Charles Babbage (1791–1871), an English scientist and mathematician who conceptualized the idea of a programmable computer, understood that scientists were often guilty of manipulating evidence to add credibility to a theory. Babbage described three types of misconduct: forging (the outright invention of data), trimming (the cosmetic ‘massaging’ of data, so as to display them to best advantage), and cooking (hiding or ignoring data that do not support the operating hypothesis).1A careful and practiced eye will be on the alert for attempts to manipulate the evidence to support a preconception of a theory.
Misleading people on any given topic is made easier if the general public is ignorant on a subject or does not have the inclination or the ability to check the facts. This is especially true of science and history. Times have changed. So much information that was inaccessible to the non-professional is now available online to anyone with internet access. Although much of what passes as bona fide history is bogus, there are ways to get to the truth. Not too long ago, if some “expert” in a field said something was true, people believed it because he was deemed to by an authority. This is no longer the case. Authorities are not immune to trimming, cooking, and forging information.
The latest example is a group of religious malcontents called the Backyard Atheists. Using the very dead Thomas Jefferson, they hoped to score some points with the following supposed beliefs of our nation’s third president:
“I do not find in Christianity one redeeming feature. It is founded on fables and mythology.”
There is a problem with the quotation: There is no evidence that Jefferson ever wrote it. If Jefferson had made this statement, it would contradict his major work on religion: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels. It is popularly known as Jefferson’s Bible. “In an 1803 letter to Joseph Priestley, Jefferson states that he conceived the idea of writing his view of the ‘Christian System’ in a conversation with Dr. Benjamin Rush during 1798–99.”
The Backyard Atheists certainly are aware of this history; but they hoped most Americans would not be. To be historically accurate, Jefferson was not an orthodox Christian because of his denial of several key Christian doctrines. Jefferson believed that Jesus’ message was corrupted by ancient writers and clerics. Even so, in a letter to Edward Dowse dated April 19, 1803, Jefferson wrote that he considered “the moral precepts of Jesus as more pure, correct and sublime than those of the ancient philosophers.”
Jefferson isn’t the only founding father who is called on to despoil the Christian religion. For example, Barbara Ehrenreich’s article “Why the Religious Right is Wrong” takes advantage of our nation’s historical ignorance when she criticizes Christian involvement in politics by appealing to John Adams. the second president of the United States. “Adams,” she writes, “once described the Judeo‑Christian tradition as ‘the most bloody religion that ever existed.’”2
As we will see, Ehrenreich trims and cooks the historical record and then hides her tracks by not referencing the Adams citation or offering anything else he said on the subject. How would she explain, for example, what Adams wrote in his Diary dated July 26, 1796?
The Christian religion is, above all the Religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern Times, the Religion of Wisdom, Virtue, Equity, and humanity, let the Blackguard [Thomas] Paine say what he will; it is Resignation to God, it is Goodness itself to Man.3
There is no need to reconcile this diary entry with Ehrenreich’s “trimmed” citation. Her Adams’ “quotation” is pulled out of context from a series of letters that he wrote to Judge F. A. Van der Kemp on issues relating to religion and politics. Adams actually stated, “As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?”4
Adams was not declaring that the Christian religion was the problem as it was revealed – “a revelation” as he put it. The problem was with those who added to its message and distorted the message as it was revealed. Jesus did something similar. The religious leaders of His day had corrupted the Scriptures so badly that the result was their nullification (Mark 7:1–13). In another place, Jesus condemned the religious leaders because their proselytizing turned people into “sons of hell” like themselves (Matt. 23:15).
Adams was not able to peer far enough into the future to see what political regimes would accomplish in the name of atheism, but he certainly had his suspicions. He believed that “the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation,” and that God “ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe,” which he believed “to be the great essential principle of morality, and consequently all civilization.”5 Adams understood that the legal system of Israel was a model for the nations. Those nations that throw off the laws of the Bible are doomed.
Adams believed that republican governments could be supported only “by pure Religion or Austere Morals. Public Virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private [virtue], and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.” As for his sons, he told his wife to “Let them revere nothing but religion, Morality and Liberty.”6 And what about clergymen who spoke out on “social issues,” an anathema to so many Leftists, unless they support their cause, and atheists? While Adams believed in liberty, he also recognized that only a moral people can live in a condition of liberty.
It is the duty of the clergy to accommodate their discourses to the times, to preach against such sins as are most prevalent, and recommend such virtues as are most wanted. For example,—if exorbitant ambition and venality are predominant, ought they not to warn their hearers against those vices? If public spirit is much wanted, should they not inculcate this great virtue? If the rights and duties of Christian magistrates and subjects are disputed, should they not explain them, show their nature, ends, limitations, and restrictions?7
Adams chides those who laud and praise a clergyman “as an excellent man and a wonderful preacher” when he supports their cause, “[b]ut if a clergyman preaches Christianity, and tells the magistrate” something that the magistrate does not want to hear, then the clergyman is castigated for his views. Not much has changed in more than two-hundred years. The critics of the Right never seem to condemn those clergymen on the Left who support liberal causes in the name of religion. A double standard exists, and liberals refuse to admit it.8
- Walter Gratzer, The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-Deception and Human Frailty (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), vii. [↩]
- Barbara Ehrenreich, “Why the Religious Right Is Wrong,” Time (September 7, 1992), 72. [↩]
- John Adams, The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L.H. Butterfield (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962), 3:233–334. [↩]
- Letter to F. A. Van der Kemp, December 27, 1816. See Norman Cousins, ed., ‘In God We Trust’: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 104–105. [↩]
- Letter to F. A. Van der Kemp, February 16, 1809. Quoted in Cousins, ‘In God We Trust,’ 102-103. [↩]
- Quoted in Philip Greven, The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience, and Self in Early America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), 346. [↩]
- John Adams, “Novanglus: A History of the Dispute with America, from its Origin, in 1754, to the Present Time (1774).” Reprinted in Cousins, ‘In God We Trust,’ 89–90. [↩]
- Gayle White, “Whatever Happened to God’s Left Wing?,” Atlanta Journal/Constitution (October 30, 1994), R1, 3. [↩]