America has had 'non-Christian' presidents!

By Razib Khan | October 26, 2011 10:36 pm

A few weeks ago over at Slate Dave Weigel stated that “Electing Mitt Romney in 2012 would mean electing, for the first time, a president whose religion is not part of orthodox Christianity.” I tweeted to Weigel that this was just plain wrong. There have been plenty of presidents who rejected orthodox Christianity, the last one being William Howard Taft, a Unitarian who rejected the Trinity. And now Jeffrey Goldberg is saying the same thing in Bloomberg View:

But theological honesty demands that we recognize that. Romney would be the first president to be so far outside the Christian denominational mainstream.

There is much in Mormonism that stands in opposition to Christian doctrine, including the belief that the Book of Mormon completes the Christian Bible. Christianity had an established creed about 1,500 years before Joseph Smith appeared in upstate New York with a new truth, codified in the Book of Mormon, which he said was revealed to him by an angel named Moroni.

“The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed settled the basic ideas of Christianity,” said Michael Cromartie, an evangelical who is vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. “The canon was closed, and then Joseph Smith comes along and says that there’s a new book, an extra-biblical addition to the agreed-upon canon.”


I know this is a science blog, but sometimes I frankly can’t stand how little specific information generalist pundits seem to have (though Jeff Goldberg is famous for being the guy who got promoted after convincing many liberals of the feasibility and justice of the Iraq War, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised). Here’s a “fact check.” Four American presidents have been Unitarian.

In the United States Unitarianism evolved out of the liberal wing of the Congregational movement (in New England most Unitarian churches used to be Congregational churches, with King’s Chapel in Boston being the primary exception). Today Unitarianism is predominantly a non-Christian denomination, with about a half and half split between ‘humanist’ and ‘theist’ Unitarians. But in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries Unitarians were generally Christian in self-conception, though they rejected the Trinity as outlined in the Nicene Creed. Thomas Jefferson was never an avowed Unitarian, but his personal correspondence indicates that his views toward religion were in line with more radical Unitarians during his presidency, though he did become more of a liberal Episcopal Christian in his later years. It has to be remembered that Jefferson invited Thomas Paine back to the United States in 1802. Keep in mind that Paine was the Christopher Hitchens of his day when it came to religious opinions (Christian churches would not take his body for burial upon his death because of his reputation).

Jefferson’s religious heterodoxy can be understood best by observing the substance of the Bible he produced by redacting much of the material. In content:

The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth begins with an account of Jesus’s birth without references to angels, genealogy, or prophecy. Miracles, references to the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and Jesus’ resurrection are also absent from The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth…It does, however, include references to Noah’s Ark, the Great Flood, the Tribulation, and the Second Coming, as well as Heaven, Hell, and the Devil.

There is a movement in the United States to erase the reality of the heterodoxy of these early Founding Fathers from historical memory, and that movement originates out of the evangelical Protestant Right which puts a premium on theological orthodoxy, and cannot brook the fact that the more prominent Founders were not Christians as they would understand it. Strangely these views are now spreading through repetition. I recall running into a doctor a few years ago who was raised evangelical in Texas who told me that “of course the Founders were orthodox Christians….” This person is no longer an evangelical, and was totally taken aback when I corrected the fake history he’d been fed in Sunday School.

Now, it must be remembered that the Founders themselves conceived of themselves as Christians. Unitarian Christians of the period believed themselves to be the real Christians. Even many of the heterodox Founders with Deist sympathies like Jefferson perceived the Christianity of their day to be in a degraded condition. Kind of like Mormons.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion
MORE ABOUT: Mormons, Religion, Romney
  • Bean Soup

    It shouldn’t matter what religion the President is.

    The moment religion is a factor- the moment government gets to pass religious legislation and laws based on religious sentiment is the moment government can tell you how to worship… that’s something nobody who is religious wants.

    As for the “our government is founded on the 10 commandments” that I often hear said- has any of those people ever looked at the 10 commandments?

    The only ones that would pass our constitution and not be considered unconstitutional are “don’t murder, steal, or bear false witness” – all three of which are common laws in every country on earth.

  • Bean Soup

    -duplicate deleted-

  • John Emerson

    Besides Unitarians, a lot of the founders and early Presidents (the Southerners) were formally Episcopalians, which didn’t necessarily mean more than that they were born into an Episcopalian family. The “born again” churches demand an adult personal commitment at some point for someone to become a real member, whereas Episcopals (and Catholics and Lutherans, and probably Orthodox, and maybe Van Buren’s Dutch Reformed) just default people in at birth. This whole infant v. adult baptism controversy really does have some substance to it; it’s not one of those controversies based on an obscure textual quibble.

