Are atheists American?
Midlands Voices: Genuine Americans see atheists' rights
BY SANFORD GOODMAN, Published Monday, December 31, 2001

Midlands Voices: Are atheists American?
The writer, of Omaha, is an independent business consultant.

Thomas Martin ("Are atheists American?" Nov. 2 commentary) detects "dogmatic and theological lucidity" in the inclusion of the word "Creator" in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, to the point that he questions whether atheists are rightfully called Americans. The historical record shows him to be completely mistaken.

The Declaration begins and says, in part, "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people ... to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's god entitle them ...." This phrase entirely lacks Martin's dogmatic and theological lucidity, reflecting as it does the Deistic views of Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration.

Jefferson's stand on the question of atheists' rightful place in civil affairs is well known, perhaps stated most clearly in Notes on the State of Virginia, written in 1781 and 1782: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

Jefferson was lamenting the fact that people could still be prosecuted for heresy under the common law and suffer civil penalties even though in 1776 the then-new government of Virginia had removed criminal provisions proscribing religious opinions, consistent with the Virginia Declaration of Rights of that same year. Virginia did later pass a religious freedom bill in 1786, drafted by Jefferson seven years earlier, which declared that "all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

Jefferson adopted the fundamental concepts of the Declaration's second paragraph from the aforementioned Virginia Declaration of Rights, authored by George Mason and published in Philadelphia in June 1776, just as Jefferson began drafting the Declaration. Mason's draft stated that "all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity, among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."

Jefferson's original draft had largely followed this form, substituting "created" for "born" and otherwise improving the language. When it was reported out of the Committee of Five, which included John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, "Creator" had been added. The Second Continental Congress heavily edited the text, however, among other things, inserting two additional references to the divine in the last paragraph. Did this, then, reflect the more general sense of the country acting through its representatives, asserting Martin's dogma and theology?

Again, the historical record shows otherwise. "Not one revolutionary state bill of rights used the words 'all men are created equal,'" according to Pauline Maier, author of American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. Adopted mainly after July 1776, they all reverted back to variations of the Mason form and its assertion of man's "inherent natural rights" with no reference to endowment by the Creator.

Finally, the Constitutional Convention in 1787 produced a purely secular document, stating unambiguously "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." During the ratification debates, many expressed views similar to Martin's and favored a religious test, but the sentiment that prevailed was expressed well by James Iredell of North Carolina, who later served as a justice on the Supreme Court:
"But it is objected that the people of America may, perhaps, choose representatives who have no religion at all, and that pagans and Mahometans may be admitted into offices. But how is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for?"
Martin's attempt to so exclude atheists harkens back to an ancient concept of the relation of religion and government that was firmly and categorically rejected in the creation of the United States, among the most uniquely American and revolutionary achievements of that era. No doubt there were many then, as now, who would have had it otherwise. But it is clear that while being an atheist is not central to being an American, recognizing the right to be one is.