Peikoff: Religion v. America

This entry is somewhat of a continuation of the discussion begun in my post of seven months ago: The Founders and Christianity

April 20, 1986 (Ford Hall Forum)


. . . The result, in historical short order, was the revolt against the authority of the Church, the feudal breakup, the Renaissance. Renaissance means “rebirth,” rebirth of reason and man’s concern with this world. Once again, as in the pagan era, we see secular philosophy, natural science, man-glorifying art, and the pursuit of earthly happiness. It was a gradual, tortuous change, with each century becoming more worldly than the preceding, from Aquinas to the Renaissance to the Age of Reason to the climax and end of
this development: the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment. This was the age in which America’s founding fathers were educated and in which they created the United States.

The Enlightenment represented the triumph (for a short while anyway) of the pagan Greek, and specifically of the Aristotelian, spirit. Its basic principle was respect for man’s intellect and, correspondingly, the wholesale dismissal of faith and revelation. Reason the Only Oracle of Man, said Ethan Allen of Vermont, who spoke for his age in demanding unfettered free thought and in ridiculing the primitive contradictions of the Bible. “While we are under the tyranny of Priests,” he declared in 1784, “. . . it ever will be their interest, to invalidate the law of nature and reason, in order to establish systems incompatible therewith.”

Elihu Palmer, another American of the Enlightenment, was even more outspoken. According to Christianity, he writes, God “is supposed to be a fierce, revengeful tyrant, delighting in cruelty, punishing his creatures for the very sins which he causes them to commit; and creating numberless millions of immortal souls, that could never have offended him, for the express purpose of tormenting them to all eternity.” The purpose of this kind of notion, he says elsewhere, “the grand object of all civil and religious tyrants . . . has been to suppress all the elevated operations of the mind, to kill the energy of thought, and through this channel to subjugate the whole earth for their own special emolument.” “It has hitherto been deemed a crime to think,” he observes, but at last men have a chance–because they have finally escaped from the “long and doleful night” of Christian rule, and have grasped instead “the unlimited power of human reason”–“reason, which is the glory of our nature.”

This was the intellectual context of the American Revolution. Point for point, the Founding Fathers’ argument for liberty was the exact counterpart of the Puritans’ argument for dictatorship–but in reverse, moving from the opposite starting point to the opposite conclusion. Man, the Founding Fathers said in essence (with a large assist from Locke and others), is the rational being; no authority, human or otherwise, can demand blind obedience from such a being — not in the realm of thought or, therefore, in the realm of action either. By his very nature, they said, man must be left free to exercise his reason and then to act accordingly, i.e., by the guidance of his best rational judgment.

Because this world is of vital importance, they added, the motive of man’s action should be the pursuit of happiness. Because the individual, not a supernatural power, is the creator of wealth, a man should have the right to private property, the right to keep and use or trade his own product. And because man is basically good, they held, there is no need to leash him; there is nothing to fear in setting free a rational animal.

This, in substance, was the American argument for man’s inalienable rights. It was the argument that reason demands freedom. And this is why the nation of individual liberty, which is what the United States was, could not have been founded in any philosophically different century. It required what the Enlightenment offered: a rational, secular context.

. . . There are many good people in the world who accept religion, and many of them hold some good ideas on social questions. I do not dispute that. But their religion is not the solution to our problem; it is the problem. Do I say that therefore there should now only be “freedom for atheism”? No, I am not Mr. Kemp. Of course, religions must be left free; no philosophic viewpoint, right or wrong, should be interfered with by the state. I do say, however, that it is time for patriots to take a stand–to name publicly what America does depend on, and why that is not Judaism or Christianity.

There are men today who advocate freedom and who recognize what ideas lie at its base, but who then counsel “practicality.” It is too late, they say, to educate people philosophically; we must appeal to what they already believe; we must pretend to endorse religion on strategic grounds, even if privately we don’t.

This is a counsel of intellectual dishonesty and of utter impracticality. It is too late indeed, far too late for a strategy of deception which by its nature has to backfire and always has, because it consists of confirming and supporting the very ideas that have to be uprooted and replaced. It is time to tell people the unvarnished truth: to stand up for man’s mind and this earth, and against any version of mysticism or religion. It is time to tell people: “You must choose between unreason and America. You cannot have both. Take your pick.”

If there is to be any chance for the future, this is the only chance there is.

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