The Original Tea Partier Was an Atheist
September 2, 2014 1:18 PM   Subscribe

Politico: "Young called his creed 'the religion of nature' and 'the religion of nature’s God.' And he made abundantly clear that, in his own mind, this radical philosophical religion was the axis on which the Revolution turned. For him, the project to free the American people from the yoke of King George III was part of a grander project to liberate the world from the ghostly tyranny of supernatural religion."

"At the decisive Boston town meeting of Nov. 29, 1773, while ships loaded with cargo from the East India Company idled in the harbor, Thomas Young was the first and only speaker to propose that the best way to protest the new Tea Act was to dump the tea into the water. Two weeks later, after Governor Hutchinson declined the meeting’s request to turn the ships away, the rest of the town coalesced around Young’s plan. On the evening of Dec. 16, 1773, Young kept a crowd of thousands at the Old South Church shouting and clapping with a satirical speech on 'the ill effects of tea on the constitution' while his best friends, dressed as Mohawks, quietly set off to turn Boston Harbor into a briny teapot. Decades later, when the last surviving 'Mohawk' was asked to name the leaders of the movement, Young’s name was the first on his lips."

Boston Tea Party Ship: "Mr. Young was not an atheist as some sources indicate, but a deist, a person whose worldview embraces a philosophy of natural religion, denying interference by a Creator with the laws of the universe."

Wikipedia: "Young favored the working class and western farmers, and he supported a redistribution of wealth clause in the proposed constitution that was later removed by more conservative influences."

Re-Discovering Ethan Allen and Thomas Young's Reason the Only Oracle of Man: "It is truly regrettable that Reason the Only Oracle of Man has been ignored for more than two centuries. A modern critical edition of this forgotten work may do much to resurrect this challenging work and assure Ethan Allen and Thomas Young a well-deserved place in the pantheon of American thinkers side by side with the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine."

Thomas Young Gallery: "He also suggested the name of Vermont for the new state north of Massachusetts, which was originally called New Connecticut. The reasoning in his letter to the Vermont Constitutional Convention in 1777 was that most of Vermont was in the Green Mountains, and he chose to combine 'vert' (green) with 'mont' (mountain) to honor the Green Mountain Boys."
posted by Wordshore (26 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow! That Politico article is a really extraordinary example of an author cramming someone else's beliefs into his own metaphysical framework.

The universe, said Young, is infinite, eternal and everywhere abounding in life. There is no other world, no heaven but the starry sky above, no hell but the fictions that other people create. There is a deity, worthy of great praise...
Young called his creed “the religion of nature” and “the religion of nature’s God.”


...gets translated to "Atheist" in the title! Followed by a not-so-subtle tip of the hat to Dawkins at the end:

The Declaration of Independence, in short, was a declaration of independence from all forms of tyranny over the human mind, beginning with the God delusion.
posted by Greg Nog at 1:40 PM on September 2, 2014 [9 favorites]


Assuming he wasn't lying in his published work, he was a 'deist', rather than an 'atheist'. Now, I'll grant that the distinction is slight in terms of practicalities-- but still, stating that "I believe in one eternal God", would seem to firmly leave him out of the atheist camp.

He also wasn't particularly unique among American and french intelligentsia in his religious views.
posted by empath at 1:46 PM on September 2, 2014 [7 favorites]


I already knew that Deist thought was widespread among the Founding Fathers, but it was nice to think, if only for a moment, that one or two of them took it a step further to outright atheism.

I'm not very well-educated on this subject, though; the most I've ever done is read Throckmorton and Coulter's takedown of David Barton, Getting Jefferson Right.

Were their any persons, prominent among the Founding Fathers or early American society, who are known or believed to have taken it a step further and doubted or denied the existence of God, à la a modern agnostic or atheist?
posted by The Confessor at 1:52 PM on September 2, 2014


Were their any persons, prominent among the Founding Fathers or early American society, who are known or believed to have taken it a step further and doubted or denied the existence of God, à la a modern agnostic or atheist?

Regardless what they believed on a personal level, there are hardly any public American political figures *now* willing to embrace the big A for fear of the death knell it would signal for their viability in the political sphere... I can't imagine that the risks were any less then.
posted by stenseng at 1:56 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think in general, because of religious establishment, it's difficult to separate religious from political views in from the reformation until about the 19th century (and even today to a perhaps lesser extent). A lot of what motivated splinter religious sects, and more importantly, those in power that backed them or suppressed them had to do with taxes and power, in much the same way as the GOP uses religion as a cover for a while plethora of issues.

When your opponent (ie: The King), is proclaiming rule by divine right, they're making a religious assertion, and if one wants to argue against it, one must also make a religious argument.
posted by empath at 1:58 PM on September 2, 2014 [2 favorites]


Assuming he wasn't lying in his published work, he was a 'deist', rather than an 'atheist'. Now, I'll grant that the distinction is slight in terms of practicalities-- but still, stating that "I believe in one eternal God", would seem to firmly leave him out of the atheist camp.

I'd say the current cultural paradigm of interpreting the religious views of politicians of the era run as follows:

1. Our founding fathers are deist, which is the same thing as Christian when squint at it.
2. Their bloody revolutionaries are atheist.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:59 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


who are known or believed to have taken it a step further and doubted or denied the existence of God, à la a modern agnostic or atheist?

Thomas Paine would be the closest.
posted by empath at 2:01 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


The universe, said Young, is infinite, eternal and everywhere abounding in life. There is no other world, no heaven but the starry sky above, no hell but the fictions that other people create. There is a deity, worthy of great praise...
Young called his creed “the religion of nature” and “the religion of nature’s God.”

