Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Unwitting Dissemination of Error

Today the new pastor of our church quoted Benjamin Franklin amid a mixed bag of Fourth of July, God and Country, overused tropes, complete with towering flag behind a tiny metal cross.

I was not amused.

Whenever Christians quote the Founding Fathers, especially in support of a sermon or idea, I remain highly skeptical of their use of that quote. So often these particularly prescient quotes about God and Country are taken out of context, or portrayed in ways that aren't true to the particular person who spoke them. Considering that many of the founding fathers were Deists, their points about God, while often eloquent and full of beauty, are meant in entirely different ways than they are appropriated by Christians.

In the midst of trying to verify this particular quote, I came across something that I found more interesting; Benjamin Franklin's letter to Thomas Paine, author of the rebuttal of Christianity and promotion of Deism, The Age of Reason:
I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For, without the belief of a Providence that takes cognisance of, guards, and guides, and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for his protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion that, though your reasons are subtle, and may prevail with some readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general sentiments of mankind on that subject, and the consequence of printing this piece will be, a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits against the wind spits in his own face.

But were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion; you having a clear perception of the advantage of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. You might easily display your excellent talents of reasoning upon a less hazardous subject, and thereby obtain a rank with our most distinguished authors. For among us it is not necessary, as among the Hottentots, that a youth, to be raised into the company of men, should prove his manhood by beating his mother.

I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person, whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification by the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a great deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it?

There are loads of things in this letter that I wanted to blog about, and probably will at some point, but before I could get to that things became quite curious. While still searching for a primary source for the quote from church, I came across this same letter on several different sites. One of them mentioned that it was falsely attributed as being written to Thomas Paine when, in reality, it had been written in 1757 to an unknown recipient...years before Franklin and Paine had known one another and years before The Age of Reason had been written.

Moments like these reveal how utterly uncertain we can be when researching things online, or even in books for that matter, when we don't have access to the primary sources that are quoted or attributed to people.

How could I know which sites were correct about this letter? How could I discern which sites might be more credible and trustworthy than others?

Those two questions are frequently underutilized online...if utilized at all.

I spent about an hour typing in variations of search terms about Franklin, Paine, and the online availability of Franklin's works. Surely in this day and age I should be able to find an answer about this. Franklin was one of the most prolific writers/inventors/thinkers of his time. There should be reams of documentation about him and multiple levels of redundancy online with regard to his writings.

I was surprised that it took an hour instead of 5 minutes.

Time and again, I found this letter described as being written to Paine. I found it on quasi-religious, patriotic sites accompanied by self-satisfied commentary that Paine was buried in a field because no American cemetery would take his blasphemous body. I found it on sites declaring that they were supplying primary source documents. I found it on Wikipedia's article on Benjamin Franklin. I found it on an atheist forum.

Over and over it showed up, in various contexts, and with various agendas.

Eventually, I found another, with Franklin's collected works, which also supplied the now dubiously dated and addressed letter. It was listed under the earlier date of 1757 with the anonymous addressee. Considering this site was sponsored by The American Philosophical Society, a society founded by Benjamin Franklin, and also sponsored by Yale University.....I finally felt as if I had found a reputable, trustworthy source.

The letter was not written to Thomas Paine. Despite the popular-level, frequent attestation that it was written to wasn't. Despite the fact that it wouldn't be hard to imagine it as a response to The Age of Reason, it wasn't. Despite the fact that many used this as proof that Franklin was on their side of religious belief, against Paine's Deism and rejection of The Bible, it wasn't.

Discovering examples of the unwitting dissemination of error is disconcerting and the two-edged sword of the Internet age. It's easy to read something, post an article quoting it, which in turn gets quoted by another site, which eventually serves as a reference for a blog post which ignites a spirited discussion, which takes the quoted material for granted and spins off innumerable comments and blog responses.

All without anyone realizing that the quoted attribution and context are completely false.

And...epistemological certainty takes another blow.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

So we don't know who it was written to, but it can't be Paine, who was only 20.

And we also don't know if Franklin would have still agreed with the sentiment 20 years later.

Despair not about the internet increasing the spread of bad information. It does, but it remains a net gain. Early newspapers spread bad information - still do, actually. Books, radio, magazines, email, telephone, all have hastened the spread of foolishness, but more of sense.

Oh - agree about the God & country boundary being obscured in church. Don't like it. It's not worship, for openers.

Donna B. said...

A finely tuned BS detector is necessary for discerning which websites are worthy of trust.

Of course that was true before the internet also.

The most valuable education I got was not in a classroom, but working for a newspaper. Witnessing news being made ranks right up there with witnessing laws being made.

terri said...

This is a test comment because I received a comment in my in-box that isn't showing up on the actual blog.