    Besides Episcopal, Unitarian, and Dutch Reformed (Van Buren), most of the early Presidents seem to have vacillated between Methodist, Presbyterian, and sometimes Baptist or Episcopal, or to have declared themselves to be nondenominational Christians. There might have been good political reasons for this vagueness. Many were not communicant members of any church, and Grant was unbaptized — Polk was baptized only on his deathbed.

    To the extent that the first 20 Presidents or so were Christians at all, most of them seemed to be exactly the kind of lax conventional / liberal / nondenominational / non-born-again Christians whose Christianity contemporary fundamentalists and evangelicals tend to doubt. Later on Presidents tended to have more denominational identification and McKinley, Wilson, and others seemed to be devout and committed. But there were still plenty of very nominal Christians, like Eisenhower.

    In some respects the Second Great Awakening was a rebellion against the principles of the Founding Fathers. (It also was theologically very creative and original at times, for example, the Mormons). We’re now in the Third Great Awakening, as I’ve been told, and in this awakening American chauvinism is at odds with religious doctrine, requiring them to tell outright lies about the Founding Fathers. The anger and intensity of their belief, which makes the lies necessary, also causes them not to notice that they’re lying. It’s a frightening time, since they’ve been choosing our political leadership now for awhile already.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_affiliations_of_Presidents_of_the_United_States

  • gc

    The only time it should matter is if the person’s religious faith interferes with the duties and oath the President takes. Some religions would approve of lying under oath to further their cause.

  • Konkvistador

    This is not so much because of the movement of the Protestant Right (though they play a role), it is rather caused by democracy. As a result of its norms and practice people expect their nominal leaders to be much more like them than they used to. Television has actually made US presidents more and more symbols than rulers with each election since Kennedy beat Nixon. Much like entertainment industry celebrities are less and less artists and more and more companies with lots of people optimizing every aspect of their public relations and even actually producing the product their name is attached too, politicans more and more require a “clean” background, good speaking ability, good looks and the good sense to find oneself suitable patrons.

    I think the phenomena can be observed in Turkey as well, where moderate pro-Islamic parties seem to be the new thing.

    People are very accustomed to the things the way they are. Foreign countries once viewed up close and experienced in detail can upset them for this reason. The past is a foreign country. But fortunately one that is very easy to ignore! People simply project modernity onto the past as a first reflex. And in times of long periods of stability this isn’t even that inaccurate.

  • john

    Of course the USA already had a non-Christian president – the current one is Muslim :-) !

  • http://puffthemutantdragon.wordpress.com/ Mutant Dragon

    For my part, religious preference is irrelevant when it comes to choosing a candidate — very much agree with @1. And yes, the idea the founders were all Orthodox Christians is clearly politically-motivated propaganda. Thank goodness the Evangelical movement is on the wane; they’ve been far too powerful for far too long already.

  • marcel

    2 quibbles.

    1) To RK: It is not clear what you are trying to say in your final sentence, “Kind of like Mormons.”. I think you mean that “… like Jefferson [they perceive] the Christianity of their day to be in a degraded condition.” But perhaps you are saying that their religion is in a degraded condition.

    2) To John Emerson, who wrote: “We’re now in the Third Great Awakening, as I’ve been told, and in this awakening American chauvinism is at odds with religious doctrine, requiring them to tell outright lies about the Founding Fathers. ” The 3rd GA was in the late 19th C. (think William Jennings Bryan).

    Dates for the Great Awakenings (from Wikipedia) are:

    1st GA: 1730s and 1740s (think Jonathan Edwards of Yale and Princeton fame)

    2nd GA: early 19thC through the Civil War (think 7th Day Adventism, Mormons)

    3rd GA: 1850s to the early 1900s (think WJ Bryan, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, Pentecostals and, according to Wikipedia, Ethical Culture!)

    Economic historian Robert Fogel believes that we are in the middle of the Fourth GA. I met him a few times in the 90s, and he argued the point then. I do not know if he thinks that it is currently continuing, or ended at some time since then.

    Also, very cool fact about US Grant. Can you provide documentation? (I’ll accept Wikipedia).

  • John H.

    RE: whether Jefferson was ever an “avowed” Unitarian and his religious beliefs later in his life, this is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to Benjamin Waterhouse dated Jan. 8, 1825, eighteen months before his death:

    “The population of my neighborhood is too slender, and is too much divided into other sects to maintain any one preacher well. I must therefore be contented to be a Unitarian by myself, although I know there are many around me who would gladly become so, if once they could hear the question fairly stated.”

  • Robert Foy

    From what I have read of Lincoln, I am very surprised he was not listed in this article. He was never part of any church, even though he quoted the bible on many occasions, most likely to appeal to the evangelical Christians. I gather he was a doubter of the Christian belief or at least of God in his earlier years from the quotes that I have read that are associated with him. Some examples:

    “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”

    “The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession.”
    ― Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858

    “My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.”
    ― Abraham Lincoln

    Of course, he did become a bit more religious in his later years after the death oh his son and before and during the Civil War, but that seems to be the case for a lot of people looking for solace and meaning into things.

