Thomas Jefferson on the Outsider Test for Faith

In a private letter to his nephew Peter Carr, Jefferson offers some advice on how to study religion, which represents the OTF that I defend:
4. Religion. Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object. In the first place, divest yourself of all bias in favor of novelty & singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, and the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand, shake off all the fears & servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear. You will naturally examine first, the religion of your own country. Read the Bible, then as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature, you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy & Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor, in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature, does not weigh against them. But those facts in the Bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong, as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature, in the case he relates. For example, in the book of Joshua, we are told, the sun stood still several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus, we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, &c. But it is said, that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine, therefore, candidly, what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand, you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis, as the earth does, should have stopped, should not, by that sudden stoppage, have prostrated animals, trees, buildings, and should after a certain time gave resumed its revolution, & that without a second general prostration. Is this arrest of the earth's motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities?

You will next read the New Testament. It is the history of a personage called Jesus. Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions: 1, of those who say he was begotten by God, born of a virgin, suspended & reversed the laws of nature at will, & ascended bodily into heaven; and 2, of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, and was punished capitally for sedition, by being gibbeted, according to the Roman law, which punished the first commission of that offence by whipping, & the second by exile, or death in fureĆ¢. See this law in the Digest Lib. 48. tit. 19. §. 28. 3. & Lipsius Lib 2. de cruce. cap. 2. These questions are examined in the books I have mentioned under the head of religion, & several others. They will assist you in your inquiries, but keep your reason firmly on the watch in reading them all.

Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, & that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a God, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. In fine, I repeat, you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything, because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision. I forgot to observe, when speaking of the New Testament, that you should read all the histories of Christ, as well of those whom a council of ecclesiastics have decided for us, to be Pseudo-evangelists, as those they named Evangelists. Because these Pseudo-evangelists pretended to inspiration, as much as the others, and you are to judge their pretensions by your own reason, and not by the reason of those ecclesiastics. Link

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Thomas Jefferson, letter to his nephew Peter Carr, from Paris, August 10, 1787; Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: Writings, New York: Library of America, 1994, pp. 900-906.
Hat Tip to Ken Pulliam for this discovery. How Jefferson expresses this isn't exactly the same but I like it nonetheless.

This is all good advice! What's wrong with it?

16 comments:

Mike Dunscomb said...

First!
Just listened to your interview on American Freethought. You can't hear me, but I applaud you.

Ross said...

What's wrong with it?

For starters, it sounds too GNU-Atheist confrontational and doesn't politically correctly give due reverence to the divine truth of revelation and jebus and dog's lubb.. (end poe's law)

Seriously other than the olde english this sounds elegantly similar to what the supposedly "new" atheists have "just started" saying in the last 9 years, and completely demolishes the justification for calling us new. People like jefferson have been pointing out the obvious for centuries. This particular truth just fell out of favor with the american people for a while. It's time to bring it back.

Rob R said...

Yes, the OTF is a throwback to unquestioned modernism. Yes, an early modernist like Jefferson would sound like this, also oddly calling for lack of bias and encouraging neutrality yet he assumes naturalism.

But Jefferson believed in God. His modernism hadn't gone to the point yet where full blown atheism would seem the best option. So yes, I would say he exemplifies the adherant of the OTF, oblivious to the fact that culture and bias are inescapable (and also oblivious to the further idea that that isn't necessarily a bad thing at all).

matt the magnificient said...

Thomas Jefferson actually once used scissors on a bible and compiled his own version of the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and the story of jesus.

here is a link to a L.A. Times story written about it. it is a facinating look into the mind of the man and goes along with his mindset in this letter john refrenced. it gives compelling insite into jeffersons actions, and lends credence to the idea that jefferson was at best, a skeptic, an agnostic, or a deist. check it out.

http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jul/05/local/me-beliefs5

Chris said...

He's NOT assuming naturalism. He's calling for an especially careful weighing of the evidence in cases of alleged miracles.

"But those facts in the Bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong, as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature, in the case he relates."

In the example he uses, the sun standing still in Joshua, is the evidence so strong as to deem it probable that this was an actual miracle and not a myth? Considering 1) this cosmic event was only recorded in the history of one ancient people when it should have affected everyone on the earth, 2) the only people who recorded this event suspiciously interpret it as a divine intervention on their behalf, 3) the writer -- who was in some sense inspired by God -- seems unaware that the sun doesn't move around the earth, 4) that this fits perfectly with the mythological cosmology found elsewhere in the bible, 5) that there is scant archaeological evidence to support even the nonmiraculous events recorded in Joshua, and 6) that if we were to read this in a book other than the bible, we would assume it was a myth or, at best, a confused report of a natural event, even if we weren't naturalists.

That's what Jefferson would want us to consider. And that's not assuming naturalism.

Jeffrey A. Myers said...

What's wrong with it?

It doesn't give sufficient deference to Faith! It asks you to use the analytical and rational faculties and innate desire for knowledge and understanding God allegedly implanted within our consciousness without rejecting them in favor of Faith.

Rob R said...

He's NOT assuming naturalism. He's calling for an especially careful weighing of the evidence in cases of alleged miracles.

On a closer look at some statements without reading the entire thing again, I suppose he isn't.

But he does have the assumptions usually behind naturalism, like assuming the probability of miracles is something that we can access without doing theology since we are asking the likelyhood that God would perform a miracle, something that merely observing nature on a first hand basis will not confirm.

