Atheism and Demonism
By Bo Perrin
The real issues within the battle of church and state are often clouded by the imposition of statements and quotes which have little or nothing to do with the actual issue itself. Skeptics parade a host of quotations from the Founders, Framers and former Presidents in which negative or disparaging statements are made about religions and draw from these quotes their typical conclusions that these men were deists, not Christians and believed religion had no place in the political arena.
Well, ask I the Skeptic, so what? Actually, their argument is disingenuous at the least. Cowardly, Skeptics hide behind the phrase “separation of church and church” because what they really are after is the removal of faith from the public square or God from politics. Via the French Revolution reign of terror! They want a secular government and secular is a term which they have redefined to mean a faithless government.
But still I ask the Skeptic, so what? Almost every sensible religious person believes in what Jefferson actually meant by the phrase. Very few religious people want a state-run church or a church-run state any more than they will want a government-run health care system.
Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson is one of the most favorite individuals whom Skeptics’ enjoy using in their Jihad to remove faith from the public square. One issue Skeptics raise is Jefferson’s response to Richard Price. Jefferson said:
I concur with you strictly in your opinion of the comparative merits of atheism and demonism, and really see nothing but the latter in the being worshiped by many who think themselves Christian. (1)
Jefferson’s quote is one of many which Skeptics attempt to use as evidence that Jefferson was not a Christian by Biblical standards and therefore, the United States cannot be founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Montanaguy argues Jefferson was an atheist. Montanaguy is not a scholar as far as I know but he does seem to represent the common skeptic’s view of Jefferson. He wrote “I’ve read alot of the writings of Thomas Jefferson and he appears to be an atheist as far as I can tell. That’s one more plus for such a great man. He also expresses himself so brilliantly.” (2) On the other hand, Steelfish argues Jefferson is a Deist as do so many scholars. (3) Interestingly,
Before, I move ahead I believe it is crucial to let everyone know that I have not yet found a site which provides an explanation of what Jefferson meant by atheism or demonism. Those sites which carry this quote seem to believe the terms are self-evident. They are not. Additionally, these sites also rarely if ever provide Price’s letter as a reference point to better understand what Jefferson meant by what he wrote which they quote the above statement.
Richard Price wrote Jefferson on October 26th, 1788. In his correspondence Mr. Price describes a book he was reading which was authored by Mr. Necker. The book’s subject was religious opinion. Since no Skeptic posted Price’s letter I will quote the section pertinent to this discussion and post the entire letter on this blog. Price wrote:
“I am now reading Mr. Necker’s book on the importance of religious opinions. It is a very extraordinary work for a minister of State, and does him on the whole great honour. But he is too vague in his manner of discoursing about religion. He should have defined it, and taken care to distinguish the religion he means form the Superstitions that go under the name of religion, and which have done unspeakable harm in the world. What he says is true only of a rational and liberal religion; that is a religion which enforces the obligations of morality by motives drawn from the authority of righteous and benevolent Deity and a future retribution. But he Seems never to have consider’d that there has ben in almost all religions a melancholy Separation of religion from morality. Popery teaches a method of pleasing God with forsaking vice, and of getting to heaven by penances, bodily mortifications, pilgrimages, saying masses, believing mysterious doctrines, burning heretics, aggrandizing Priests &c. Mahometans expect a paradise of Sensual pleasures. Pagans worship’d lewd, revengeful and cruel Deities, and thus Sanctify’d to themselves some of the worst passions. The religion likewise of many Protestants is little better than a compromise with the Deity for wrong practices by fastings, Sacraments hearing the word &c. Would not Society be better without Such religions? Is Atheism less pernicious than Demonism? And what is the religion of man persons but a kind of demonism that delights in human Sacrifices and causes them to look with horror on the greatest part of mankind? Plutarch, it is well known, has observed very justly that it is better not to believe in a God than to believe him to be a capricious and malevolent being. These reflexions have Struck me very forcibly in reading Mr. Necker’s book. They shew how incumbent it is on all who wish the happiness of the world to endeavor to propagate just notions of the Deity and religion. I can reflect with Some Satisfation that this has been one of the Studies and labours of my life.” (4)
Before we turn to Jefferson’s reply it is imperative we make a few remarks about the tenor of Price’s letter. Price clearly is not against religion only what he believes to be a false religion. He actually praised Mr. Necker’s book although he did find some things wanting. For Price a false religion separates religion from morality, placing the emphasis on religious duties rather than moral duty and teaches a cruel, revengeful and incomprehensible Deities. It is also quite clear Price believed in religion. A true religion was liberal and rational, focused on moral duties, taught a righteous, benevolent and comprehensible Deity. This is clearly not a discussion against religion per se for Price bases the world’s happiness on understanding the just notions of Deity and religion.
Jefferson’s use of atheism and demonism is in response to Price’s letter. Price compares atheism with demonism. Price is not an atheist but seems to disregard Roman Catholicism, Paganism and atheism but does not disregard all of Protestantism and so it possible he held to at least a form of this religious tradition. It is impossible from just this writing to declare Price a Deist but it would not surprise me if he were a Unitarian as was Jefferson.
Price seems to use Atheism in this correspondence normally as a belief system which denied the existence of a true Deity. Demonism is a religion in which the Deity is capricious and malevolent delighting in human sacrifices and causing fear among the world’s populace. It is difficult to determine whether Price uses demonism to refer to the Protestant religion or not. Price asks the question, Is Atheism less pernicious than Demonism? What Price is asking is whether a religious system without a Deity is less evil than a religious system whose Deity is cruel and malevolent. His conclusion is, no.
