Quotes on Religion

One of the joys of the Internet is that it is easy to pick a subject…in this case, quotes regarding religion by prominent historical figures…and mine a seemingly inexhaustible lode of information.  I collected these gems from an ocean of web pages.  I quit when I tired of the game, but I had barely scratched the surface of what was available.

Regarding the Patriot Act:

“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” 

[Ben Franklin]


Regarding separation of church and state:

“When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”

[Ben Franklin, _Poor Richard’s Almanac_, 1754 (Works, Volume XIII)]


On Christian Myths:

“The truth is, that the greatest enemies of the doctrine of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them to the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come, when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, Apr. 11, 1823


On displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings:

Those who argue for the Ten Commandments display say that they have a right to express their faith publicly. To them, I say you absolutely do – in church and in conversation. It is not, however, the role of the government to decide what religion its people should follow. Displaying the Ten Commandments in public would do just that.


Think about this: the government has no role in deciding what religion people should follow and, if it did, that would automatically mean excluding some religions. Thus, what the evangelicals are seeking is not the right to express their religious beliefs in public because that has never been a problem. Instead, what they want is for the government to show favoritism towards their religion and towards their religious beliefs, even to the exclusion of other religions

James Madison (1751-1836)


Regarding the effect of religion on civil society:

“What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure & perpetuate it needs them not.”

James Madison (1751-1836)


On separation of church and state:

“And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

James Madison (1751-1836)


“I observe with particular pleasure the view you have taken of the immunity of religion from civil jurisdiction, in every case where it does not trespass on private rights or the public peace. This has always been a favorite principal with me; and it was not with my approbation that the deviation from it took place in congress, when they appointed chaplains, to be paid from the national treasury. It would have been a much better proof to their constituents of their pious feeling if the members had contributed for the purpose a pittance from their own pockets. As the precedent is not likely to be rescinded, the best that can now be done maybe to apply to the constitution the maxim of the law, de minimis non curant.”

Thomas Jefferson in a private letter(1743-1826)


On rejection of any attempt to make this a “Christian Nation”…as some current Bible Thumpers would like to do…

“Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting ‘Jesus Christ,’ so that it would read ‘A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;’ the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)


“I am for freedom of religion and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another.”

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)


“[T]he successful experiment made under the prevalence of that delusion on the clause of the constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro’ the U.S.; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalian & Congregationalist. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me;”

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)


A Pull-No-Punches diatribe against intermingling church and state:  (I really like this one!)

“How then is it that they [the Church] lose their native mildness, and become morose and intolerant? It proceeds from the connection which Mr. Burke recommends. By engendering the church with the state, a sort of mule-animal, capable only of destroying, and not of breeding up, is produced, called The Church established by Law. It is a stranger, even from its birth, to any parent mother, on whom it is begotten, and whom in time it kicks out and destroys. The inquisition in Spain does not proceed from the religion originally professed, but from this mule-animal, engendered between the church and the state. The burnings in Smithfield proceeded from the same heterogeneous production; and it was the regeneration of this strange animal in England afterwards, that renewed rancour and irreligion among the inhabitants, and that drove the people called Quakers and Dissenters to America. Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly-marked feature of all law-religions, or religions established by law. Take away the law-establishment, and every religion re-assumes its original benignity

John Adams (1735-1826)


John Adams, like me, had no use for Christianity.

“As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?”

John Adams (1735-1826)


Oh yes, add Franklin to the nonbelievers in the goodness of Christianity:

“I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved — the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!”

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)


Well, maybe not just Christianity…he shares my aversion to all religions

“The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.”

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)


A snide little comment by Madison that I like:

“Serving God is doing good to Man, but praying is thought an easier service, and therefore more generally chosen.”

James Madison (1751-1836)


Paine didn’t have much use for it either:

“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. what have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)


…and he didn’t limit it to Christianity…

“All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)


I believe that Jefferson and Paine were Deists…and maybe Washington who was really cagey about his religion.

People were always after him to say whether or not he was a Christian, but he evaded the questions all his life.

Here is a very succinct summary by Thomas Paine.  I particularly like the last sentence…I added the emphasis.

“I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy. … I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.”

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)


This one says it all!  I can’t understand why Jefferson would beat around the bush like this.  Why didn’t he just come out and say what he believes? <grin>

“Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid, or produces only atheists and fanatics. As an engine of power, it serves the purpose of despotism; and as a means of wealth, the avarice of priests; but so far as respects the good of man in general, it leads to nothing here or hereafter.”

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)


Here’s a couple of more recent ones:

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Encyclopedia Brittanica (Mortimer Adler, 1968)


“One of the embarrassing problems for the early nineteenth-century champions of the Christian faith was that not one of the first six Presidents of the United States was an orthodox Christian.”

Ian Robertson


I can’t remember where I got this, but I believe it is true.  It certainly lays to rest the assertions by the Christian Coalition and their ilk that our nation was founded by a populace of devout Christians and that we are straying from their path.

