June 14, 2012

Which U.S. Presidents were atheists?

I'm assuming some were. Here's a summary of what we know about each of the Presidents. What do you think? Perhaps John Tyler:
There is not much evidence of Tyler's beliefs, though he's often listed as Episcopalian. Following his death a friend said, "He was a firm believer in the atonement of the son of God, and in the efficacy of his blood to wash away every stain of mortal sin. ... He was by faith and heirship a member of the Episcopal Church and never doubted divine revelation." However, no pastor came to his home to administer the last sacrament, and in her account of his last illness, Tyler's wife wrote nothing of faith, hope, Christ or eternity.


Anthony said...

Maybe Mrs. Tyler was the atheist.

Among recent presidents, I'd guess Nixon, Clinton, and Obama.

phx said...
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Denton said...

If he were as his friend said, he was probably low church and wouldn't believe in the need for or even in the last rites. Christianity isn't monolithic and in his time, it was even less so than today. The Methodists were still breaking off and low church was a lot lower.

Doc Holliday's Bastard said...

Well, he could have just been deeply religious man who accepted death without a need for rationalization, or his wife could have been the atheist or he could have been an Episcopalian who didn't believe in the sanctity of the last rites (it's more a Roman Catholic thing). But as for Presidents who are atheists. I'd say Nixon. I'd also say Obama is probably agnostic.

Patrick said...

Wasn't Nixon born a Quaker? Could've left it, I suppose.

phx said...
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tim maguire said...

Reagan was probably an agnostic.

jimbino said...

It's funny and sad, Patrick, that you think that Nixon was born a Quaker. The fact is that every child has been, and always will be, born an atheist.

He can only become a Quaker or any other believer in superstition once his innocence is taken away.

Paul Kirchner said...

I assume that Clinton and Obama are non religious. I'm not sure that that makes them atheists, though.

MisterBuddwing said...

The fact is that every child has been, and always will be, born an atheist.

Just for the sake of argument, I might suggest that every child is actually born an agnostic - that is to say, in a state of blissful ignorance, with no opinion about the existence or non-existence of God.

Bender said...

So what you are saying, jimbino, is that you were not born a hateful bigot, but that you later chose to become one after you threw your innocence away.

Craig said...

Jackson forgave his enemies with pearl handled pistols at dawn.

Rob said...

Clinton professed to believe in God, so our working assumption should be he was lying.

Palladian said...

jimbino was born an asshole, and never grew out of it.

Gahrie said...

Someone throw me a bone.....why the hell are athesists so angry?

Fine, we get it, you don't believe in God, and you think people who do are stupid/ignorant/foolish/duped.

Good for you. Now go away and stop bothering everybody about it.

Quaestor said...

Is it just me, or am I right in thinking that PBS programming is less well-researched now than in the past? In looking over the linked-to site I noticed a number of inaccuracies and questionable assertions. For example:

Washington himself was raised in, married in and became a vestryman in the Episcopal Church (the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion).

While it is true that Episcopal Church is a branch of the Anglican Communion, when Washington was raised, married and became a vestryman the church he attended was simply Anglican -- under control of the See of Canterbury. It wasn't until the Revolution that Episcopal Church was organized in America in order to sever the power of the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint and discipline American bishops.

While president, he took a razor to the Bible, cutting out portions of the Gospels that involved miracles and retaining his parables and ethical teachings.

I've read heard this factoid about Jefferson and the origin of his Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, but as a practical matter how does slicing chucks out of a printed book help one to edit out the undesirable and retain the desirable. Every Bible I've ever seen, including the Book of Kells, is printed or hand lettered on both sides of the paper or vellum (A notable exception is the Torah. According to Orthodox tradition all true copies of the Torah are scrolls rather than bound books, and are hand lettered rather than printed. I understand there are strictions in Leviticus which demand that form.) Are we to believe that every objectionable line in Jefferson's Bible had an equally objectionable line in the same position on the opposite side of the page? Would it not be more likely that Jefferson merely used a pencil to scratch through the bad lines?

The Crack Emcee said...


jimbino was born an asshole, and never grew out of it.

No, jimbino was born smarter than you are, and you don't like it.


Someone throw me a bone.....why the hell are athesists so angry?

Fine, we get it, you don't believe in God, and you think people who do are stupid/ignorant/foolish/duped.

