Tom Paine Died for Your Sins


I left Christianity gradually and "came out of the closet" as an atheist -- first to myself, then to others -- over a period of several years. But my vestigial Christianity continued to haunt me like Banquo's ghost at MacBeth's feast. I continued to assess the rectitude of actions according to the moral precepts of a God in Whom I no longer believed -- and Whose alleged actions in history, both in the Bible and out, if true, gave me good cause to question God's moral character, even questions of existence aside. (I.e., even if a God exists, the Bible itself indicates that Bill Maher was right:  the God of the Bible slaughters people in industrial-strength quantities.) Once I realized this, I was faced with the still-ongoing task of constructing an ethic divorced from God. This task, while far from easy, is turning out to be much easier than I anticipated. In fact, a good part of the answer had been hidden in plain sight ... for roughly 200 years.


For a few years prior to, and for reasons completely unconnected with, atheism, I had been doing a very intensive -- some would say obsessive -- study of the US Constitution, its historical and ideological background in the 18th-century European Enlightenment. I read literally hundreds of books and professional journals (mainly law and history), corresponded via e-mail with many history and law-school faculty at several different universities, audited classes in constitutional law. etc. (Why? Loo-oo-oo-ng story!) What I discovered sometime before, but without at first connecting it to my atheist "de-conversion", was almost exactly the kind of secular, "horizontal" faith and ethic I had begun to search for several years before. A few examples of Enlightenment, especially British Enlightenment, principles that received expression in the Constitution will give the flavor of what I mean. All such I had come to believe in my post-Christian years and continue to find them bracingly sane. Remembering that the following is only a sample, the Enlightenment, especially the British Enlightenment, is ...

o ... consistent with religious commitment, but insisted that religion should not be mandatory. Religious faith is properly a matter purely of individual conscience, not state coercion. Cf. the "establishment" and "free exercise" clauses of the First Amendment.

o ... optimistic about the potentialities of sheer human reason, something tacitly presupposed, e.g., by the "republican form of government" clause (Article IV, sec. 4) and by the government's custodianship of patents and inventions (Article I, sec. 8, cl. 8).

o ... nevertheless realistic enough to understand that people do make mistakes -- reason is effective but not infallible -- and therefore from time to time need to revise their positions, opinions,  principles, and creations (Article V amendment process)


o ... protective of freedom of discourse (speech, press, association, publication, a strong bias against prior restraint. etc.) is essential for all the above. Cf. "abridgement" clause of First Amendment.

o ... insistent on the human, not Divine, origin of government, thanks to Rousesau, Montesquieu, and precursors like Hobbes and Locke. "We the People [i.e., not 'I, God the Deity'] do ... ordain and establish this Constitution". E.g., Article VI, para. 3 prohibition against any "religious test" being required for public office.

o ... insistent on the equality of all people before the law. We're still working on this one, but, e.g., the Reconstruction Amendments (13, 14, and 15), together with the 19th, provide explicit constitutional support. As a society we are also beginning to affirm with astonishing speed the meaning of the "due process"  clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, and the "equal protection" clause of the latter, vis a vis gay / lesbian / LGBTQ Americans.


But, to me, and speaking only for myself, the most subversive and hopeful aspect of the Enlightenment-derived principles of American constitutionalism is that it accomplishes two essential tasks harmoniously and simultaneously.  Firstly, it makes room for, and is consistent with, religion understood -- as the architects of the Enlightenment did -- as a purely private and privileged province of the individual's conscience. In fact, the first two versions of the First Amendment explicitly combined the "establishment" and "free exercise" clauses into a single clause forbidding Government encroachment into what are properly matters of private conviction and conscience.  (Yes, granted, this prohibition initially applied only to the Federal government -- "Congress shall make no law respecting ... " -- and only later was extended to the States. But that gets us into the rip tides and undercurrents of "incorporation" theory and history vis a vis the Bill of Rights. So let's not go there, shall we ... ?) But secondly -- and this is the most subversive of all -- while accommodating religion, it nevertheless, in a very implicit, tacit, and "recessed" manner, holds forth a vision of a purely secular, religionless society. (I think I could make a very strong case that the reason conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christians -- in other words, the "Christian right" -- always insists, over and over again, that the United States is a "Christian country" is because on some unacknowledged, perhaps even unconscious, level, they realize that the Constitution is a strictly religion-neutral Document, and so they attempt to co-opt the Document and turn it into the 67th book of the Bible [74th if you are Catholic] and thereby underwrite Christianity, in contravention of the "establishment" clause.) If religion is confined to the space between one's ears, then there is no need for it -- in fact, it is sternly forbidden -- to be an instrument of Government coercion.  And from there, it is only a step or two to the conclusion that religion -- at least, theistic religion ... critical qualification -- is superfluous in all areas of life, private as well as public. In a very implicit form, American constitutionalism is an invitation -- to those thus inclined -- not to a "God-less" life, individually and corporately, but to a "God-free" life, not as a matter of coercion, but of unconstrained evolution through free inquiry and choice. If one is free to choose one's religion, then one is logically free to choose no religion. The recent kerfuffle, viewed with alarm in many theistic enclaves, of the statistical growth in the percentage of "nones" and atheists on religion surveys, may be the first glimmerings of this vision coming to fruition.