    Either way, Lincoln should have been part of this list I think.

  • Kirk

    If you cannot demonstrate by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or an MRI how a “christian” cognitive set operates you should submit further thoughts on this (non) topic to HuffPo and fight it out with Deepak Chopra.

  • John Emerson

    What did Kirk just say? It must have made sense to him, and his words are clear enough, but it just seems too stupid. Help me, somebody.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    <i.I think you mean that “… like Jefferson [they perceive] the Christianity of their day to be in a degraded condition.” But perhaps you are saying that their religion is in a degraded condition.

    former.

    re: leaving people off the list. this was a narrow list. i think it is highly plausible that several presidents besides the unitarians and unitarian-sympathizers wouldn’t be considered xtian today. including lincoln.

    i think democratic populism is the biggest reason for the shift. andrew jackson is arguably the first president with impeccable orthodox xtian credentials, and he came to power in the period of universal white male suffrage.

  • John Emerson

    The Wiki link is at the bottom of my comment.

    There’s always been both a strong pious demographic and a strong secular-profane demographic in the US. One marker of the profane minority is the personal name “Darwin”. “Darwin” first appeared on the census in the 1880s and increased in popularity until about 1930, peaking at 140 babies per million, or one in 7000 (since it’s always a boys’ name, maybe 1 in 3500 boys).

    All the Darwins I know are country people. It must be a relic of the village atheists.

    http://www.babynamewizard.com/voyager#prefix=darwin&ms=false&exact=false

  • Dan Knudsen

    “The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed settled the basic ideas of Christianity,” said Michael Cromartie, an evangelical who is vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. “The canon was closed, and then Joseph Smith comes along and says that there’s a new book, an extra-biblical addition to the agreed-upon canon.”

    One reason Mormons don’t accept the Creeds is that no Mormon was there when they were formulated. How many Evangelicals were there? Were any of God’s prophets there, or were they not needed since the Bible was all that was needed and further revelation from heaven had ceased? Then why were the Creeds needed and their status is now equal to scripture–since those who don’t accept them are not Christian and will go to Hell? What is the difference then between the Creeds and the Mormons’ scriptures, since both are extra-Biblical and came long after the scriptural canon had allegedly been closed? And, who was it that defined the “agreed-upon canon” and closed it? Were they prophets, like those who’d written those books, so that they knew which books were the only books containing God’s word? Or, was the canon not closed until after the Creeds came? Since throughout the writing of the Bible, apostles and prophets were the ones giving the scripture, and then the Creeds were written by men, not prophets or apostles, has God changed his mode of operation? Or, is He just leaving us alone to fend for ourselves? Does He no longer care about us? And, how is He then still Unchangeable?

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    Saying Unitarians are not Christians is simply a mistake, at least before the 20th century. It would rule out, John Milton, for example. Trinitarianism is a wide-spread church dogma, not a litmus test. Otherwise neither Jesus nor Paul would be considered in.

  • Roger Bigod

    Washington. For a long time, and perhaps up until his death, he didn’t take communion. The most plausible explanation is that the communicant recites a creed before the sacrament, and if one can’t do this with sincere belief, taking communion is blasphemy.

    There are several possibilities for why he attended church despite lack of belief. One is that he might have considered that religion has good social effects and he wanted to set an example. Another is to please his wife. After services, members of the church visited in the church yard and it may have been one of his few opportunities for social life. The vestry of the church (senior male members) disbursed funds as a public works committee and he may have wanted to be sure he got his share of road and levee improvements. But clearly, he didn’t need it for his political career.

  • John Emerson

    It may be a simple mistake, Luke, but it’s a mistake that almost all fundamentalists and most evangelicals make. Miulton’s actual religious belief has been sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for a long time, even in English departments.

  • Clark

    Interesting take regarding what the self-identity of the early founders as Christian really consisted of. It’s kind of ironic that many Christians who want to emphasize the Christianity of such figures are so opposed to a similar kind of self-identification by our Mormons.

    The real problem is, of course, a kind of equivocation over the meaning of the term Christian. Most attempts to exclude Mormons subtly switch senses during the discussion. I also suspect that had more Americans contact with more Christian sects outside of Catholicism and Protestantism that this would be less of an issue. (Of course some encounter Eastern Orthodox or Russian Orthodox but my experience is most are pretty ignorant of even them let alone Copts or the historic range of forms of Christianity in late antiquity, in Africa and in the middle east)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    it’s not just fundamentalists or evangelicals. mainline protestants and catholics aren’t as loud or obnoxious, but they also tend to reject mormon claims to christianity because they’re not athanasian. e.g., i think the catholics and methodists were explicit that mormon converts to these religions need to be rebaptized, which implies they don’t accept mormon baptism as christian.

    as a non-believer it’s all academic, but you go with what the majority thinks. none of it is anything more than man-made anyhow.