Good for you. Now go away and stop bothering everybody about it.

How silly:

You acknowledge we're surrounded by idiots, but still wonder why we're so angry? Then you - the self-selected leader of the dumbshits, I'm guessing - tell us we're the ones "bothering everybody," though you're the one making this asinine statement.

It just never ends.

My goodness, you people are dumb,...

edutcher said...

Lincoln was generally accepted to be agnostic and many of the Founders had Deistic tendencies.

I'd go with phx's list with the exception of Nixon.

And what Palladian said the second time.

phx said...
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Saint Croix said...

"I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons," he said, "but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all."

Does Barack Obama seriously expect us to believe that we cannot define death in a secular way? Why then do we have laws on the books in regard to when people die?

Of course it is true that religious people are leading the opposition to abortion, like we lead the opposition to slavery. But that is merely because religious people are forced to reflect on morality out of fear of God. Apparently atheists get to coast through life on sloppy fucking thinking.

Of course there are some atheists who ponder morality and worry about it--the so-called secular humanists. I imagine these atheists are quite embarrassed to be defined by President Obama as de facto baby-killers. Because atheists can't answer hard questions. Atheists vote present.

Nat Hentoff is an atheist. Nat Hentoff is also a pro-lifer. How do you explain that, Mr. President?

Of course it's possible that Nat Hentoff's early training in Judaism has corrupted his secular brain. Maybe he's not a true atheist. Unlike, say, somebody who goes to church to obtain political power. But isn't it also possible that Nat Hentoff--a man who denies God--can nonetheless recoil in horror at a society that kills the handicapped on the grounds that we don't want them around?

So while I concede the possibility that atheists are baby-killers because they don't know any better, I would rather think that you are an embarrassment to secular humanism, Mr. President.

Saint Croix said...

The fact is that every child has been, and always will be, born an atheist.

From now on I will associate atheism with crying and shitting on himself. Oh what a perfect state of man!

And while I do think babies are human and should be recognized as such, I do not actually think we should all worship the tit-sucking shit machines as the the gurus of moral enlightenment.

Saint Croix said...

Do you look to babies for your economic theories as well?

I guess we could call that demand-side economics.

"I want stuff! Now!"

Chuck66 said...

There is little doubt in my mind that Obama is the same religion as his mother, an Atheist.

I believe in joined Black Christian churches as a political move.

Chuck66 said...

"Someone throw me a bone.....why the hell are athesists so angry?"

Atheism is a religion based on the destruction of all other religions.

David Gray said...

>>The fact is that every child has been, and always will be, born an atheist.

Untrue. And for a fellow who fancies himself a hardcore materialist certainly unprovable.

Peter said...

"Someone throw me a bone.....why the hell are athesists so angry?"

Muslims proclaim, "There is no God but Allah!" and athiests proclaim, "There is no God!"

The beliefs are different, but the intensity of belief (and intolerance of other beliefs?) seems comparable.

In any case, agnosticism is squishy. That is, it seems unlikely that any person of faith is 100 percent sure, as literature is full of devout believers who express some degree of doubt.

Which leaves agnosticism as more of a scale ranging from "Pretty sure God exists" through "Not so sure" to "Maybe, but probably not."

Mitch H. said...

Someone throw me a bone.....why the hell are athesists so angry?

They hold, as a matter of doctrinal faith, that there's nothing out there that loves them. Of course that's existentially enraging, isn't it?

Agnostics merely suspect that there's nothing that loves them, but atheists know.

rsb said...

jimbino is correct. Time to be rid of superstition.

Paddy O said...
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Beach Brutus said...

"The fact is that every child has been, and always will be, born an atheist.

He can only become a Quaker or any other believer in superstition once his innocence is taken away."

What is innocence in an Athestic world?

jimbino said...

I could say that innocence in an atheist world is like reason in a theist world: non-existent.

But really, innocence signifies those few precious months when the child's brain can develop freely, before it is forced to accept religious superstition as the price of being fed and sheltered. It is the mental state of the atheist kid reared free of magic books, talking snakes and donkeys, prayers, incantations, icons, trinkets, and beads, holy spirits, sexual mutilation and a god who orders massacres of enemies and their children.