“At the time of its Founding, the United States seemed to be an infertile ground for religion. Many of the nation’s leaders—including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin—were not Christians, did not accept the authority of the Bible, and were hostile to organized religion. The attitude of the general public was one of apathy: in 1776, only 5 percent of the population were participating members of churches.”


Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, “Common Sense,” is generally considered the document that most influenced American colonists to take the stand for independence from Britain in 1776.  The American Quaker leadership council urged compromise with the kingdom.  Paine’s reply concluded with the following words:

“May ye always, as men and Christians, fully and uninterruptedly enjoy every civil and religious right; and be, in your turn, the means of securing it to others; but that the example which ye have unwisely set, of mingling religion with politics, may be disavowed and reprobated by every inhabitant of America.”


Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, January 19, 1810

“But a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in Church and State.”


Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by President John Adams in 1797, states in pertinent part: “[T]he Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” You cannot get more explicit than that.


John Adams wrote in a letter to Charles Cushing (October 19, 1756): “Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, ”this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.””


Thomas Jefferson’s interpretation of the First Amendment in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association (January 1, 1802):


“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ”make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”


In a letter (dtd Aug 10, 1787) which Jefferson wrote, while in Paris, to his nephew and ward, Peter Carr, a schoolboy at the time, Jefferson offers the following advice:


“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 the homage of reason than of blindfolded fear. … Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it end 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 in the love of others which it will procure for you.”


I also have a couple of quotes about Washington and Franklin from people who knew them well:


After Washington’s death, Dr. Abercrombie, a friend of his, replied to a Dr. Wilson, who had interrogated him about Washington’s religion, “Sir, Washington was a Deist.”


Dr. Priestley, an intimate friend of Ben Franklin, wrote of him: “It is much to be lamented that a man of Franklin’s general good character and great influence should have been an unbeliever in Christianity, and also have done as much as he did to make others unbelievers.” (Priestley’s Autobiography)


There is also other evidence of how secular a nation the United States was at its founding. For example, many religious conservatives point to the “In God We Trust” motto on our money as support for their argument that the U.S. was founded on Christianity. In fact, the motto first appeared on U.S. currency in 1864 (on the two cent coin) – the impetus for this being the increased religious sentiment existing during the Civil War. Prior to this, U.S. currency was consistent with secular government. The first coins issued by the authority of the United States (the US mint had not yet been established) were the Fugio cents of 1787 and had the words “United States” and “We are One” on the face of the coin, and “Mind Your Business” on the back. The first coins issued in 1792 by the newly established US mint – the silver center cent, Birch cent, half disme, and disme – all had the motto “Liberty-Parent of Science and Industry.” [“E Pluribus Unum” first appeared on official U.S. mint coins in 1798.”]


Even after the 1860s, the “In God We Trust” motto did not appear on all US coins until the 20th Century, and it did not appear on paper currency until the 1950s (the same decade that Congress added the “under God” to the Pledge). Incidentally, the 1950s was also the decade during which Congress passed a resolution (in 1956) making “In God We Trust” the national motto. The original motto was “E Pluribus Unum.”


Here is a more recent quote by Barry Goldwater:
By maintaining the separation of church and state, the United States has avoided the intolerance which has so divided the rest of the world with religious wars. Throughout our two hundred plus years, public policy debate has focused on political and economic issues, on which there can be compromise . . . The great decisions of government
cannot be dictated by the concerns of religious factions. This was true in the days of Madison, and it is just as true today. We have succeeded for 205 years in keeping the affairs of state separate from the uncompromising idealism of religious groups and we mustn’t stop now. To retreat from that separation would violate the principles of
conservatism and the values upon which the framers built this democratic republic.”


A very old one attributed to Aristotle:


“A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand, they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side.”


Archbishop Tutu, the first Black leader of an Anglican natuonal chuch in Africa puts it this way: When the white men came we had the land and they had the Bible and they said to us “close your eyes, bow your heads and pray.” And we did. And when we opened our eyes and looked up they had the land and we had the Bible.


Clarence Darrow Quote

“If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a
crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make
it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year
you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the
church. At the next session you may ban books and the
newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant
and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own
religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do
the other. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs
feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is
the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next
day the preachers and the lectures, the magazines, the
books, the newspapers. After a while, your honor, it is the
setting of man against man and creed against creed until
with flying banners and beating drums we are marching
backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when
bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring
any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human
— Clarence Darrow, “Scopes Trial” courtroom speech,
July 13, 1925


On Separation of Church and State:

As for the wall of separation of church and state as an authoritative way of discussing the establishment clause of the First Amendment–yes, let’s keep the wall high and strong. As Sandra Day O’Connor put it: “Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”



Here’s an anonymous one that I like:

“Philosophy is questions that may never be answered.

Religion is answers that may never be questioned.”

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