I’ve been reading The God Delusion, in preparation for a debate later today where I take the role, against Waldstein, of a “New Atheist.”
Oh God! Those New Atheists are so much more tedious, so much less brilliant, than those Old Atheists I studied so thoroughly at university. (But, hey, it’s Friday, and I’m a Catholic; so I’ll suffer it.)
They’re fairly unscholarly too. Here’s a good example. On page 64 of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins memes a commonly made claim and attributes to Thomas Jefferson the quotation given in the title, arguing that it indicates that Jefferson was a Deist rather than a Theist:
Remarks of Jefferson’s such as ‘Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man’ are compatible with deism but also with atheism.
Well, no. The quotation comes from a letter of Jefferson to the scientist and philosopher, Joseph Priestly. I’ll quote it in context:
The barbarians really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the times of Vandalism, when ignorance put everything into the hands of power & priestcraft. All advances in science were proscribed as innovations. They pretended to praise and encourage education, but it was to be the education of our ancestors. We were to look backwards, not forwards, for improvement; the President himself declaring, in one of his answers to addresses, that we were never to expect to go beyond them in real science. This was the real ground of all the attacks on you. Those who live by mystery & charlatanerie, fearing you would render them useless by simplifying the Christian philosophy,—the most sublime & benevolent, but most perverted system that ever shone on man,—endeavored to crush your well-earnt & well-deserved fame. But it was the Lilliputians upon Gulliver.
Now you well might wonder how Jefferson could in one breath refer to Christianity as “the most sublime & benevolent system”, and in the next call it the “most perverted” system. You would wonder that if you were unfamiliar with 18th c. English. What in the context the phrase “most perverted” means is “most frequently perverted,” that is, by those practitioners of “priesthood” who “live by mystery & charlantarie” — sentiments which are all fairly typical of 17th and 18th c. Deism.
You never would guess from that undeluded man, Dawkins, that Jefferson was referring to Christianity, in its pure form (as Jefferson saw it), as sublime and benevolent.