So, Price describes a system of religion as demonic due to the Deity that is worshiped yet, he clearly believes in a true Deity, religion and morality. To what system of morality did Price hold? He does not tell us specifically nevertheless he does not condemn all of the Protestant system as demonic. It is possible he held to the moral guides of the Protestant system and if so, he followed Judeo-Christian principles. Therefore, Price seems to believe in the Deity and Judeo-Christian values while at the same describing at least a part of the Protestant tradition as demonic.
Jefferson responded to Price in January 8, 1789. In his response Jefferson mentions only Price’s comparative merits between atheism and demonism. Jefferson believed in two categories of atheists. In a response to John Adams, Jefferson said:
“All heresies being now done away with us, these schismatists are merely atheists, differing from the material Atheist only in their belief that ‘nothing made something,’ and from the material deist who believes that matter alone can operate on matter.” (5)
Jefferson called himself a materialist yet he clearly believed in the Deity. He argued that Jesus taught God is a spirit but quickly points out that Jesus did not define what this spirit is or how it exists. He agreed with some church Fathers who taught that God’s spirit was some aspect of matter although not necessarily earthly matter. So, he believed the Deity is spirit but also believed that this spirit could be described materially. Jefferson’s philosophical argument supporting his conclusion is that the material alone can act on the material.
Jefferson clearly divides all religion into the immaterial and material atheists and distinguishes himself from both groups. The material Deist makes all other religious forms of belief atheistic. Jefferson seems to believe that an immaterial Deity is in fact no Deity at all. Therefore, the only thing which divides atheistic religion, which includes Protestantism, especially Calvinism, is that one group believes “nothing made something.” (6) For Jefferson the term atheism referred to both the belief in no Deity and an immaterial Deity. Therefore, Jefferson believed the immaterial was immaterial. Since Jefferson does not define his use of atheism in his response to Price it is reasonable to conclude that either both men believed the same or were at least very close in their understanding of the meaning of these terms.
Jefferson used the term demonism in much the same way as Price. In a letter to Adams in April 11, 1823 Jefferson declares his disdain for Calvin and his theology. He claims “I can never join Calvin in addressing his god.” (7) Speaking of Calvin, Jefferson says that “If ever man worshipped a false god, he did.” In this letter Jefferson calls Calvin an atheist and declares his religion to be a form of demonism. He calls Calvin’s Deity a “daemon of malignant spirit” and states that this form of belief “gives a great handle to Atheism.”
Jefferson’s disdain for Calvin and his Deity is due to the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity declares that God is three in one and one in three. Jefferson praised Wells and Lilly for a sermon they presented on Deism in which they supposedly revealed the foolishness of the doctrine of the Trinity. (8) Jefferson refers to this particular doctrine as the “unintelligible Athanasian jargon,” (9) and declares the Trinity doctrine to be the reason why Christianity is so fractioned and then presents his respects for their theological stance. If Jefferson had created his own dictionary, the term Daemonism would describe a religion which believes in an immaterial, triune Deity. Since Jefferson does not have to define his use of demonism to Price then it is reasonable to accept that either they were both in agreement as to the use of the terms are at least nearly so.
It is clear Price believed it was possible to describe a particular form of religion or even most forms of religion as atheistic and demonic while at the very same time holding firmly to a belief in the Deity and Judeo-Christian values. The same is true of Jefferson. Jefferson’s response to Price does not provide a shred of evidence that he was an atheist nor that because he was a Unitarian he did not accept Judeo-Christian values.
Part of the religious dispute between Jefferson and Protestant religion, in fact with most religions, was a belief in an immaterial Deity and substituting religious duties like reading the Bible, going to church and etc. for moral principles. The Skeptics’ argument that Jefferson was a European Deist or not a Christian is disingenuous because it assumes what it does not and cannot prove which is that a Unitarianist, Deist or even an Atheist would not or could not hold to Jesus’ moral teachings otherwise described as Judeo-Christian principles.
It has been clearly revealed in the article Jefferson, Deism and Judeo-Christian Values on this blog that Jefferson believed in the Deity, held to Jesus’ moral teachings and believed moral principles were required for government to successful operate. (10) The only religious morals Jefferson held were Judeo-Christian principles given us by Jesus.
Was Jefferson a Christian? No, I would not call him one. Did Jefferson believe in the Triunity of God? Nope. Was Jefferson an atheist? Absolutely not. Was Jefferson a Deist? Not if by Deist we mean a modern European Deist. He was, in fact, a Unitarian materialist who believed in the power of prayer and that Providence (God) intervened into human affairs.
Does any of this matter? No, because despite Jefferson’s theological beliefs about God he held to the Judeo-Christian values given us by Jesus and nothing in his letter to Price changes that fact. Therefore, the Skeptic’s jihad to revise history and use Jefferson as evidence that this nation is not founded upon Judeo-Christian principles fails, magnificently.
God bless this nation.
1. Letter to Richard Price, Paris, January 8, 1789 as found in Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson, Writings. (Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.: New York, N.Y.), p. 935
4. Letter From Richard Price, October 26th, 1788. A xerox copy from the Library of Congress.
5. Letter to Richard Price, Paris, January 8, 1789
7. Letter to John Adams, Monticello, April 11, 1823