  • Clark

    As a result of its norms and practice people expect their nominal leaders to be much more like them than they used to.

    This was always an element I think. There were two senses of representation. One was that the elected leader should vote as the people who elected him wanted. The other was that the people couldn’t know enough to make an informed decision so they elected someone like them to become informed and make those decisions. I have a hard time saying one view is worse than the others.

    While I’m obviously uncomfortable with some of the anti-Mormon rhetoric against Romney (and to a lesser extent Huntsman) I really do have a hard time with the idea that a conservative Evangelical who wants decisions made out of their worldview is wrong to want someone like them in office. I may disagree with their worldview but honestly I think others do the same thing. Whether they be atheists, secular liberals, or even many conservatives. I tend to make my own vote in more pragmatic lines recognizing individual politicians are limited in what they can do and being more concerned balancing perceived likely outcomes rather than worrying if they are like me or even always agree with me. But I just can’t find the other approach wrong, even when the view seems like an ugly judgment of my own culture and religion.

    Trinitarianism is a wide-spread church dogma, not a litmus test. Otherwise neither Jesus nor Paul would be considered in.

    I think the same could be said about the exclusion of Mormons. Mormons actually aren’t quite as opposed to the Trinity as is often assumed. The bigger issue is that they think the Father is embodied like Christ and they typically reject creation ex nihilo. The theological concern with Mormon conceptions of theosis (as opposed to say Eastern Orthodox conceptions) is really due to the theological difference over creation ex nihilo which changes the meaning of theosis quite a bit.

    The biggest question is whether such subtle and difficult to understand theological controversies ought be the determining factor in calling someone a Christian or not. Especially when most lay Protestants get many of the same questions wrong according to dogma. Most lay people when you ask their beliefs describe modalism and not trinitarianism. And of course many lay Mormons have erroneous views of their own belief – although honestly doctrine isn’t that big a deal for Mormons. They have a sense that all such theological understanding is pretty fallible. Their biggest concern with the creeds espousing the Trinity is more that they are nearly impossible to understand and they don’t like fixed dogma of that type given their cultural fallibilism.

  • Clark

    Razib, that’s true, although I think the issue of baptism is a bit more complex. Many groups including Catholics don’t recognize Universalist baptisms, Pentecostal baptism, Mormon baptism, or Jehovah Witness baptism. While some of those are topics of debate as to whether they are Christian, it seems surprising that many Catholic diocese reject Pentacostal baptism while I assume they think Pentacostals are Christian (however misguided they may think they are).

    My understanding (admittedly limited) is that the decisions about accepting baptism is primarily about formal organizational acceptance of the Trinity and using the proper trinitarian formula when baptizing (which they agree Mormons do). While the exclusion of Mormons seems a bit more complex they are usually taken to reject the Trinity.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #22, strange about pentacostals. universalists and j.w. are pretty straightforward. j.w’s consider themselves latter day arians. but ‘pentacostal’ is a pretty broad category, so it might some of the more heterodox forms are casting a pall on all of them (i think a few pentacostal movements have shifted toward unitarianism).

  • John Emerson

    Trinitarianism has been the standard for orthodoxy since 451 AD, coincidentally the time of Attila the Hun. Some Germans remained Arian but converted over the next few centuries. The rest of the non trinitarians were in far places like Upper Egypt, Ethiopia, Armenia, India, China, and especially the Persian Empire. Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox are united in rejecting anti-trinitarians, even though they disagree about some points.

    The fact that most Christians don’t understand trinitarianism is irrelevant, since the doctrine makes no sense, any more than the two persons or natures of Christ do, and is a mystery or article of faith. You’re not supposed to understand it as long as you mumble the right words.

    There probably have always been movements splitting off from Orthodoxy on this issue, but as far as I know they’ve always been regarded as unorthodox. Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons are recent cases. On the other hand, they’re clearly American Protestants.

    The Unitarian Church of Transylvania (Hungary or Romania) goes back to 1565
    and still exists, with about 100,000 members.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #24, just to be clear, you’re not asserting that non-chalcedonian xtians are non-trinitarian, are you?

  • syon

    John Emerson: “Miulton’s actual religious belief has been sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for a long time, even in English departments.”

    Well, English departments have been discussing Milton’s heterodoxy for quite some time, even on the undergraduate level; even C.S. Lewis, in his PREFACE TO PARADISE LOST (Perhaps the most sustained attempt to paint Milton as an orthodox Christian)acknowledges Milton’s “deviations” from normative Christianity.

