If Jefferson were a secular humanist and not a theist, he’d have written “We hold these truths…”

19 Feb

Thomas Jefferson, something of a “bare theist” or “Christian rationalist” wrote the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.  But how would it have read had he been a secular humanist instead?  As charitably as possible, here’ s my educated guess:

“We hold these truths to be good opinions of men; that all men should be deemed equal; that they should be granted by human conventions certain legal rights; and it seems best that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Still has some force, I suppose, but hardly provides a foundation or essential framework for the kind of basic universal permanent non-negotiable human rights that Jefferson and his colleagues were hoping to announce to and defend before the watching world.  Yet still people will say a belief or disbelief in a self-revealing God is of no political significance in society whatsoever.  If you want transcendent abstract entities (like universally binding irreducible human rights), you’d better have a worldview which makes belief in transcendent abstract entities justifiable.

On the other hand, presuppose the existence of a self-revealing infinite God, let that be the basic theological foundation or framework upon which you base your entire understanding of human rights, and you can easily and rationally get something that reads like this:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness….”



5 Responses to “If Jefferson were a secular humanist and not a theist, he’d have written “We hold these truths…””

  1. jls February 19, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    Is it accurate to say that a bare theist affirms the existence of a self-revealing God? Deism, from what I understand, affirms the existence of a clockmaker God– of a God who creates the universe then steps away. Through the god-given faculty of reason, human beings can understand how this universe works. Human beings discern self-evident truths the same way they discern the laws of nature– through the proper use of the God-given faculty of reason. But the Christian contention that God is self-revealing is based on the notion that God is intimately involved with humanity– first, through the people Israel, then through the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. It seems to me that there is an enormous gap between a God who is in such intimate relationship with humanity and a God who puts the universe and motion then steps back. The notion of a self-revealing God who became human, died for our sins, then rose again is as odious to the bare theist as it is to the secular humanist.


    • thereformedmind February 19, 2013 at 6:58 pm #

      Very good and important question. Thanks for sharing and commenting. I actually don’t think that the kind of theism Jefferson held can allow him to affirm a self-revealing God, just as a matter of logic and theology. He’ll need more special revelation for that, most of which in Christianity he flatly denied. But I think he thought that the kind of God he favored could still yield a little ongoing revelation without having to embrace the Bible. A view of revelation far removed from Christianity, granted, but not quite arriving at hardcore deism. Further, I personally don’t think that reason alone can yield irrefutable knowledge that humans enjoy inalienable rights (I think the only sustainable basis for Human Rights is the Imago Dei concept, which comes from the revealed religion of Christianity). In other words, again as a philosophical matter, I personally don’t think one can justify a belief in inalienable human rights apart from the kind of self-revealing personal God Christianity provides. But, I think Jefferson thought that God had revealed enough knowledge about human beings to mankind to justify belief in inalienable rights even though he denied special revelation in the Christian sense. But it’s important to remember again that Jefferson was not a pure deist. Deism is not theism. The founders who were not orthodox Christians were also not deists in the strict or proper (or French!) sense. After all, they prayed, attended church, emphasized the importance of religion, and most importantly referred often not to a dispassionate Designer or Architect but an active Providence who cares, watches and intervenes. So, though I don’t think a bare theist actually can find an adequate basis for belief in inalienable rights, I think that at the time, Jefferson’s evolving view of God tried to do so. The bare theism of Jefferson was not pure deism, with its utter rejection of all forms of divine revelation. I think that Jefferson, among others of his ilk at the time, how ever illogically, left enough room for a tiny bit of ongoing God-talk to make them believe in inalienable rights with little self-doubt.

      Also note that in my post I asserted NOT that Jefferson believed in a self-revealing God, but that it’s easier and more sensible to say what he said in the Declaration if one does. Jefferson was not so far removed from the Christian system as to make himself uncomfortable speaking language that would resonate well and easily in that system. Remember, he was not writing on behalf of himself only, but on behalf of a very theologically mixed company.


  2. thereformedmind February 19, 2013 at 7:02 pm #

    Rereading our conversation, I’m reminded of just how unnecessarily wordy I can be. What I’m trying to say really boils down to this. A Secular Humanist can’t say what Jefferson said. A bare theist (not quite a deist) may think he can (but I’d argue can’t logically). An orthodox Christian has no problem with it at all.


    • jls February 20, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

      Thanks for the response– it both answered my question and helped me understand your argument better.



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