Backyard Skeptics, an atheism advocacy group in California's Orange County, is stirring up skepticism about the faith of one of America's Founding Fathers – Thomas Jefferson.
The group drew stares Monday when it unveiled a billboard it sponsored in Costa Mesa, Calif. The billboard features a towering Thomas Jefferson proclaiming: "I do not find in Christianity one redeeming feature…it is founded on fables and mythology." The quote is drawing criticism after viewers realized that the only myth was the supposed Jefferson quote itself.
"The response to the billboard has mainly been negative," said Bruce Gleason, Backyard Skeptics' founder and organizer, on Friday. "This is something that touches the emotions of people. When you make a mistake, everyone against your opinion wants to exploit it."
Gleason said Backyard Skeptics emerged in 2008 as an outlet for area atheists, non-theists and skeptics to meet and interact with each other. The group is primarily social, he said, but has at times engaged in protest. An example of this, he added, is its ongoing billboard campaign. The Jefferson sign marked the Skeptics' sixth posting, as well as the first one sporting flawed information.
"I don't try to convert people," said Gleason of the group's goals. "I try to educate them on a more peaceful worldview. It is very enlightening to find out there is nothing to worry about in the afterlife. It frees us from fearing something obviously man-made."
Gleason said the billboard is scheduled to remain standing until Nov. 8, though he's trying to replace it with a design his group used once before. Taking full responsibility for the mistake, he said the error occurred when he encountered a contemporary of Jefferson's who attributed the phrase to the president. The problem was compounded, he said, given Jefferson's tricky relationship with faith.
"Jefferson said he was a Christian but his behavior dictated he was more of a deist," Gleason said. "Despite this, Jefferson said many quotes that are against Christianity. If he were alive today he'd look at that quote and say 'no, I didn't say that, but I definitely could have.'"
Andrew O'Shaughnessy, the director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, said conflicting ideas about Jefferson's views on religion stemmed from the man's own complexities. He said the Founding Father was deeply moral, for example, but also a critic of centralized religious power.
"Jefferson would not have simply dismissed Christianity out of hand," O'Shaughnessy said. "He believed Christianity had the best system of moral rules. At the same time, he was not in any way an orthodox Christian. He did not accept the miracle stories of the Bible or anything that could not be based on evidence."
Tracy Lee Simmons, the author of Climbing Parnassus and an upcoming work on Jefferson, said the Founding Father saw religion as a private matter. As such, many missed the point of his stance on faith.
"Jefferson approved of religion in general and Christianity in particular," Simmons said. "What Jefferson worried about – and in this he wasn't alone among the Founders – was the constricting power of organized religion. Religion belonged to the realm of conscience, he thought, not to that of enforceable public authority."
O'Shaughnessy, a British native, said he understood the rush to justify arguments with endorsements from America's founders. After all, he said, the work they did still drives America forward today. Despite this, he added people should be careful about referencing such beloved public figures on their own.
"What holds this country together is a body of ideas," O'Shaughnessy said. "Those ideas were established by a founding generation and remain America's guiding mission. By citing Jefferson, it gives seemingly greater legitimacy to one's argument. If you're going to quote the Founders, you should quote them right."