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The ‘Atheist’ who Governed America

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“Make your own Bible,” Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed in his Journals in 1836. “Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.” 

He meant to encourage readers to follow the Renaissance practice of compiling favorite quotes, poems, letters, passages, and aphorisms into a Commonplace Book to be used for reflection and inspiration. But, while Emerson didn’t realize it at the time, Thomas Jefferson took this idea quite literally more than 30 years earlier. 

In February 1804, President Jefferson sat in the White House with a copy of the King James Bible, a razor, a pair of scissors and a pot of glue. He was about to do something that would have shocked and outraged his contemporaries. 

Jefferson believed that centuries of translation and transmission had left the Gospels with imperfect texts and contradictory dictates that left readers with a jealous and angry deity, magic and superstition, some deplorable ethical standards and embarrassing theological notions. 

So he began cutting and pasting onto blank pages – in English, French, Greek and Latin – those verses of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that he believed were supported by history, science and common sense. 

It was a chronological story of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings. He included the Sermon on the Mount, the most memorable parables, and the admonitions to help the poor and love your enemies. He left out Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee, turning water into wine, and feeding the multitudes with two fish and five loaves of bread. He struck out all the miracles, genealogy and prophecy, and excised every passage “of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, or superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.” Out went the angels, the virgin birth, and the resurrection. 

Yet Jefferson was confident in his project, telling his friend John Adams that he found the true parts “as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.” By March 10, his forty-six-page volume – The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth – was completed. 

Jefferson was a lifelong student of religion. One biographer calls him “the most self-consciously theological of all American presidents.” Yet he also was a great admirer of empiricists like Isaac Newton, John Locke, Francis Bacon, David Hume, and the mighty Voltaire. 

He had incredibly wide interests. Jefferson was a statesman, historian, surveyor, philosopher, scientist, diplomat, architect, inventor, educator, lawyer, farmer, breeder, manufacturer, botanist, horticulturalist, anthropologist, meteorologist, astronomer, paleontologist, lexicologist, linguist, ethnologist, Biblicist, mathematician, geographer, librarian, bibliophile, classicist, scholar, bibliographer, translator, writer, editor, musician, gastronome and connoisseur of wine. 

It’s hard to reflect on Jefferson’s life without feeling like a bit of an underachiever. 

But he was a man of contradictions. He wrote the Declaration of Independence but was a lifelong slaveholder. He insisted life in the spotlight did not suit him, but served as delegate to the Virginia General Assembly and to Congress, as Governor of Virginia, Minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and President from 1801 to 1809. He was an advocate of strictly limited government but doubled the size of the United States with a swift purchase of the Louisiana Territory, a move many claimed was unconstitutional. 

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Jefferson was an autodidact, an avid reader in English, Spanish, French, Greek and Latin. His personal library – which later became the foundation of the Library of Congress – contained nearly ten thousand volumes. Many of these dealt with ethics and morality. 

However, Jefferson insisted most religious doctrines served merely to prop up clergymen or those in power – recall that the King of England ruled by divine right – and prevented people from understanding the straightforward message of Jesus. He believed that obedience to the teachings of the Nazarene and reflection on the purity of his life would help citizens transcend their parochialisms and narrow self-interests. 

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In 1777, Jefferson composed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, enacted a few years later by the Virginia House of Delegates. It was the first law in the history of the world to guarantee freedom of worship, protecting people of all faiths and those with no religion at all. 

Jefferson himself was at least nominally Episcopalian. He was raised in the Church of England at a time when it was the established church in Virginia. He was christened in an Anglican ceremony and married by an Anglican priest. But his religious skepticism began at an early age. He questioned, for instance, why the creator of the universe would reveal himself solely to a small population in the eastern Mediterranean and leave the rest of the world in a spiritual void, ignorant of his existence. 

Although he kept his personal beliefs private, he often spoke out against religious intolerance. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, first published in 1784, Jefferson argued that unorthodox beliefs and outright disbelief posed no threat to society. “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” 

For this, Jefferson was denounced in the election of 1800 as an arch-infidel and a “howling atheist.” New England ministers warned that if elected, Jefferson would confiscate all Bibles and convert churches into temples of prostitution. 

Hurt by these attacks on his integrity and character, Jefferson chose not to respond in public, but in a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush he wrote, “They believe that any portion of power confided to me will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” 

Jefferson insisted that mystical revelations could not satisfy his questions. Only reason and evidence were reliable guides to an understanding of life and the natural world. He cast a skeptical eye on everything that smacked of superstition or the supernatural. 

Jefferson’s bible was and is heretical to many. But it was the only form of Christianity he could embrace. Though he rejected the notion of revelation, he was not anti-religious. He found poetry in the Psalms, love in the Gospels and beauty in the Anglican hymns and liturgy. 

Jesus himself wrote nothing, of course. And Jefferson felt his teachings had suffered badly at the hands of his editors. In particular, he believed that the apostle Paul was “the first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus,” turning the religion of Jesus into a religion about Jesus. This, in his view, led to fanciful tales, dogma, and what he called “priestcraft.” Jefferson wanted to rescue Jesus from these distortions. 