Mitch H. said...

jimbino, not only are you an irredeemable asshole, but you're a piss-poor atheist. If I were an atheist and an asshole, I'd be arguing hardwired religiosity - that religious belief in the supernatural and the numinous is an biological artifact, and "baked into the cake". Since, y'know, that's the current, hip sociobiological theory, and everyone knows how much doctrinaire atheists love their scientism!

But I guess you can't argue that one because you need your religious denial of The Deity to support your Rousseauan belief system, with all that baggage about noble savagery and the evil, evil culture of deistic religion.

John said...

Episcopalians/Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Unitarians... oh, and one Catholic. Soon we'll add a Mormon to that list. My question is... where are the Lutherans? Are people disinclined to vote for Lutherans because of their overwhelming inoffensiveness, or are Lutherans just not inclined to run for the Presidency (or political office in general)?

Beach Brutus said...

Jimbino (at 10:26) - You miss the point of my question. I'm not seeking an Attheist definition of innocence -- but question how the concept can even exist in an Athestic world.

In a purely Athesitic world we would all be merely a collection of atoms and molecules, and physical and chemical processes. There would be no basis for such concepts as innocence, truth, beauty, or justice.

The non-superstitious child of which you dream would not be inconvenienced by such devinely inspired concepts as right/wrong, good/evil, heroism/cowardice, etc. There would be no human society and our exisitence, such as it might be, would be wholy Hobesian.

Paul Brinkley said...

Someone throw me a bone.....why the hell are atheists so angry?

Confirmation bias. If they're not angry, you don't hear them as much. I could just as easily ask why Christians are so loud and obnoxious.

Jim S. said...

It's funny: for millennia believers have argued that belief in God is the natural state, that we're wired to believe in him. So Augustine wrote "Our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee" and Pascal wrote that there is a God-shaped hole in everyone's heart that nothing else can fill. Atheists have tried to respond that we're not wired this way, that just the mere fact that one is not born believing propositions entails that we're born atheists (even though "God does not exist" is just as much a proposition as is "God exists"). Then neuroscientists discovered that ... wait for it ... we're wired to believe in God. Belief in God, along with belief in mind-body dualism, is the natural state of affairs. The response of atheists is "See? Your belief in God is not a matter of argument or reason or experience but nature! You believe because certain neural pathways are naturally organized that way." Heads we win, tails you lose.

jimbino said...

Beach Brutus,

Go read your Darwin. He dealt so many years ago with the questions you raise. Dawkins has taken up the banner.

Almost all scientists are atheists, and biological scientists are the seriously atheist, with some 94% of the most acclaimed having no belief in a personal god or the efficacy of prayer. We scientists are operating on the conclusion that regarding the origin of the universe and the intelligence and morality of man, there is no need whatsoever for "the god hypothesis" to explain any of the observed phenomena.

Jim S. said...

I suspect jimbino is working from the idea that atheism is not necessarily disbelief in God, it can just be absence of belief in God. This idea was promulgated by atheist philosophers in the 1960s and 70s. It's been almost entirely abandoned today by philosophers because no one was able to define what "lacking a belief" means and how it differs from agnosticism on the one hand or disbelief on the other. Today atheism is not that popular a position in philosophy while theism (and Christianity in particular) is much more common. However, I think agnosticism is still the majority view. At least, it seems to me that there are more agnostics than theists.

Paul Brinkley said...

I suspect agnosticism is pretty popular, too, but it's virtually impossible to tell. Meanwhile, theism is popular; it gets attention. So is aggressive atheism - what a friend of mine refers to as "evangelical atheism" - it gets attention as well.

Why are they popular? Because these people start fights, and fights are FUN! Fight, fight!

jimbino said...

Jim S. and many others:

The terms atheism and agnosticism cannot be compared, because they belong to different realms, as do color and smell.

Agnosticism is the philosophical posture of the skeptic, the posture of all scientists, when it comes to evaluating a particular hypothesis, whether it be the efficacy of prayer or the inverse square law of gravitational attraction.

Atheism is the lack of a god superstition, just as amoral refers to the lack of morals. A young baby and all the plants and animals, apart from adult humans, are both atheist and amoral.

Furthermore, an agnostic does not believe in belief, because belief ("faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen") implies accepting something as true for which there is no supporting scientific evidence--the contrary of the posture of the agnostic and the scientist.

Amoral does not mean immoral and atheist does not mean anti-theist, belief that there is no god.

Crunchy Frog said...

where are the Lutherans?