Considering 1) this cosmic event was only recorded in the history of one ancient people when it should have affected everyone on the earth

A quick google look shows that they aren't the only people who recorded a long day (the Chinese and Mayans speak of one) albeit the timing would be a difficult matter. Furthermore, it's not impossible that an omnipotent God could bend the solar rays for a local area instead of affecting the entire world (yes, not impossible, but John would ask, "is it probably" to which I have already pointed out that this is a theological question and furthermore is not subject to mathematical analysis as most alleged claims of improbability by naturalists are not).

3) the writer -- who was in some sense inspired by God -- seems unaware that the sun doesn't move around the earth,

And this matters?

4) that this fits perfectly with the mythological cosmology found elsewhere in the bible,

Well it sure wouldn't make sense for it to have a modern cosmology given cosmology regarding the geography of the universe is never the point and people didn't even know about modern cosmology then.

5) that there is scant archaeological evidence to support even the nonmiraculous events recorded in Joshua,

I don't think of archaelogy as a hard science. And I don't know that scripture's priority is to tell us exactly what happened as opposed to fidelity to the significance of what happened.

6) that if we were to read this in a book other than the bible, we would assume it was a myth or

I'm not an outsider (nor do I see the benefit of being one even after reading John' Loftus' chapters on it in both his books) so of course I don't have a commitment to reading other ancient texts with the same trust.

But I absolutely do not believe that any supernatural even outside the Judeo Christian tradition is "purely" mythical. That isn't even clearly consistent with scripture.

Chris said...

Real quick:

1) lol
3) credibility of writer goes down, probablity of inspiration goes down
4) same as 3; and myth-like story is more is likely a myth if it coheres with other myths instead of reality
5) giving the facts and letting the reader decide the significance = an attempt at objective history; giving the significance and adding the "facts" as to support the predetermined significance = propaganda; and nowhere does the bible state it is giving significance and not history. that's a modern apologetic interpretation

Rob R said...

credibility of writer goes down, probablity of inspiration goes down
4) same as 3; and myth-like story is more is likely a myth if it coheres with other myths instead of reality


Credibility on what? Inspiration for what? why do we have to believe that scripture is about geography of cosmology?

5) giving the facts and letting the reader decide the significance = an attempt at objective history;

History is objective? Seems to me that it is (and ought to be) frequently value laden. After all, what was that about those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Such a pragmatic concern has no hope of being a purely objective concern even in our modern times.

and nowhere does the bible state it is giving significance and not history. that's a modern apologetic interpretation

So what if the bible doesn't tell us everything about itself. You could never accuse me of sola scripture.

Sure it's a modern apologetic concern, in response to a naively modern skeptical attack oblivious to it's own assumptions and this apologetic uses some of techniques of analysis of literature that have been honed in modern (and increasingly post-modern) times.

Chris said...

oh and 6) you should not reject the outsider test. aren't you in the business of evangelizing? shouldn't you try to look at your product from the point of view of your customers? people change views all the time. to do that, they set aside biases. it's not impossible.

Chris said...

an attempt at objective history is what I said

Chris said...

on interpretaion: unless you see in the text some evidence that the writer is trying to present significance and not just history, you should not interpret him as doing so. You do so because you want to defend the text, not as an attempt to get to what the writer really wanted to emphasize.

Chris said...

one more thing: is there any mistake or absurdity even in principle that, if shown in the text, would make it less likely for the event described to be true or for the text to be inspired? apparently multiple gross scientific mistakes, a glaring lack of attestation outside the bible, and contradicting archaelogical evidence do not count for anything. What would? Nothing, right? Totally unfalsifiable, right?

Jeffrey A. Myers said...

@ Chris,

No. That is the miracle of the perverse inversion worked by classifying humanity's innate curiosity and desire for knowledge as the Original Sin and replacing that sinful innate desire with Faith as the posited solution.

Faith is utterly impervious to rationality, evidence, facts, analysis. Indeed, if rational evidence were presented, Faith would not longer be necessary and humanity would be engaging in his wicked fallen knowledge hungering ways.

Since God is unseen, unknown and empirically obscured, how do we know what to have Faith in?
Have Faith in what his Agents tell us about Him.

How do they know what his Will is?
Have Faith because they have received Revelations from Him (or ARE Him).

How do we know their revelations are accurate?
Have Faith.

How do we know that they're telling the truth?
Have Faith.

How do we know that they're accurately reporting what His will is?
Have Faith.

How do we explain the fact that a lot of what you say is inconsistent?
Faith.

How do we explain the fact that a lot of what you say is inconsistent with our observations of the world?
Faith.

How do we explain the fact that a lot of these Revelations conflict with one another?
Faith.

How do we explain...
Look, you just don't get it, Faith does not require explanations - explanations are unnecessary. Superfluous. Unneeded. In fact, if you could explain it, if you had evidence for it, it wouldn't be Faith, it would be empirical and rational understanding and it would therefore be BAD. So SHUT UP and ACCEPT WHAT WE SAY! Why? Because I said so!

matt the magnificient said...

God, I hope none of MY letters ever end up on John's blog. Its just not christian.

Shawn said...

Ironically you are using the credibility of Thomas Jefferson to justify a position, when Jefferson himself said "and neither believe nor reject anything, because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven".

I do agree entirely with his advice however, and it was an interesting historical journey.