In his bible, he compiled the passages he believed were truthful to reveal a master whose “system of morality was the most benevolent and sublime… ever taught, and consequently more perfect than those of the ancient philosophers.” 

Jefferson credited Socrates, Epicurus, Pythagoras, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus and others with teaching followers to govern their passions. But he considered their views on our duties to each other to be sorely underdeveloped. He concluded that Jesus’s precepts were “the most pure, benevolent, and sublime which have ever been preached to man,” calling him the greatest moral philosopher and “the first of human Sages.” 

While he showed The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth to a few close friends, the book – which he had bound in red leather by a Richmond bookbinder – was never published during his lifetime. It served only as his private manual of devotion. 

Today Jefferson is variously described as an agnostic, a Deist, a skeptic, a Unitarian, or a freethinker. But in another letter to Rush he wrote, “I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.” 

The Jefferson Bible – recently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and available for viewing online – is a book that has intrigued and outraged Americans ever since it was published by the National Museum in Washington in 1895. 

For Jefferson, the subject of religion was fascinating, alarming, enraging and inspiring. He blithely predicted near the end of his life that reason would ultimately prevail and every young man in the country then living would die a Unitarian. He was spectacularly wrong about that, of course. But millions of educated Americans, Christian and Jewish and of no particular congregation, now hold similar views. 

Jefferson was a champion of the primacy of reason and individual conscience, the cause of human rights, and the importance of education. He not only defined his own time but still shapes our understanding of freedom today. 

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson declared that the American Republic was founded on universal principles, and was therefore most decidedly for export. 

So were his views on individual conscience. For Jefferson, the greatest of all liberties is the freedom of the human mind. 

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2014 Will Bring more Social Collapse

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2014 is upon us. For a person who graduated from Georgia Tech in 1961, a year in which the class ring showed the same date right side up or upside down, the 21st century was a science fiction concept associated with Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

To us George Orwell’s 1984 seemed so far in the future we would never get there. Now it is 30 years in the past.

Did we get there in Orwell’s sense? In terms of surveillance technology, we are far beyond Orwell’s imagination. In terms of the unaccountability of government, we exceptional and indispensable people now live a 1984 existence. In his alternative to the Queen’s Christmas speech, Edward Snowden made the point that a person born in the 21st century will never experience privacy. For new generations the word privacy will refer to something mythical, like a unicorn.

Many Americans might never notice or care. I remember when telephone calls were considered to be private. In the 1940s and 1950s the telephone company could not always provide private lines. There were “party lines” in which two or more customers shared the same telephone line. It was considered extremely rude and inappropriate to listen in on someone’s calls and to monopolize the line with long duration conversations.

The privacy of telephone conversations was also epitomized by telephone booths, which stood on street corners, in a variety of public places, and in “filling stations” where an attendant would pump gasoline into your car’s fuel tank, check the water in the radiator, the oil in the engine, the air in the tires, and clean the windshield. A dollar’s worth would purchase 3 gallons, and $5 would fill the tank.

Even in the 1980s and for part of the 1990s there were lines of telephones on airport waiting room walls, each separated from the other by sound absorbing panels. Whether the panels absorbed the sounds of the conversation or not, they conveyed the idea that calls were private.

The notion that telephone calls are private left Americans’ consciousness prior to the NSA listening in. If memory serves, it was sometime in the 1990s when I entered the men’s room of an airport and observed a row of men speaking on their cell phones in the midst of the tinkling sound of urine hitting water and noises of flushing toilets. The thought hit hard that privacy had lost its value.

I remember when I arrived at Merton College, Oxford, for the first term of 1964. I was advised never to telephone anyone whom I had not met, as it would be an affront to invade the privacy of a person to whom I was unknown. The telephone was reserved for friends and acquaintances, a civility that contrasts with American telemarketing.

The efficiency of the Royal Mail service protected the privacy of the telephone. What one did in those days in England was to write a letter requesting a meeting or an appointment. It was possible to send a letter via the Royal Mail to London in the morning and to receive a reply in the afternoon. Previously it had been possible to send a letter in the morning and to receive a morning reply, and to send another in the afternoon and receive an afternoon reply.

When one flies today, unless one stops up one’s ears with something, one hears one’s seat mate’s conversations prior to takeoff and immediately upon landing. Literally, everyone is talking nonstop. One wonders how the economy functioned at such a high level of incomes and success prior to cell phones. I can remember being able to travel both domestically and internationally on important business without having to telephone anyone. What has happened to America that no one can any longer go anywhere without constant talking?

If you sit at an airport gate awaiting a flight, you might think you are listening to a porn film. The overhead visuals are usually Fox “News” going on about the need for a new war, but the cell phone audio might be young women describing their latest sexual affair.

Americans, or many of them, are such exhibitionists that they do not mind being spied upon or recorded. It gives them importance. According to Wikipedia, Paris Hilton, a multimillionaire heiress, posted her sexual escapades online, and Facebook had to block users from posting nude photos of themselves. Sometime between my time and now people ceased to read 1984. They have no conception that a loss of privacy is a loss of self. They don’t understand that a loss of privacy means that they can be intimidated, blackmailed, framed, and viewed in the buff. Little wonder they submitted to porno-scanners.