Closest to the White House you get is Hubert Humphrey, though one did run SCOTUS (Rehnquist).

Beach Brutus said...

Jimbino (11:56) -- You still haven't answered my question -- out sourcing to Darwin or Dawkins doesn't cut it. I want to know what you think. If Jerry Sandusky did the things he is accused of -- I would think an Atheist would just say "So what." He apparently derived great pleasure from his acts - so much so that he set up a whole charity to be a feeder system of young boys so satiate his desire to rape them up the bum. That it caused the boys pain and distress should be of no concern to an Atheist -- if it does - Why?

Jim S. said...

"atheist does not mean anti-theist, belief that there is no god"

That's what atheist has meant for thousands of years. If you're using the word in a different way it's misleading. Monotheism refers to belief in one God, polytheism refers to belief in many gods, atheism refers to belief in no gods. Atheism is the assertion that God does not exist, agnosticism is the withholding of belief (and withholding of disbelief) in God.

Also, "belief" does not imply accepting something that one has no evidence for. Belief is a necessary condition of knowledge: you can't know something if you don't believe it. In order to know that 2+2=4 I have to believe that 2+2=4. You may believe things you have no evidence for, but you also believe things you do have evidence for. This should be obvious. You're using common words but don't use their common, accepted definitions.

Incidentally, "agnostic" is the Greek-based word for "no knowledge". The Latin-based word is "ignoramus".

jimbino said...

No, Jim S, you are beset by serious metaphysical disconnects.

Part of the problem is that, in English, "to believe" also embraces the idea of "to think" or "to imagine"--meanings that do not carry the implication of superstitious craziness of religion. As in, "I believe it's midnight now in Tokyo."

No, Jim, while all your theisms indeed involve belief, atheism does not. Atheism means a non-belief in a god. Period. Belief that there is no god would be called anti-theism.

There are, of course, atheists who believe in nonsense apart from god, such as flying saucers, telepathy, reincarnation and romantic love.

And 2+2=4 is true by definitions implicit in the algebra, having nothing whatsoever to do with belief, and you are free to define it differently in a different algebra, just as there are geometries in which parallel lines meet.

Yes, ignoramus would be the Latin 2ppl of the of Greek verb that gives us "agnostic." Indeed, "ignoramos" and its cognates are used every day in Italian, Spanish an Portuguese. It means "we do not know" or "we haven't the slightest idea," which express exactly the posture of the scientist gathering evidence in support or refutation of a hypothesis.

jimbino said...


Jim S. said...

jimbino, I'm telling you what "atheist" has meant for thousands of years. This term has a history that goes back to the Greeks. It's not a metaphysical issue it's a historical issue. You don't get to redefine words at your whim. Atheism has historically meant belief in no gods, whether you like it or not, whether it lets you believe what you want or not is irrelevant.

You missed my point about 2+2=4. Regardless of why it's true or how we come to know it, the point is that one cannot know it if one does not believe it. Belief is a necessary aspect of knowledge. You argued that belief meant "belief without evidence or reason". That's obviously false.

I've already mentioned that your claim that atheism does not involve a belief has been rejected by philosohers -- that includes atheist philosophers. Your position is one that has been rejected as nonsense by the people who came up with it. Since you ignored that, let me ask you: what does it mean to have a non-belief in God? What does it mean to lack a belief? How does this differ from disbelief (believing it is not true) and withholding belief (agnosticism)? Again, philosophers were unable to do this after a few decades and so they rejected the approach. The problem this creates for you is that atheism, as a belief and an assertion, is in need of justification just as much as theism is. In other words, you have to shoulder the burden of proof. Atheists tried to avoid having to provide grounds or reasons or evidence for their belief that God does not exist by saying atheism isn't really a belief and so doesn't require grounds or reasons or evidence. That approach has been rejected by atheist philosophers as untenable. Why are you still advocating it?

jimbino said...

You say that atheism has a well-establish meaning. True.

What does not have a well-established and clear meaning is "belief." Belief, meaning faith, is what the agnostic does not have: he is either knows or is ignorant. Faith is shunned in science and agnosticism.

An atheist has no belief in a god. He thinks ("believes") that there is no god; his opinion ("belief") based on evidence is that there is no god.

Scientists and agnostics do not believe in believing (in the sense of having faith).