That said, there are nevertheless two groups with which I have essentially no patience whatsoever.  The first and most obvious group comprises members of the far religious, usually conservative evangelical, right. Far too many of them have never quite gotten the hang of living in a pluralistic, latitudinarian society governed by a Constitution which, while certainly not religion-hostile, is nevertheless explicitly and meticulously religion-neutral in the sense that all religious faiths are to be treated as strictly equal before the law, with preference being given to no specific, discrete creed or doctrine or practice. (With this group, neutrality is often viewed as tantamount to hostility, a version of the "Bush Doctrine":  "If you are not for us, you are against us".) These are the folks who, not content with religious organizations having custodianship of marriage as a religious sacrament, seek to go "a bridge too far" and deny LGBTQ people the right even to marry civilly by inscribing their sectarian theological and religious doctrine into the civil / secular law. Ditto the teaching of creationism / intelligent design in schools. Ditto mandatory prayer in schools.  The code phrase for this aspiration is "returning America to 'biblical principles'", never mind that, historically, wars have been fought and bodies stacked high in an effort to determine whose version / interpretation of "biblical principles" is correct.  The other group, at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, comprises Christians on the left who profess to have once revered the Constitution, but who also now profess to believe that the Nation has so far departed from the Constitution's founding principles of ordered liberty under law that the entire experiment should be summarily written off in favor of indulging a certain taste for Christianized "civic nihilism" by circling the wagons and forming a "radical Christian" enclave whose very existence would ostensibly serve as an indictment of the ambient society and culture.  As much on the left as on the right, these are merely efforts to repeat history by attempting to warp and mold and distort the constitutional order away from religion-neutrality and into conformance with some preconceived religious vision. We have tried this before ... "we" being Western civilization. And every time we tried it, it took generations to undo the damage. Whaddaya say ... let's don't do that no more!

Yes ... yes ... granted ... American constitutionalism is usually messy, often chaotic, subject to fits and starts, by no means incompatible with outrage and catastrophe, and often conducive to exasperating "two-steps-forward-one-step-back" periods of progress. Of course. But it embodies a purely "horizontal" vision of social and political life. Whatever "vertical" dimension there may be is a matter jealously hedged about by being carefully left up to the individual. (Granted, there are minor aberrations like "In God We Trust" on our currency and the ceremonial invocation of God at the beginning of oral argument in the Supreme Court, but in all such cases, the identity and nature of "God" is left blessedly generic and unspecified.) There is no mention of, or provision made for, God, an afterlife, a Divinely sanctioned code of ethics, rewards and punishments in an afterlife, etc.  But the very absence of these concerns is, and should be viewed as, an aspect of liberation. Contra my brethren Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, I do believe there is such a thing as healthy religion.  But religion is healthy to the extent that it is centered on human beings first and foremost.  Despite a half-century-plus of at-times-gut-busting effort that too often entailed periods of near-suicidal clinical depression, I have never had a whole lot of luck with gods. Other people have.  More power to them. There is ample room for both of us. That is why the Enlightenment principles of the American constitutional project have become my faith.  I could not live -- literally could not live -- otherwise.

James R. Cowles

Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good. ― Thomas Paine, Rights of Man

Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. -- George Santayana


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