I was reading some news stories earlier today and, as I am wont to do at times, I decided to read the comments. (I don’t know why I do it—consider it a form of self-scourging for past offenses against good sense.)
As I was reading, one commenter, trying to demonstrate the folly of those with religious beliefs, introduced a quote by Thomas Jefferson. (The commenter may not have been trying to demonstrate folly, as some of his later comments bordered on demonizing those with religious beliefs.) Here is his Jefferson quote:
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1782:
“Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.”
That sounds like a fairly condemnatory dismissal of religious belief by one of the country’s founding fathers and third president—particularly if you are already predisposed to consider religious teachings (particularly the religious teaching of children) to be a form of coercion. You can even find the quote on a page over at WikiQuote (a sister site to Wikipedia). I’ve also seen the quote used many times over by those who fancy themselves secularist free thinkers.
Problem is, the quote is cherry-picked to imply something that Jefferson never meant. The quote comes from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, published in the early 1780s. Jefferson believed that religion had value and, more importantly, that the free exercise of religion had civic and societal value. Here is the quote, in context:
“Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned: yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.”
Jefferson is dismissing coercion, to be sure, but not only religious coercion. In fact, if you read the entire Query XVII (the context from whence the quote was extracted), you find that Jefferson is finding fault with “coercion of the laws,” specifically laws that dictate the proscribed practice of a specific religion.
Jefferson actually asserts that it is good for there to be differences of opinion in religion. He sees the differences as performing a healthy check on the totality of humanity. (A censor morum is a person who serves as a critic—or censor—of the morality of others.)
In other words, any secularist that would use the Jefferson quote, out of context, is imputing meaning to Jefferson that wasn’t found in his beliefs. If Jefferson could see a value in diverse religious censoring (or criticizing) the morals of others, well… I guess that’s good enough for me. (Thus my right to criticize the morals of secularists who would, through error intentional or inadvertent, misuse the words of Jefferson.)
I found the following sentiment by Jefferson, also from Query XVII of Notes on the State of Virginia, to be much more illuminating than the out-of-context quote cited above:
Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only. Had not the Roman government permitted free enquiry, Christianity could never have been introduced. Had not free enquiry been indulged, at the aera of the reformation, the corruptions of Christianity could not have been purged away. If it be restrained now, the present corruptions will be protected, and new ones encouraged.
Those who would try to restrain or banish religion from society or from the marketplace of ideas that forms our societies seek to “restrain” religious reason and religious free enquiry. If they expect their own ideas to have sway, they should not seek the banishment of those ideas they find disagreeable or offensive. For if they have their way, “present corruptions will be protected, and new ones encouraged.”