What Resources Best Discuss Our Country’s Secular Foundations? March 2, 2009

What Resources Best Discuss Our Country’s Secular Foundations?

Reader Rachel has been having discussions with a religious friend over the founding of our nation. In an email, she says she’s currently at an impasse:

The discussion now centers on our Founding Fathers’ intent concerning religion and the creation of our government. I’ve insisted over and over again that our country wasn’t founded on principles of Christianity (or any religion), but instead was founded as a free government for freedoms for all peoples.

However, I’m having many problems researching. I know I’ve found information on this site and others on your blogroll pertaining to my predicament, but I’m coming up blank on Google. Not even prayer is working.

What would be the best resources to point Rachel to? Books, websites, lectures, etc. would be helpful.

The first thought that came to my mind was Susan Jacoby‘s book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.

Are there better resources than that?

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  • Reginald Selkirk

    You beat me to the Jacobi reference.

    Much of the “America is a Christian nation” nonsense can be traced to a book by David Barton, whose work is very shoddy; filled with misinterpreted, out-of-context, misattributed and sometimes outright fictional anecdotes about the founding fathers. Many of the errors have been tracked down by Chris Rodda, author of Liars For Jesus.

  • Todd

    It’s been a long while since I read them, but I would think the Federalist Papers are the best source for explaining the foundation of the Constitution. The absence of religious references should be the first and only clue most educated people need that the founders were strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, rather than religion.

    But you won’t convince anyone who believes “America is a Christian Nation” any more than you will convince them that the world was not created in six days.

  • Austin Cline’s blog has a nice section touching on this…

  • Polly

    but I’m coming up blank on Google. Not even prayer is working.

    Never ever does. 😉

    Sorry, I’m no help. I don’t know either. The best reference I have is the Treaty of Tripoli wherein we state that the USA is not a Christian nation.

  • SkepGeek

    pithy, referenced, and specific to the topic

  • As far as free resources I recommend Positive Liberty, a libertarian blog. The combined authors have done a really good job of researching America’s founders and the idea of secularism and religion in government and they actively engage in debating the current stereotype. The authors are religious, non-religious, liberal, and conservative, so there’s a breadth of opinions conveyed in the articles, but most importantly the arguments are intellectually honest.

    Many of the articles on separation of church and state are under “The Belfry”.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    A good start might be to actually read The United States Constitution, including amendments. Ask them to read it and point out the explicitly religious parts for you.

    Maybe next ask them to read the Bible and point out the parts about democratic rule, checks and balances, habeus corpus, etc.

    If they give you the sound bite about “separation of church and state is not in the constitution,” point out to them that the word “trinity” appears nowhere in their Bible. (For extra credit, point out to them that the only mention of the trinity in any phrasing, the Johannine Comma, was added centuries later.)

  • Jennifer Michael Hecht’s “Doubt: A History” covers the period briefly but convincingly, but I would also look at Jefferson’s own letters as well as his correspondences with the Virginia General Assembly. Gold.

  • Richard Wade

    The very first thing that Rachel should do when engaged in such a discussion is to ask the religious person if they are willing to swear before God that they will change their opinion if Rachel can show them evidence. Otherwise, it is a complete waste of time, a trick, a scam. It shouldn’t be difficult for her religious friend to do this, since he or she only has to let go of an opinion about U.S. history.

    Sadly, this is necessary because religious people have a well-earned reputation for disingenuous discussions. They start such “debates,” pretending that they are interested in evidence-based argument when presenting their flimsy evidence, but then they stonewall when solid, contradictory evidence is put in front of them. They walk away thinking they “won” simply because they were not willing to concede that they were wrong. Meanwhile, people in Rachel’s position have nothing but the frustration of futility.

    Such discussions are important to stop the creeping campaign of disinformation about the foundation of our democracy that would-be theocrats are spreading, but the ground rules must be established first. Otherwise, what is the point?

  • Fred

    Get a copy of “The Godless Constitution” by Kramnick and Moore.