The loss of privacy is a serious matter. The privacy of the family used to be paramount. Today it is routinely invaded by neighbors, police, Child Protective Services (sic), school administrators, and just about anyone else.

Consider this: A mother of six and nine year old kids sat in a lawn chair next to her house watching her kids ride scooters in the driveway and cul-de-sac on which they live.

Normally, this would be an idyllic picture. But not in America. A neighbor, who apparently did not see the watching mother, called the police to report that two young children were outside playing without adult supervision. Note that the next door neighbor, a woman, did not bother to go next door to speak with the mother of the children and express her concern that they children were not being monitored while they played. The neighbor called the police
“We’re here for you,” the cops told the mother, who was carried off in handcuffs and spent the next 18 hours in a cell in prison clothes.

The news report doesn’t say what happened to the children, whether the father appeared and insisted on custody of his offspring or whether the cops turned the kids over to Child Protective Services.

This shows you what Americans are really like. Neither the neighbor nor the police had a lick of sense. The only idea that they had was to punish someone. This is why America has the highest incarceration rate and the highest total number of prison inmates in the entire world. Washington can go on and on about “authoritarian” regimes in Russia and China, but both countries have far lower prison populations than “freedom and democracy” America.

I was unaware that laws now exist requiring the supervision of children at play. Children vary in their need for supervision. In my day supervision was up to the mother’s judgment. Older children were often tasked with supervising the younger. It was one way that children were taught responsibility and developed their own judgment.

When I was five years old, I walked to the neighborhood school by myself. Today my mother would be arrested for child endangerment.

In America punishment falls more heavily on the innocent, the young, and the poor than it does on the banksters who are living on the Federal Reserve’s subsidy known as Quantitative Easing and who have escaped criminal liability for the fraudulent financial instruments that they sold to the world. Single mothers, depressed by the lack of commitment of the fathers of their children, are locked away for using drugs to block out their depression. Their children are seized by a Gestapo institution, Child Protective Services, and end up in foster care where many are abused.

According to numerous press reports, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 year-old children who play cowboys and indians or cops and robbers during recess and raise a pointed finger while saying “bang-bang” are arrested and carried off to jail in handcuffs as threats to their classmates. In my day every male child and the females who were “Tom boys” would have been taken to jail. Playground fights were normal, but no police were ever called. Handcuffing a child would not have been tolerated.

From the earliest age, boys were taught never to hit a girl. In those days there were no reports of police beating up teenage girls and women or body slamming the elderly. To comprehend the degeneration of the American police into psychopaths and sociopaths, go online and observe the video of Lee Oswald in police custody in 1963. Oswald was believed to have assassinated President John F. Kennedy and murdered a Dallas police officer only a few hours previously to the film. Yet he had not been beaten, his nose wasn’t broken, and his lips were not a bloody mess. Now go online and pick from the vast number of police brutality videos from our present time and observe the swollen and bleeding faces of teenage girls accused of sassing overbearing police officers.

In America today people with power are no longer accountable. This means citizens have become subjects, an indication of social collapse.

~Dr. Paul Craig Roberts

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God’s Speech

“We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth,

Neither mortal nor immortal,

So that with freedom of choice and with honor,

As though the maker and molder of thyself,

Thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer.

Thou shalt have the power out of thy soul’s judgement,

To be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine.”

 

~God’s speech to Adam (from Pico Della Mirandola’s ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man’)


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Of Solitude

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“Tell us about solitude,” said a young woman who had been about to marry the son of one of the richest men in the city but was now obliged to flee.

And he answered:

Without solitude, Love will not stay long, by your side.

Because Love needs to rest, so that it can journey through the heavens and reveal itself in other forms.

Without solitude, no plant or animal can survive, no soil can remain productive, no child can learn about life, no artist can create, no work can grow and be transformed.

Solitude is not the absence of Love, but its complement.

Solitude is not the absence of company, but the moment when our soul is free to speak to us and help us decide what to do with our life.

Therefore, blessed are those who do not fear solitude, who are not afraid of their own company, who are not always desperately looking for something to do, something to amuse themselves with, something to judge.

If you are never alone, you cannot know yourself.

And if you do not know yourself, you will begin to fear the void.

But the void does not exist. A vast world lies hidden in our soul, waiting to be discovered. There it is, with all its strength intact, but it is so new and so powerful that we are afraid to acknowledge its existence.

The act of discovering who we are will force us to accept that we can go further than we think. And that frightens us. Best not to take the risk. We can always say: ‘I didn’t do what I should have done because they wouldn’t let me.’

That feels more comfortable. Safer. And, at the same time, it’s tantamount to renouncing your own life.

Woe to those who prefer to spend their lives saying: ‘I never had any opportunities!’

Because with each day that passes, they will sink deeper into the well of their own limitations, and the time will come when they will lack the strength to climb out and rediscover the bright light shining in the opening above their head.

But blessed be those who say: ‘I’m not brave enough.’

Because they know that it is not someone else’s fault. And sooner or later, they will find the necessary faith to confront solitude and its mysteries.