Atheism in US History and the Constitution

A question for the history mavens. Did the founding fathers conceive or otherwise consider the concept of atheism as we understand it? I imagine the separation of church and state was to keep contending theist perspectives from each other’s throats, but did the concept of a non-theist or non-God centered world view occur to them as part of the range of human philosophical perspectives?

FWIW, according to Merriam-Webster online, the word “atheism” first appeared in 1546.

Main Entry: athe·ism
Pronunciation: 'A-thE-"i-z&m
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle French athéisme, from athée atheist, from Greek atheos godless, from a- + theos god
Date: 1546
2 a : a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity

There was a fear when Jefferson was elected in 1800 that he was an atheist and would try to outlaw Christianity. While he wasn’t really an atheist, the point is that the concept was around at the time.

To use a fashion analogy, atheism is the new deism. Most intellectuals of the 17th and 18th centuries who rejected organized religion ended up as deists. As there still lacked a viable explanation for the origin of the Earth and its inhabitants, full-fledged atheism was quite rare, but not nonexistent. Most uses of the word prior to Darwin were pretty much slanders, in which neither the speaker nor the subject actually understood the word as it is meant today.

However, there is a quote from Jefferson in which he tells us to boldly doubt even the existence of God, indicating that such an idea did exist.

I believe several of Jefferson’s writings referred specifically to a “lack of belief in a deity,” which sure sounds like atheism to me.

Thomas Paine was also an atheist. He wrote The Age of Reason which refuted Judeo-Christianity in the strongest terms. Few of the Founding Fathers were very religious at all. James Madison, who was deeply religious, was an exception, not the norm.


“I believe in one God and no more, and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”
–Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, part I

I second Opus’ point.

If you read Jefferson and Paine, they were closer to today’s agnostics. Most of their indecision came from an 1800s lack of knowledge about cosmology and abiogenesis.

Had they had viable alternatives then, dollars to donuts they would’ve been atheists.

I believe you are mistaken. AFAIK, Paine and Jefferson were deists. They believed God existed and created the universe, but after creation left the world to its own devices and exerted no further control on anything or anyone.

Jefferson specifically rejected the concept of “the trinity.” He rejected Jesus as a deity, and thought him a philosopher whose followers warped his teachings.

Sounds like Paine had similar beliefs in view of the “one God and no more” comment above.

The beliefs of George Washington and James Madison seem to have been along the same lines.

Atheism was known. I have seen it mentioned by name in the writings of Adams and of Washington.

More on the beliefs of the Founding Fathers here. Follow the links.

Here’s a quote from Washington:

As others have pointed out, many of the founding fathers were deists – believing in a “creator” (note that the Declaration of Independence, written by Jefferson, says “endowed by the Creator”). The concept of “Creator” is often assumed to be a belief in God, but, though similar, there were important differences.

The most important is that the Creator, after creating the universe, went on to create other universes and had nothing to do with the day-to-day operation of things. In other words, you should be thankful to him, but he was no longer bothering with us.

And the concept of literal interpretation of the bible would have been considered incredibly dumb by any of the founding fathers. It didn’t even exist back then, and few would be foolish enough to deny hard evidence simply because it contradicted the bible.

I’m not sure about when this started or ended, but the word “atheist” was used in the past to mean evil, wicked, etc. (as in the dictionary entry in the second post). It was not limited to meaning “lack of belief in a god.” For example, in various religious conflicts, the opposing side was referred to as “atheist” although they clearly did have a religion.

Is there anyone out there who can give historical examples, etc.? (It’s not my field, I heard this second hand.)

I’m pretty sure that main stream America would basically agree with that definition. I’m positive both Bush Sr. and Jr. would.

It was probably used to mean that by denouncing God or the existance of God, one was evil.

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.
[a 1568 Coverdal Hope of Faithf. Eat we and drink we lustily ; to-morrow we shall die : which all the epicures protest openly, and the Italian atheoi.] 1571 Golding Calvin on Ps. The Atheistes which say . . there is no God. 1604 Rowlands Looke to it Thou damned Atheist . . That doest deny his power which did create thee. 1709 Shaftesb. Charac. To believe nothing of a designing Principle or Mind, nor any Cause, Measure, or Rule of Things, but Chance . . is to be a perfect Atheist. 1876 Gladstone in Contemp. Rev. By the Atheist I understand the man who not only holds off, like the sceptic, from the affirmative, but who drives himself, or is driven, to the negative assertion in regard to the whole Unseen, or to the existence of God.
2. One who practically denies the existence of a God by disregard of moral obligation to Him ; a godless man.
1597 Hanmer Anc. Eccl. Hist. The opinion which they conceaue of you, to be Atheists, or godless men. 1660 Stanley Hist. Philos. An Atheist is taken two ways, for him who is an enemy to the Gods, and for him who believeth there are no Gods. 1667 Milton P. L. When the Priest Turns Atheist, as did Ely’s Sons.

OK, this thread inspired me to go back and sifft through my copy of The Adams-Jefferson Letters for references to atheism. (By the way, anyone who is curious about the thought processes of the founders really needs to own that book.)

I found a fascinating series of letters between Adams and Jefferson wherein they specifically discuss atheism, and their reaction to it. And yes, it is clear that they had the same concept of “atheism” that we do; that is, the absence of a belief in God.)

The letters are far to long for me to reproduce here, and I can’t find them on the internet, so I will give you the gist of them.

It starts with a letter from Adams to Jefferson dated March 2, 1816. Adams discusses several French philosophers, and their supposed atheism. (One gets the impression that Adams is probing his friend and noted francophile Jefferson, to see whether Jefferson might admit to being an atheist himself.) Adams makes it clear that he is no atheist:

At the same time, Adams makes it clear he is no Christian:

Note how Adams lumps Christianity in among the religious philosophies he rejects.

Jefferson replies in a letter dated April 8, 1816. Jefferson takes the view that atheism tends to arise as a philosophy from Catholic countries, while “the infidelity of the Protestant took generally the form of Theism.” (Jefferson’s own philosophy.) He then goes on to give his logical reasons for rejecting atheism:

In a letter dated May 3, 1816, Adams responds, waxing philosophical on the question of the existence of an afterlife:

In sum, Adams, while he rejects atheism for himself, makes it clear that in his world view, athiests should not be persecuted for their beliefs.