American founding father and Second President John Adams viewed atheism in culture, and especially in government, as something to fear. He wrote,
Is there a possibility, that the government of nations may fall into the hands of men, who teach the most disconsolate of all creeds, that men are but fire-flies, and that this all is without a father? Is this the way, to make man, as man, an object of respect? Or is it, to make murder itself, as indifferent as shooting a plover, and the extermination of the Rohilla nation, as innocent, as the swallowing of mites, on a morsel of cheese?
Atheists today argue that religion is the root of all evil, and that science and reason dissipate the delusions that drive men to acts of terror. Our founder, however, argues that science and reason, when they train their scopes upon human nature, tell us exactly the opposite. The greatest cause for concern derives, Adams argues, from human nature. He asks rhetorically, “Has the progress of science, arts and letters, yet discovered that there are no passions in human nature? No ambition, avarice or a desire of fame? Are these passions cooled, diminished or extinguished? . . . Have these propensities less a tendency to divisions, controversies, seditions, mutinies, and civil wars, than formerly?” Adams understood what our atheist critics fail to: that the advancement of learning itself cannot change the hearts of men.
The sciences and arts constantly reassure us (not only in their content, but also in the frequent abuses of their methods, ethics, and the politics of the universities) that human nature is as fallen as ever. In light of this observable fact, Adams argues, the great diffusion of knowledge actually increases the ability of man to intensify his evils: “On the contrary, the more knowledge is diffused, the more the passions are extended, and the more furious they grow. . . . There is no connection in the mind between science and passion, by which the former can extinguish or diminish the latter: it on the contrary sometimes increases them, by giving them exercise.” He even craftily uses one of the atheists’ own jibes against them. Whereas they love to point out every moral failure of preachers and priests as evidence of the falsity of religion, Adams argues that the same points out the impotence of learning in the arts: “Are the passions of Monks, the weaker for all their learning? Are not jealousy, envy, hatred, malice and revenge, as well as emulation and ambition, as rancorous in the cells of Carmelites, as in the courts of Princes?”
But lest the cheerleaders of science escape the same universal censure of human nature, Adams calls them out, too: “Go the Royal Society of London: is there less emulation for the chair of Sir Isaac Newton, than there was, and commonly will be for all elective presidencies? Is there less animosity and rancour, arising from mutual emulations in that region of science, than there is among the most ignorant of mankind?” The same answer, He goes on to add, applies to the prestigious men of letters in the universities of Paris. He concludes from this that, “Bad men increase in knowledge as fast as good men, and science, arts, taste, sense, and letters, are employed for the purposes of injustice and tyranny, as well as those of law and liberty; for corruptions as well as for virtue.”
Whatever powers human reason may have — and make no mistake, Adams frequently spoke of human reason in glorious terms — it cannot separate itself from human avarice. Something greater must be involved. Adams explains, therefore, “Americans and Frenchmen should remember, that the perfectibility of man, is only human and terrestrial perfectibility. Cold will still freeze, and fire will never cease to burn, disease and vice will continue to disorder, and death to terrify mankind. Emulation next to self preservation will forever be the great spring of human actions,” and for these reasons, “the balance of a well ordered government, will alone be able to prevent that emulation from degenerating into dangerous ambition, irregular rivalries, destructive factions, wasting seditions, and bloody civil wars.”
And should we ever face enduring such a atheistic government, where murder is no more meaningful offense that hunting pheasant, or genocide or abortion no worse that the “holocaust” of human skin cells caused by scratching your nose (an argument used by atheist Sam Harris), then Adams knows that even the hardest atheist would learn to pray, if only to himself or “almighty chance.” As for Adams, he would have his own prayer:
Give us again the gods of the Greeks — give us again the more intelligible as well as more comfortable systems of Athanasius and Calvin — nay, give us again our Popes and Hiearchies, Benedictines and Jesuits, with all their superstition and fanaticism, impostures and tyrannies.
Better to live under religion, he says, even the strangest of it, than risk the logical conclusions of an atheist society.
Adams concludes by quoting an unnamed Duchess in her appraisal of the atheistic philosophers of the time: “On ne croit pas, dans le Christianisme, mais on croit, toutes sottises possible.” I translate as best I can: “They do not believe in Christianity, but they believe every possible absurdity.”Endnotes:
- John Adams, Discourses on Davila (Boston: Russell and Cutler, 1805 ), 93. [↩]
- Adams, Discourses on Davila, 85. [↩]
- Id. at 85-86. [↩]
- Id. at 86. [↩]
- Id. at 87. [↩]
- Id. at 87. [↩]
- Id. at 87. [↩]
- Id. at 91. [↩]
- Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 30. [↩]
- Id. at 93. [↩]