  • John Emerson

    It’s hard to get a grip on the theology, especially because the modern churches deemphasize their differences from Western Christianity, but the churches excluded at Chalcedon had ideas of Christology that made them non-Trinitarian, and one branch (Jacobites or Syrian Orthodox) was more or less Unitarian. The subtleties get pretty messy. As I understand, the other group, Nestorians, believe that there were two Christs, one human and one divine. However a lot of what I know probably comes from Chalcedonian misrepresentations.

    Trinitarian theology was invented to exemplify “distinction without a difference”, in my opinion.

  • Micah Burke

    I appreciate Razib’s post, and yet as a Reformed Christian I find I identify with very little of what has become known as fundamentalism. Razib is correct that the US has had many a non-orthodox president, and was in fact founded not by orthodox Christians, but by a mixture of Congregationalists, Unitarians, Presbyterians and others.

    Fundamentalism has come to express an anti-intellectual Christianity that cannot defend itself. And while a majority of American Christians fit into either fundamentalist or liberal (mainstream) camps, there is a another way, defined by the Protestant Reformers of the 16th and 17th century. They generally believed that education coupled with strong confessional statements, provided a clear direction for the Christian church away from the superstitious leanings of what has become fundamentalism and the liberal leanings of the Unitarian influences. Confessionally Reformed Christianity embraces both church and world history and doesn’t seek to Christianize the past as a means of appearing legitimate.

    Princeton professor J. Gresham Machen noted the extreme differences between confessional Christianity, fundamentalism and liberalism of his day. Those differences have only become better defined, but unfortunately fundamentalism has overshadowed the reasoned claims of the confessional.

    While some can claim, like Mr. Emerson, that the doctrine of the Trinity makes no sense, and that it’s based on blind faith, the many scholarly works on the topic prove him wrong. Pick up any Reformed systematic theology and you’ll find massive sections devoted to the concept, it’s Biblical basis, and defense thereof. As to Luke Lea’s claim, Unitarianism has been rejected in orthodox Christianity for over 1500 years. While you may wish to claim the title, the simple fact is that few, if any unitarian groups accept any of the orthodox claims of Scripture, much less the nature of Christ. It’s like calling a Catholic a Muslim, they’re simply that different of religions.

    All that said, I don’t believe anyone can perform the duties of president without knowingly or unknowingly acting in accordance with their worldview, nor should they.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    but the churches excluded at Chalcedon had ideas of Christology that made them non-Trinitarian, and one branch (Jacobites or Syrian Orthodox) was more or less Unitarian. The subtleties get pretty messy. As I understand, the other group, Nestorians, believe that there were two Christs, one human and one divine. However a lot of what I know probably comes from Chalcedonian misrepresentations.

    you’re right that it’s messy. but to my understanding they’re not non-trinitarian, their understanding of the nature of god is just somewhat different. the nestorians and monophysites are two sides of the coin, with chalcedonians in the middle, when it comes to the nature of christ. at this point though, it might be best if we atheists leave theological obscurata to the religionists :-)

    While some can claim, like Mr. Emerson, that the doctrine of the Trinity makes no sense, and that it’s based on blind faith, the many scholarly works on the topic prove him wrong. Pick up any Reformed systematic theology and you’ll find massive sections devoted to the concept, it’s Biblical basis, and defense thereof.

    none of this refute’s john’s contentions. all non-christians, and frankly many christians, believe that the trinity lacks sense. i understand that many intellectual christians have written reasoned explications on the topic, but that’s neither here nor there. in this space most people think that the trinity makes no sense, and it’s your liberty to disagree, but don’t go around declaring someone ‘wrong’ on an issue which is really a matter of subjective opinion.

    though it is probably valid to correct an assertion that the trinity is accepted on blind faith by everyone. even if i find the logic nonsensical i can agree that theologians have their eyes open to the creeds which they profess. but most christians do accept it on blind faith.

  • Onur

    Chalcedonians, Monophysites and Nestorians are all Trinitarian. Just asking any adherent of those doctrines or reading Wikipedia is enough to learn that. Trinitarianism became the standard for orthodoxy in the Nicene creed (325 CE), not in the Chalcedonian creed (451 CE).

  • Onur

    As for Arianism, it was Unitarian instead of Trinitarian, was condemned by the Nicene creed for this reason and went extinct during the few centuries following the Nicene creed as a result of its supression by the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com Lab Lemming

    It is interesting that the Christian movement is now trying to “Chistwash” the founding fathers. The last time I spent a lot of time in evangelical America (Appalachia, early 90’s) Christian radio had several segments essentially demonizing Jefferson, and saying that Christians must reject his ideas where they clashed with scripture.

  • Roger Bigod

    This is different from the controversy over Kennedy’s Catholicism. There the issue was the influence of the Church on government policy. Or at least people with anti-Catholic prejudice were embarrassed enough to make up that rationale. When he assured people that the Vatican would have no private phone line to the Oval Office, it defused the controversy.