  • I would suggest these books:

    Brenner, Jefferson & Madison on the Separation of Church & State

    Church, The Separation of Church & State

    Clarkson, Eternal Hostility

    Kramnick & Moore, The Godless Constitution

  • There was an episode of “This American Life” titled, I believe, the “Godless Constitution” that provides a series of good counter-arguments that essentially demolish a set of arguments given by one of the well-known “America is a Christian Nation” speakers.

  • Eowyn

    I enjoyed this article over at daylight atheism. Its a nice comparison of American and biblical principles.

  • I second the recommendations of “The Godless Constitution.” It is one of the best books on the subject I’ve read to date, and is actually rather moderate and scholarly (despite the possibly-inflammatory title). I actually read it first way-back-when I was a young bible-thumper, and it was one of the many starting points for my own secularization — so I believe it is more than appropriate for this situation.
    – Miz L.

  • SASnSA

    The “Wall of separation between Church and State” quote comes from Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, and has since been used as guidance by the US Supreme Court. Of course even this get perverted by Christians who seem to see it as only a one way separation.

  • Rachel


    Thanks so much. There is a wealth of information here that not only helps in itself, but provides links to other treasure troves of amazing.

    I can’t wait to see the look on his face. I may not be able to convince him, but I can at least sleep at night knowing that I have a foundation for proving him and others wrong.

  • stephanie

    For a start, I’d hand them a Jefferson Bible.
    That’s pretty much irrefutable proof that one of the most cited ‘founding fathers’ wasn’t Christian, since it was Jefferson’s own work.

  • Loren Petrich

    The Jefferson Bible is a rationalist bowdlerization of the Gospels, suggesting that Thomas Jefferson could qualify as a very liberal sort of Christian — one who believes that Jesus Christ was 100% human, that he worked no miracles, and that he did not rise from the dead.

    However, most fundie theocrats consider that sort of viewpoint to be anathema.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    I’ve never been in a debate over “was this country founded on principles of Christianity,” so I’m not sure what the usual “pro”-arguments are. But I’m a little puzzled why all these (undoubtably excellent) resources are needed to answer the question in the negative. The founding document of our country’s government is the U.S. consitution, and it makes no mention of Christianity. If the Founding Fathers intended this country to be founded on Christianity, surely they wouldn’t be so incompetent as to completely forget to mention it in their founding document. It seems like that should end the debate right there. What possible answer is there to that?

  • llewelly

    I’ll second the Jacoby reference. In addition – refer to the constitution itself. No mention of ‘god’, whatsoever. Article VI specifies that there shall be no religious test for office. First amendment, etc. Next, reference the Treaty of Tripoli:

    Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

    See also this .

    Google ‘christian nation myth’ turns up some discussions of the christian nation myth: The Christian Nation Myth
    , The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense founded on the Christian religion, Koepsell’s article in Free Inquiry (scroll down), and others.

    It’s also important to know that there have bee doubters of religion all throughout history. Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book Doubt gives philosophy-oriented history of numerous important historical people who doubted religion, and why. (By the way, along with Phillip Mackie’s book, and Hector Avalos’s books, Dennet’s and others, Doubt demonstrates that contrary to the beliefs of so many clueless Dawkins-bashers, there are, and always have been, numerous dismantlings of religion by those with sophisticated knowledge of philosophy and religion. Doubt predates TGD , and was, of course, ignored by the reviewers who whined about that book’s lack of religious and philosophical sophistication.)

  • llewelly

    Off topic, but I just had (for about 10th time) the following experience with the ‘click here to edit’ feature. I clicked when the counter said ‘4 minutes 11 seconds’ remaining. It took my browser about 3 minutes to display the ajax edit box. Then I tried to paste my fixed comment (which I had edited while waiting) into said box. Said box took about a minute to respond. Then I tried to review the text to ensure I hadn’t accidentally pasted it twice. Since the box is ridiculously tiny, I had to use the scroll bar. But the scrollbar failed to respond, because the box was updating a per second counter. Then I ran out of time.

    I’ve had similar experiences with different computer/OS/browser combinations, so I’m confident the problem is on the website end. Please, please, please replace this ‘feature’ with a real preview that isn’t horrifically and unusably slow.

  • Isac Galvao

    I liked very much and totally agree with Mr.Wade(Richard).

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