Sunday, March 21, 2010

Founding fathers rejected virtuous atheisim, shouldn't we?

My March 8 posting (linked to the title of this post) focused on a recent public school curriculum battle over the central role of religion in our nation's history. Hearing about this controversy rekindled my interest in this subject matter. If anyone is interested in this issue, I've found that W. Cleon Skousen's "The Five Thousand Year Leap: 28 Great Ideas that Changed the World" is an easily digestible source of information.

What I've deduced to be the root cause of the recent Texas text book controversy is the fact that there is a growing popular movement within our contemporary American society. This new belief structure embraces the idea that our nation can remain prosperous and just without religion. How can this be accomplished? Through acceptance of the frequently espoused concept of virtuous atheism.

What is virtuous atheism? It is the idea that one can be an atheist, one who does not believe in the existence of a god, but still live a moral and virtuous life. While this is possible for some individuals, its success on a national scale is dubious. This is precisely the reason why our founding fathers articulated their fundamental belief in the importance of religious education in schools.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin all believed in the central importance of religious education in creating a moral and virtuous constituency. Thomas Paine commented that such teaching would ensure that the American people would continue to be "industrious, frugal and honest." For these reasons, the founding fathers advocated teaching core religious principles in schools. Now this didn't mean teaching the Bible, because even in their day the founders were sensitive to denominational differences. Therefore, the founders desired that five fundamental religious beliefs common to all religious sects be taught. It was through this prioritization of core beliefs about the human condition that America became a humble, just and educated people.

Just 40 years after the founding of our nation, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his book "Democracy in America" about America's recipe for success. De Tocqueville noted how "in New England every citizen receives the elementary notions of human knowledge; he is taught, moreover, the doctrines and the evidences of his religion, the history of his country, and the leading features of its is extremely rare to find a man imperfectly acquainted with all these things." If the founding fathers had achieved such a high educational standard, it makes one wonder whether the contemporary pressure to expunge these lessons from the public educational curriculum has been a monumental mistake.

Our founding fathers knew what was at stake by not teaching these principles to each generation of Americans. In the words of Thomas Paine, author of "Common Sense," the founders looked to Europe and saw "luxury, indolence, amusement, and pleasure." Furthermore, they saw the chaos that ensued as a result of popular dechristianization and atheism movements during the bloody French Revolution. In order to safeguard our fledgling nation against the moral decay prevalent in Europe, the founders sought to uphold religious virtue in its citizenry through the home, church and schools.

Some might argue that religious virtues being taught in school, or being present in a politician, violates the constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state. However, this is not so. This is because separation was never meant to strip morals and virtue from public officials or the public educational curriculum. Rather, it was meant to ensure individual religious freedom and prevent the church from becoming a tyrannical ruling power, akin to a monarch, who oppressively taxed (through exorbitant tithes) or exerted total and corrupt political authority.

The American realization of separation of church and state was recognized by de Tocqueville. While the prevailing belief in Europe was "that religion and liberty were enemies of each other," de Tocqueville observed that Americans were living proof that personal liberty and religious faith could co-exist. Unlike in Europe, de Tocqueville admired how in America the "clergy remained politically separated from the government but nevertheless provided a moral stability among the people which permitted the government to prosper." This is precisely what the founding fathers dreamed of, a government ruled by the people who in turn were guided by religiously based virtue.

Sadly, somewhere within the 20th century, the motivation behind separation of church and state has been distorted from the original intent. This perversion has happened because of contemporary political agendas. As a result, the true and tested morals and virtues revered by the founders have been erased from the public school curriculum. In addition, politicians are lambasted for voting their conscious in an effort to hold the American people to a higher moral code of conduct.

In reality, this political contentiousness is nothing new. De Tocqueville explained how in Europe it was common practice that "unbelievers...attack the Christians as their political opponents rather than as their religious adversaries; they hate the Christian religion as the opinion of a [political] party much more than as an error of belief; and they reject the clergy less because they are the representatives of the Deity than because they are the allies of government." Even in his day, de Tocqueville keenly realized the false adversarial relationship created in the minds of progressive atheists. Instead of realizing the disagreement was solely in a religious sphere, they elevated the conflict into the political plane.

Unquestioningly, this 170 year old observation by de Tocqueville still accurately depicts today's political arena. This makes one realize how not much has changed. Our forefathers struggled with these same competing belief structures. Yet they wisely saw the threat of virtuous atheism and they chose to reject that path. As a result, we have inherited a powerful and prosperous nation. Therefore, as a nation, we must question the potential outcome of continuing down a pathway of religious rejectionism.

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