Monday, February 26, 2007

Ben Franklin's Warning

While searching for quotes to use in my previous post from my beat up old college text book "The American Tradition in Literature: Volume 1", I took a moment to read a letter that is believed by some scholars to be a draft of a reply Benjamin Franklin wrote to Thomas Paine, though apparently it is not verified 100%. What struck me about Franklin's letter is how the arguments he made against atheism some 220 years ago are still in common usage to this very day. Let's read what he had to say:

"Dear Sir,

I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against the doctrines of a particular providence, though you allow a general providence, you strike at the foundation of all religion. For without a belief of a providence, that takes cognizance of, guards, and guides, and may favour particular persons, there is no motive to worship a deity, to fear its displeasure, or to pray for its protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion, that, though your reasonings are subtile, and may prevail with some readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general sentiments of mankind on that subject, and the consequence of printing this piece will be a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits in the wind, spits in his own face.

But, were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion; you have a clear perception of the advantages of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a proportion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced and inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and to retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is, to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. You might easily display your excellent talents of reasoning upon a less hazardous subject, and thereby obtain a rank with our most distinguished authors. For among us it is not necessary, as among the hottentots, that a youth, to be received into the company of men, should prove his manhood by beating his mother.

I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person; whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification from the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a great deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked as we now see them with religion, what would they be without it. I intend this letter itself as proof of my friendship, and therefore add no professions to it; but subscribe simply yours."

In a sense, Franklin's letter is a lengthier and more polite version of Karen Hunter's admonition to atheists on CNN's Paula Zahn NOW to "just shut up." Are we needlessly upsetting the apple cart and exposing ourselves to ridicule and contempt? Will the efforts of secularists and atheists in America to curb religion in the public square and push for a greater secular influence in America succeed and make America a better country, or will it simply result in division and discord? Or as Franklin wrote above, will we end up spitting in our own face?

Now don't get me wrong. I am not proposing that those of us who are atheists should crawl under a log and hide from public sight. But it is interesting to note how little things have changed in America in the last two centuries and it demonstrates how deeply embedded Christian belief is in our country. That being the case, there are clearly issues that are worth fighting for to curb the influence of the Religious Right in America. But it will be neither easy nor painless. In the movie 'The Untouchables', Sean Connery says "Just like a wop, bringing a knife to a gun fight"... No wait, wrong quote. Sorry, I just couldn't resist that one.

After Connery gets riddled with bullets seconds after saying that famous line to the intruder in his apartment, he asks Kevin Costner's Elliot Ness "how far are you prepared to go?" What are we willing to fight for and how far are we prepared to go?


CyberKitten said...

Tommy said: But it is interesting to note how little things have changed in America in the last two centuries and it demonstrates how deeply embedded Christian belief is in our country.

Just look at Europe 2-300 years ago and look at us now... The only constant is change. Religions rise and fall. It's just a matter of time.

Tommykey said...

wow, I would have thought this post would have generated a lot more hits than this!

Anonymous said...

Nice work. The quote from franklin could not possibly be to Paine. The timeline is all wrong. When the letter was written, paine was still in his early twenties and had not even met Frnklin yet.

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