...gets translated to "Atheist" in the title! Followed by a not-so-subtle tip of the hat to Dawkins at the end:


It's a really sticky situation because talking about "nature's God" is both theistic (although it has been used atheisticially at times) but also rejection of religion's authority over morality which is quite possibly (depending on your opinion) the biggest part of atheism. It's a stretch but I think the better point for the author to make was that the original tea party wasn't reliant on religion's moral authority.

Were their any persons, prominent among the Founding Fathers or early American society, who are known or believed to have taken it a step further and doubted or denied the existence of God, à la a modern agnostic or atheist?

Jefferson I'm guessing was probably the closest. He was a deist and rejected the notion that Jesus was the messiah and the son of god.
posted by Talez at 2:02 PM on September 2, 2014


Given that Darwin's The Origin of Species was published in 1859, and prior to that, there was no good explanation for the diversity and complexity of life, it is no surprise that intellectuals around the time of the American Revolution would be deists.
An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
-- Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (1986), page 6
posted by smcameron at 2:10 PM on September 2, 2014 [2 favorites]


What is Dawkins talking about? There were plenty of theories of evolution before Darwin, as anyone who has taken a course on the history of science knows.
posted by goethean at 3:08 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


Sounds like Dawkins means random-chance infinite monkeys and typewriters style. I.e. the atheist before Dawkins could have said "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one," or also could have said "bjhygtgLB UNik.hjinl;uibG M<H G. j,hlknm NJL: jkuhb,k nmjjnk hjbk!2." Equally probable!
posted by hangashore at 3:35 PM on September 2, 2014


Wow! That Politico article is a really extraordinary example of an author cramming someone else's beliefs into his own metaphysical framework.

Yeah; I thought it was an interesting article (and interesting enough for a FPP), but wasn't sure how slanted it was. And also the author of the piece is heavy on promoting his book of the same position. Hence instead of being a single link FPP added some more links for diversity.

I did find the fact that he named a state, but was still obscure, of interest. Serious question: are Americans not big on the people who name their states, or does this vary according to the state?
posted by Wordshore at 3:44 PM on September 2, 2014


Dawkins spends a good number of words in that book arguing that Darwin's was the first explanation for the complexity of life that made any sense. There were earlier theories of evolution, but they had great gaping holes in their logic.
posted by agentofselection at 3:47 PM on September 2, 2014


You down with OTP?
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:51 PM on September 2, 2014


Okay, you don't need an explanation for the complexity of life to be an atheist. There are millions of things that are currently unexplained, it doesn't mean there is no explanation without active divine intervention.
I don't believe that Darwin theories kick-started atheism any more than the non-vengeful God theory of lightning.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:31 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


I love that "vermont" means "green mountains." I've always wondered about place names - "New X" is the most boring possible, whereas creative names with interesting back stories really make the world feel alive.
posted by rebent at 6:13 AM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


I don't believe that Darwin theories kick-started atheism any more than the non-vengeful God theory of lightning.

The combination of Nietzsche, Darwin and Marx is essentially the foundation of atheism.
posted by empath at 6:33 AM on September 3, 2014


I guess I should say 'modern' atheism, because you can go back to Lucretius, etc, for ancient examples.
posted by empath at 6:50 AM on September 3, 2014


I did find the fact that he named a state, but was still obscure, of interest. Serious question: are Americans not big on the people who name their states, or does this vary according to the state?

I can't recall learning about anyone who named any state in high school history. The closest might be William Penn (Pennsylvania) or Christopher Columbus (West Indies, not actually a state).

Seems like most of our state names are native hand-me-downs in any case.
posted by natteringnabob at 6:54 AM on September 3, 2014


a not-so-subtle tip of the hat to Dawkins at the end

We can probably guess what kind of hat.

I did find the fact that he named a state, but was still obscure, of interest. Serious question: are Americans not big on the people who name their states, or does this vary according to the state?

Most people don't seem to care, IME. Most states also aren't named after any specific person. I'm from Texas which comes from a word in a native language meaning "friendship". Sam Houston figures much more prominently in our state mythology. I live in New York now and that name is pretty self-explanatory.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:14 AM on September 3, 2014


I love that "vermont" means "green mountains." I've always wondered about place names - "New X" is the most boring possible, whereas creative names with interesting back stories really make the world feel alive.

It does kinda make me wish New Hampshire was called Blancmont so they could be even more like little identical twins who hate each other.
posted by Greg Nog at 7:49 AM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


Am distracted by the Wikipedia list of U.S. state name etymologies.

Which gives a date for Vermont of 1721. Hmmm.
posted by Wordshore at 9:54 AM on September 3, 2014


Having been raised in Vermont, I remember the fact of learning about Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys in elementary school. Beyond that, my twenty-odd-year-old recollection is quite dim, and not to be relied upon, but I think I remember that he and his force (in conjunction with some other military force?) conquered a British fort on Lake Champlain, possibly via some form of subterfuge.
posted by The Confessor at 11:29 AM on September 3, 2014


(All information that could easily be learned using Wikipedia, of course; my point was that while Ethan Allen might be relatively unknown outside Vermont, he is not unknown within it.)
posted by The Confessor at 12:02 PM on September 3, 2014


Deism and atheism may have important philosophical differences, but for all purposes other than philosophical discussion, they are identical. Being a deist wouldn't prescribe any particular position on marriage or gender or global warming or abortion or war or anything else that actually matters.

Few people truly care what opinions a person carries in their heads. People very much do care about the actions people take against others (including voting for oppressive moralists).
posted by HappyEngineer at 1:47 PM on September 3, 2014


Just for context, my prior snark were historical claims made by Dinesh D'Souza and David Wolpe in the last religious debate I mustered the will to watch, not a hypothetical game of linguistic hokey pokey.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:06 PM on September 3, 2014


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