    There’s no policy rationalization here. It seems to boil down to the idea that all that stuff about the Angel Moroni is creepy. Not nice.

    I happened to be on a Nile tour one Holy Saturday. A duststorm stranded us at an airport and one of the tour guides entertained a few of us with a summary of Egyptian theology. The central god, Osirus, was killed and pieces of his body spread around. His son, Horus, gathered up the pieces and put them back together, but the vital spirit was missing. At the climactic moment, the goddess Isis, in the form of a dove, flew down and assumed a um procreative position, which produced resurrection. There are a couple of reliefs of this event which the early Christians didn’t get around to defacing.

    I couldn’t resist pointing out that the same narrative would be celebrated the next day, but under different management.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #33, i think some people claim that the mormon church, which i a wealthy corporation, controls its members. but i don’t think that’s analogous to the catholic case at all. so you’re pretty much right. mormonism is ‘weird.’ see jacob weisberg’s piece from 5 years ago:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_big_idea/2006/12/romneys_religion.html

    (interestingly weisberg has taken to writing apologia for romney now, so i guess he’s mellowed)

  • John Emerson

    Just asking any adherent of those doctrines or reading Wikipedia is enough to learn that.

    As I said, contemporary members of the Eastern churches minimize the differences. In the 19th c. American Unitarians recognized a commonality with the Armenians, and it was reciprocated at least somewhat. ( I use Wiki a lot but don’t recognize it as an authority).

    Razib is right that we atheists shouldn’t try to adjudicate theology, but there are plenty of Chalcedonian Christains who would not accept Nestorian or Syrian Orthodox Christology as Trinitarian, especialy the Syrian Orthodox.

    While some can claim, like Mr. Emerson, that the doctrine of the Trinity makes no sense, and that it’s based on blind faith, the many scholarly works on the topic prove him wrong. Pick up any Reformed systematic theology and you’ll find massive sections devoted to the concept, it’s Biblical basis, and defense thereof.

    The Catholics were smarter than the Reformed what they declared the trinity, etc., to be mysteries. I don’t doubt that the Reformed writings proving the trinity to be rational are voluminous indeed.

  • Onur

    As I said, contemporary members of the Eastern churches minimize the differences. In the 19th c. American Unitarians recognized a commonality with the Armenians, and it was reciprocated at least somewhat. ( I use Wiki a lot but don’t recognize it as an authority).

    Razib is right that we atheists shouldn’t try to adjudicate theology, but there are plenty of Chalcedonian Christains who would not accept Nestorian or Syrian Orthodox Christology as Trinitarian, especialy the Syrian Orthodox.

    The contention between Chalcedonians, Monophysites and Nestorians is not a contention between Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians but a contention between different kinds of Trinitarians. Each one of them considers their own form of Trinity as the authentic one. So, as a result, a Monophysite or a Nestorian may consider a Chalcedonian non-Trinitarian, just as a Chalcedonian may consider both of them non-Trinitarian. The key point is that they never consider themselves non-Trinitarian.

  • DavidB

    Orthodoxy should not be confused with fundamentalism. Fundamentalists believe in the literal truth of everything in the (canonical) Bible. There is little in the Bible to support the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, except for 1 John 5:7, which is a late interpolation in the text. On the other hand there is plenty in the Bible, such as Hebrews 1, to imply that the Son is more than merely human. A fundamentalist could be an Arian, but not a Unitarian in the usual modern sense.

  • vel

    every theist thinks that they are the only ‘true’ beleivers. They all are sure that their self-projection of god is the right one and only they know waht their god “really” wants (which not surprisingly is exactly what they want). I do think it should matter what religion a president is, since the magical thinking of theists is frankly dangerous. Not all of the time and not in every situation, but it does cause people to be idiots, thinking that some magical being will “save” the day.

  • marcel

    RK wrote:

    … when it comes to the nature of christ. at this point though, it might be best if we atheists leave theological obscurata to the religionists

    Well, Razib, in this case that works for you, an atheist Muslim,[1] and for me, an atheist Jew, but many of your readers are atheist Christians, and they surely need to know which God it is that they don’t believe in.[2]

    [1]I am an atheist Jew in that I grew up in a Jewish, very secular, tradition:

    – the last time a male in my line was bar-mitzvahed was a grandfather, c. 1908; neither of my adult children were bar-or bat-mitzvahed:

    -there was no observance of any Jewish holidays in the household in which my parents raised me, other than Hanukkah for a few years after I started grade school to combat the pull, in America, of Christmas. By the time I was a teenager, I realized that this did not fit with anything else in my family’s behavior, asked about it, and decided that it was not necessary to participate any longer.

    I am not a zionist, and beyond thinking that, now that it is in existence, the state of Israel has as much right to exist as any other, could not be said to support any of that country’s policies.

