Sunday, May 15, 2005

Thoughts from a Founding Father

History I believe furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purpose.

I never told my religion, nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another's creed. I have judged others' religions by their lives, for it is from our lives and not our words that our religions must be read.

Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are serviley crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God, because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blind faith.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State.

[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise ... affect their civil capacities.

I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises.

I am for freedom of religion and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another.

No religious reading, instruction or exercise, shall be prescribed or practiced [in the elementary schools] inconsistent with the tenets of any religious sect or denomination.

- Thomas Jefferson here and here. And there's a whole lot more where those came from. (First quote via Iddybud)
That was a founding father. The religious (far) right talks about maintaining the philosophies of the founding fathers. Clearly, what they want to do is reverse the intentions of this particular founding father.

Can you imagine a modern-day politician reflecting Jefferson's thoughts in public today? We've grown in economically, technologically, militarily--but is it possible we're back-sliding intellectually?

On the whole, I suspect--or hope--not. I suspect a greater percentage of Americans may appreciate what Jefferson had to say on these matters. Perhaps the religious right has only grown more fervent in recent years in reaction to the overall growing secularization of the United States they see taking place around them. One can only hope. Of course, we've also seen that growing enlightenment and secularization in other parts of the world have been met with fundamentalist intolerance and, inevitably, violence. Let's hope that pattern isn't repeated here.

Arguably, it already has. Consider Eric Rudolph, who bombed an Birmingham abortion clinic and was protected by the people of Andrews, North Carolina, for nigh a decade after. It's not difficult at all to find folks sympathetic to him, though he fits the very definition of a terrorist. But how often have you seen him described that way?

As our nation becomes increasingly secular, do we have more and more violence to look forward to--violence curling up and striking from within our borders, in addition to violence from abroad?

Fire & Ice

I once read a rather depressing explanation for why we may not have heard from alien species already: the theory is that alien peoples may evolve to a point that they discover the power of the atom, then they somehow end up eradicating themselves before they can be discovered by other sentient beings. One would hope that some order of beings would escape such a horrific cycle. So perhaps this is a theory best embraced by only the least hopeful among us. (I should also note there also many other good reasons that we may not have heard from other sentient beings in the universe, chief of those being the distance involved and the eons it would take for any signals to reach us.)

But what are we to think? Nuclear weapons are still proliferating around the world. As technology evolves, it may be easily to replicate smaller, more efficient nuclear weapons. Is it too hard to imagine that the world might reach a point of secularization that pushes a religious minority into a corner (from their perspective), so that the only way they see to retaliate is by splitting a few atoms in significant locales across the planet? If you know much about nuclear winter at all, you know that you don't have to blow up the whole planet in order to destroy most of sentient life.

What a sad and terrible ending that'd be for this peculiar pocket of consciousness in the universe.

(I could say that I just need more coffee and I wouldn't have such a negative view of the future, but this is a theory I've been mulling over for a long time now. I used to have much more positive view of the future, something I thought of as "the inevitable democratization of human thought." I still hold out a little hope; I'm just afraid that such glorious ends may be interrupted by fiery, deadly means.)

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