The point is that belief in a god is a religious attitude; non-belief in a god ("belief" in no god) is NOT a religious attitude. It is NOT so that atheism is just another religion. It is a rejection of religion.

jimbino said...

Besides god, there are billions of things that do not exist, like flying saucers, remote viewing, zombies and vampires. No scientist would consider humoring the demented by mounting experiments or collecting evidence to prove their non-existence.

We expect those who make a positive assertion of some religious phenomenon, such as the Assumption of Mary or the Efficacy of Prayer to provide the theory and evidence that are then subjected to peer review and attack.

We figure that the $1,000,000 reward offered by Scientific American and The Amazing Randi is sufficient to bring positive evidence of prayer and other nonsense out of the shadows; that and the promise of a Nobel Prize for showing that prayer works or that snakes and donkeys can talk.

The Crack Emcee said...

Silly religious idiots:

Almost every argument here against atheism and for religion - especially the one about nobody wuving atheists - is about as juvenile as they come.

Your god was all powerful, now he's a picture on toast. What's next? Rub on tattoos? Get it together, people, you're supposed to be adults:

At least those who claim to be "Fools For Christ" have SOME integrity,...

Jim S. said...

Dude, stop digging. "Belief" doesn't have a well-established and clear meaning? Of course it does. It means to accept something as true. It's a pretty common word and has a well-established definition. An atheist accepts as true the proposition that there is no God. Therefore the atheist believes there is no God. As such, you have to bear the burden of proof.

"Faith" does have more than one definition. The one you're thinking of, however, is blind faith, believing something without any evidence or reason. That's not the usual definition, since we have to prefix with the adjective "blind" in order to communicate it. At any rate, that's not the Judeo-Christian concept of faith. Faith in God is not belief in a proposition, it's trust. Just as you had faith that your parents loved you when you were a child, so we are told to have faith (trust) in God. And this is completely compatible with having evidence or reason for this trust.

You still haven't answered my question: what does it mean to lack a belief, and how does this differ from agnosticism and disbelief? If you can't answer this, then all of your bluster amounts to nothing. I'm happy to respond to your other points, but until you respond to mine, I'm not confident that you won't keep moving the goalposts.

Paul Brinkley said...

It's supposedly better to believe something because you inferred it from something else, than to believe it without any such support. However, the propositions which support your belief must necessarily be themselves believed, which forces you to examine their support in turn.

If, after drilling down this way on everything you believe, you come to a set of propositions on which you can drill no further, that is faith in Jim S.' blind sense. Faith (trust) in God is necessarily supported by belief in His existence (how can you trust someone you do not believe exists?), which is either based on blind faith, or supported ultimately by some set of beliefs held blindly.

If you never reach some layer of blindly held beliefs, it is because you've reached beliefs you inspected before, which means your logic is circular. This is supposed to be even worse than holding blind beliefs. Everyone, from the most fervent theist to the most ideal scientist, has blind beliefs, or rests in a circular logic on top of nothing at all.

What distinguishes the ideal scientist from the fervent theist is that the scientist has drilled his beliefs down until they rest in an infinitesimal core, including trust in his own observations and in the machinery of logic, whereas the theist trusts in a great many things, so many in fact that he runs the risk of logical inconsistency between unexamined beliefs.

Jim S. said...

Paul Brinkley: I agree with most of what you say. The circularity problem is a commonly accepted position in philosophy called coherentism, so many don't consider it a problem at all. However, the majority view, today and historically, is foundationalism which you described well. There is also a third position: infinitism, according to which you never reach a foundational belief, and never double back on something else you already mentioned. It's a very rare position, the only person I know who advocates is Peter Klein.

I slightly disagree with your last paragraph. I don't think it's science that limits its foundational pool of beliefs, I think that's just the nature of any particular study whether scientific or not. This is true of systematic theology for example. And I don't think it's the fervent theist who has a large store of beliefs at the foundational level, I think it's everyone in their daily life, including scientists.

To make another point, the Quine-Duhem thesis claims that we cannot move from our data to some preferred theory explaining it, since no theory can be tested in isolation: it makes further assumptions, and any falsification might be a falsification of one of these assumptions rather than the theory. The upshot of this is that there will always be more several theories which equally explain the data but which logically contradict one another. So just going back to foundational beliefs and having a small number of them isn't sufficient to sanction science and it's theories. (I don't mean to suggest in this that science is questionable. I'm a big fan of science.)