    Yet, I have no questions that I am a Jew (as Irving Howe responded to a devout heckler, “If you don’t know whether or not you are a Jew, ask your neighbors; they will tell you.”)

    Drawing some inferences based on your (RK’s) picture and your name, I believe that you are an atheist Muslim in much the same sense that I am an atheist Jew. Of course, my information is incomplete, and I may be mistaken. If so, I mean no offense. At one time in our marriage, my wife and I had some very contentious arguments when I described her as a Christian, in the same way I describe myself as a Jew. Despite being of Polish background, her family has been alienated from the Church for about as long as mine has from the Synagogue, with an even stronger anti-clerical component in their attitude, and she has long interpreted the word “Christian” as a slur. So I do recognize the possibilities for misunderstanding on this issue, thus this long footnote.

    [2] I first heard this sentiment attributed to atheist Jewish communists or socialists in the 1930s who sent their children to Jewish religious summer camps (probably with Indian i.e., Native American, names and themes). In response questions about why they, atheists, sent their children to camps that had religious services, they said, “We send them there so they know which God they don’t believe in.”

  • John Emerson

    I will resign. Maybe my understanding of the Trinity is Chalcedon -biased.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    atheist Muslim

    i’m not an atheist muslim. don’t make an analogy between judaism and islam, there’s far less ethnic connotation in islam.

  • Clark

    John, I don’t dispute much of what you said. My point about Americans being unfamiliar with Christianity outside of the Protestant and to a lesser extent Catholic tradition is that I think it makes differences appear more significant. Put an other way I’m not sure the debate about calling Mormons (or any other group) Christians really has much to do with the controversy over the Nicene Creed. Rather it’s just that they are sufficiently different in a nation where most Americans encounter Christianity in terms of a fairly narrow band of Christian churches. (Even many American Catholic churches aren’t quite as high church as you’d encounter in Europe or definitely what you’d encounter in past centuries in Europe) This lack of diversity makes any variation from the norm appear “weirder” than it would were one exposed to a much more wider swath of Christianity.

    To the theological point, it probably is worth noting that just as the various forms of Christianity where there is controversy over the nature of the Trinity each group thinks they are Trinitarian (say Syriac Christianity) I think Mormonism falls into that. Mormons think there are three persons in the Godhead with some sense of substantial unity. I don’t want to debate that here but even if Mormons reject the Nicene Creed they are probably closer to Trinitarians than any of the normal rejections of Nicene Trinitarianism in the history of Christianity. (It is, for instance, ridiculously incorrect to call Mormons Arians)

    Regarding the logical problem of the Trinity that’s been frequently discussed. (Most famously by philosopher Richard Cartwright’s “On the Logical Problem of the Trinity” – although there are rejoinders to Cartwright)

    In any case the big problem is that you have a pretty subtle and difficult to understand (even for very well educated people) point being the dividing issue between Mormonism and most forms of Christianity. Further one could argue that liberal Christianity which is far more heretical (often adopting a quasi-atheism as a practical matter) is judged acceptable whereas Mormons who arguably are pretty similar on practical grounds are rejected. It’s quite confusing. Ultimately it’s more about group identity and signals about group identity. I think the biggest issue is less the theology than the practical differences between American Protestantism (with a fairly loose quasi-democratic organization) and Mormonism with its more hierarchal structure more akin to Catholicism. Put an other way I think the issue is better seen as an extension of anti-Catholicism in America along with the legacy of the roots of anti-Mormonism from 1835 – 1890 when perhaps there were more practical reasons for Americans to be distrustful of Mormons.

  • Clark

    (I think messages with more than one link get flagged as spam – any chance of getting it out of the filter Razib? If not don’t worry about it.)

  • toto

    The Trinity (and more generally the weirder contortions of Christian theology) is a common angle of attack for Muslim proselytizers. “How can you believe in a religion with obviously man-made concepts that nobody can understand?”

    Yusuf Estes, for example, never misses an occasion to point it out.

  • marcel

    RK @ 41:

    Point taken. Unlike Islam (and Christianity), Judaism does not, and I do not believe ever had, pretensions to being a universalist religion, one suitable for all humans.

    What about the cultural milieu in which you were raised?
    Is it inaccurate to rely on this to justify my phrasing?

    Even among Jews, there are several ethnicities with different degrees of prestige and social status, varying I suspect according to which ethnic group happens to be locally dominant. For example, from what I have read and been told, German Jews (including those from Austria) were at the top of the US heap before WW2. Since then, the dominant group has generally been those from further east, colloquially known as Ashkenazi Jews, although I believe that the term also properly includes German Jews. And this does not even begin to touch on Sephardim, whether more recently from Europe, Turkey or North Africa, Yemenite Jews, Iraqi Jews, Falashas, and so on and so forth. From the outside, it may appear that Jews are uniformly us vs. them (i.e., the rest of you), but we split hairs as finely as any other group.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    What about the cultural milieu in which you were raised?
    Is it inaccurate to rely on this to justify my phrasing?

    yes. still inaccurate.

