view of religion. If you spent time actually talking with mainstream believers (not the extremists who get the most press), I think you would have a very different view.

        I think it’s also a little disingenuous to say that religion is a cause of violence or “control”. North Korea is probably the most controlling and violent country on the planet, and they are completely secular (not to mention publically executing people for being believers). Maybe you’re not old enough to remember, but tens of millions of people were killed by “atheist” dictators like Stalin, Hitler, and Ho Chi Minh — how many people have been killed in the last 400 years by the Pope?

        How many people risked (and sometimes lost) their lives fleeing from officially atheist countries? I know the vast majority of them didn’t attempt to leave for religious reasons, but the idea that completely secular societies are superior (morally or otherwise) is simply not supported by history.

        • Andrew

          Hitler was an Atheist? I’m pretty sure he was Christian.

          • rargos

            I’m pretty sure that you’re wrong – one of his main goals was eradicating Christianity (and Judaism, of course).

            But don’t take my word for it. How about something published by Rutgers based on documents from the Nuremberg trials themselves.

            This R & A report provides its own description on its title page: “This study describes, with illustrative factual evidence, Nazi purposes, policies and methods of persecuting the Christian Churches in Germany and occupied Europe.” The report characterizes the National Socialist ideology of aggressive warfare as inherently inimical to Christianity and the Christian Churches, and names specific actions the Nazis took to suppress, terrorize, intimidate, and otherwise persecute Christian clergy and churches within Germany and in the conquered territories annexed to the Reich.

            http://library2.lawschool.cornell.edu/donovan/show.asp?id=773&query=ss

            I’ve got plenty more scholarly sources from major academic institutions. Where’s your evidence?

          • rargos

            Or maybe you’d prefer something from Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”? (Univ of Wisc Press, pg. 240) : “Had the Nazis won the war their ecclesiastical policies would have gone beyond those of the German Christians, to the utter destruction of both the Protestant and the Catholic Church.”

            Or do you have a better source that Shirer? (Assuming, of course, that you know who Shirer even is …)

          • Thought Police

            “I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator. By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord’s work.”

            [Adolph Hitler, Speech, Reichstag, 1936]

  • rargos

    I also object stongly to the straw man description of believers as being intolerant, prejudiced, and especially anti-science. Do you really have to misreperesent the vast majority of believers to make your point?

    If you have such a hugely inaccurate and distorted view of what believers are like, it’s no wonder you have such hostility towards them. Please don’t rely on stereotypes and extremists when talking about believers — it’s anti-intellectual and counter-productive to rely on inaccurate and inflammatory stereotypes.

  • rargos

    Perhaps it would be good to quote the start of the actual statute itself, paying particular attention to the words “almighty God” and “holy author”. Jefferson was concerned (with due cause) about one religious group oppressing another — he’s hardly advocating a secular state. No matter how one feels about the issue (and everyone has the right to believe or not believe as they see fit), perhaps it would be best not to read meaning into things where said meaning clearly does not exist.

    Read the actual texts and make up your own minds what Jefferson was saying — don’t just listen to atheist (or religious) propaganda.

    An Act for establishing religious Freedom.
    Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;
    That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do,

  • rargos

    “We still have major problems with our governing officials even acknowledging the problem of global climate change, let alone working to fix it, because they are convinced their god either will not let us die off, or because they don’t care if the world ends and actually look forward to that”

    This is, beyond a doubt, one of the most ridiculuous things I’ve ever read.

    Do you really have to make things up to attack religion?

  • Robert Warmolts

    The atheists’ responses to the cosmological and design arguments– the arguments that show us that the universe exploded into being out of nothing and did so with amazing design and precision– were “we don’t know how that happened.” This is simply an evasion of the evidence that clearly points to an eternal, immaterial, powerful, intelligent, personal and moral First Cause of the universe. Since nature itself was created, this Cause must be beyond nature or ”supernatural.”

Copyright 2013 American Atheists