    For example, from what I have read and been told, German Jews (including those from Austria) were at the top of the US heap before WW2. Since then, the dominant group has generally been those from further east, colloquially known as Ashkenazi Jews, although I believe that the term also properly includes German Jews

    yes, the ‘german jews’ were secondary ostjuden (i.e., most of their ancestors arrived from the east in the 19th century; the 18th century german jews assimilated). also, remember that the first american jews were sephardim. e.g., emma lazarus sephardic.

  • marcel

    in re sephardim: yes of course; mostly, I think (not looking this up), in Newport, RI, New Amsterdam and Charleston, SC. The German Jews didn’t start arriving in large numbers, I think, until after the 1848 revolutions, and the rest of the Ashkenazim mostly between c. 1870 and the change in the immigration laws in the 1920s. Of course, the Sephardic Anusim of the southwest appear to have begun to settle there in the late 16th century, so predate all of these groups.

    Anyway, this discussion has been interesting to me. Thanks.

    Your position corresponds pretty closely to the one my wife took, i.e., the ancestral tradition, once rejected or transcended, ceases both to shape you and to have any role in self-definition.

    I suppose what this indicates is just how much I take my own point of view to be universal and (therefore) correct, or perhaps I want to ground its correctness on (my belief in) its universality.

    I’ll have to think how much my pov reflects reality (i.e., you can’t really fully escape the traditions you were exposed to when growing up), and how much it reflects my embracing a strictly Jewish perspective (or rather that of the guardians of the ghetto gates who told us that there’s no fully escaping our ancestry and tradition so we might as well trumpet that).

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    It is not obvious to me that anything in Mormon doctrine strongly contradictsthe Nicene Creed of 325 CE, even if it isn’t a favorite piece of language to use in Mormon religious practice (other than the notion of a “church catholic” (lower case intended), which Mormons who self-identify as Christian do not interpret any differently than any other Western Protestant denomination.

    Western Protestant/Roman Catholic verbal formula for describing the concept of Trinitarianism isn’t quite the same as Mormon teachings on the subject, but the differences are reasonably subtle, are only slightly more at odds with the Western Protestant/Roman Catholic verbal formula than the differences on that subject between Western Protestant/Roman Catholic doctrine and Eastern Orthodox doctrine.

    In any case, I’m pretty sure that people who are uncomfortable with a Mormon President of the United States are particularly worked up over the particular issue of the way that he articulates Trinitarian doctrine, any more than voters care about a President’s stance on transubstantiation during the Eucharist.

    And, of course, nobody, even when the Nicene Creed was written, ever offered it up as a comprehensive statement of the Christian faith at the time. It was a statement offering clarity over doctrines that were leading to schizmatic tendencies in the church, not a comprehensive catachism or treatise on doctrine.

    The most striking doctrinal difference of much substance in practice between Mormons and other Christians is over when Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, not if that happened, which is a point upon which the Nicene Creed makes no assertion.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #47, to be clear, i did not grow up with muslims aside from my parents, and i don’t have more than one or two muslim friends/acquaintances today. so it’s not accurate to call me a ‘cultural muslim.’ i’m more likely to be invited to christmas or hanukkah parties than anything muslim related (i generally have no idea it’s ramadan unless i hear about it in the news).

  • marcel

    Thanks for your patience. Clearly mistaken inference on my part, in addition, perhaps, to the other issues I identified in my last comment.

    But it does sound like, in contrast with most of the rest of us atheists (certainly the ones I know), you cannot even be confident which god(s) it is you don’t believe in;)

  • Brian Too

    Am I the only one who finds this whole subject tiresome?

    As long as the candidate believes in the separation of Church and State, I do not need to know, nor do I much care about, what their religious beliefs are. I don’t want to impose my beliefs upon them and my expectation is that they will not impose their beliefs upon me.

    Since this is a widely held social construct, and it is codified into law in many (most?) countries, specifically including the U.S., why do we keep talking about this??

  • http://www.huxley.net/bnw/ Mustapha Mond

    It’s interesting that it is the Apostles Creed instead of the more theologically rigorous and restrictive Nicene Creed that is encountered in the recited liturgy of most American Christian congregations. It’s probably the American predilection for consensus rather than schism that was learned the hard way.

  • ackbark

    As an only idly interested atheist my impression has been, when they speak of ‘distinction without difference’ in the nature of the trinity,

    that it is that it is understood in the mind of the person in context of whatever is being talked about, that the two characteristics do not contaminate one another theologically, the specific issues surrounding them never overlapping, and that the whole is to be grasped only from the other side, in heaven.

    Is this close to right, or just atheistic?

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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