Nov 25 2011

Links of the Day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 10:14 pm

1. Oppulent homes of the 99. Some of those OWS protesters seem to be pretty well off for people who claim to be protesting against the wealth of the people at the top.

2. The EU has prohibited the use of airport body scanners that use x-rays. In related news, the Transportation Security Administration in the United States has failed to follow through on its promise conduct safety studies on the x-ray machines currently being used in many US airports (not all body scanners use x-rays, and the ones that use x-rays use fairly low amounts of x-rays, but unlike x-ray machines at the doctor’s office, the x-rays used by the body scanners are mostly absorbed by the skin, thus concentrating the energy received into a relatively small part of the body; the safety of this practice has not been studied).

3. End bonuses for bankers.

4. Huge pools of liquid water lie beneath the surface of Europa, the icy moon of Juipter. Arthur C. Clarke may have been right after all!

5. Orbiting solar power plants may be possible within a decade.

Nov 04 2011

Meet the 18 non-Christian American presidents

Category: government,history,politics,religion,United StatesJames @ 6:00 pm

Over at GNXP, Razib Khan points out the errors1 some media commentators have made when they’ve claimed that if Mitt Romney wins the 2012 presidential election, he would be the first non-Christian president in the United States, or least the first president outside of “orthodox” Christianity.2 3 Razib points out that this is simply not true – we have had non-Christian presidents before, and cites President Taft (a Unitarian) as an example.

Well, as it turns out, we have had a lot of Presidents whose religious beliefs placed them outside of orthodox Christianity – including Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln – and other presidents whose devotion to Christianity are highly doubtful – including Eisenhower.

I’m not interested in the debate about whether Mormons are Christians or not; frankly, I find that debate to be fruitless and boring. But I do think it is very interesting to see just how many of our presidents have been irreligious or held non-traditional religious beliefs. It is nice to help dispel people’s ignorance about American history and about the purported orthodoxy and piousness of our forefathers, especially when people who are historically misinformed try to justify their religious prejudice on the basis of ignorant misunderstandings of American history. Some of these presidents were closer to traditional Christianity than others, but likely none of them would meet the strict definitions for orthodoxy being bandied about by commentators and conservative Christians. So, without further ado, the following is my list of America’s irreligious and non-Christian presidents:4

George Washington

Washington did attend church, but not regularly (for example, attending just sixteen times in 1760 and fourteen times in 1768).5 Ministers at the churches where he attended mentioned that he did not take communion.6 After he had died the minister at one of the churches Washington frequently attended was asked about Washington’s religious beliefs, to which the minister replied, “Sir, Washington was a Deist!”7 Deists generally rejected the divinity of Jesus and rejected the idea of a personal god who intervenes in the affairs of humankind. They were definitely not traditional Christians.

John Adams

John Adams was a Unitarian.8 Unitarians reject trinitarianism, and are thus not traditional or orthodox Christians.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson rejected the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, and the miracles of the New Testament.9 He also rejected the doctrine of the trinity.10 His beliefs seemed to have incorporated elements of Deism11 and Unitarianism.12

James Madison

Deism / Unitarianism.13

James Monroe

At least one scholar, Franklin Steiner, has concluded that it was doubtful he had religious beliefs,14 and others have classified him as a Deist.15

John Quincy Adams


John Tyler


Millard Fillmore


Abraham Lincoln

Historian Mark Noll explained that “Lincoln never joined a church nor ever made a clear profession of standard Christian belief.”19 Wikipedia explains that

William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, stated that Lincoln admired deists Thomas Paine and Voltaire, and had read and knew of Charles Darwin before most. “He soon grew into a belief of a universal law, evolution, and from this he never deviated.”20

Some people claimed that Lincoln converted to Christianity after his son died and as the Civil War raged on. Several of his close associates, however, denied this. Lincoln’s private secretary, Colonel John G. Nicolay, stated in 1865 that “Mr. Lincoln did not, to my knowledge, in any way change his religious ideas, opinions, or beliefs from the time he left Springfield to the day of his death.”21 Judge David Davis , Lincoln’s lifelong friend and executor said that Lincoln “had no faith in the Christian sense of the term.”22 And finally, Wikipedia explains:

His biographer, Colonel Lamon, intimately acquainted with him in Illinois, and with him during all the years that he lived in Washington, says: "Never in all that time did he let fall from his lips or his pen an expression which remotely implied the slightest faith in Jesus as the son of God and the Savior of men." Both Lamon and William H. Herndon published biographies of their former colleague after his assassination relating their personal recollections of him. Each denied Lincoln’s adherence to Christianity and characterized his religious beliefs as deist or skeptical.23

Ulysses S. Grant

He was unbaptized and was never a member of any church, but he did accompany his wife to her Methodist church.24

William Howard Taft


Dwight D. Eisenhower

Until he became president, he did not belong to any church and had never been baptized. He was baptized as a Presbyterian only after he was elected president.26


The following presidents were not members of any church:27

William Henery Harrison

Andrew Johnson

Rutherford B. Hayes


Thefollowing presidents have been classified as most likely being unbelievers:28

Martin Van Buren

Zachary Taylor

Chester A. Arthur


So,by my count, out of the United States’ forty three presidents, eighteen were non-believers or unorthodox. That means 42% of the Presidents were not “traditional Christians.” If the next president is not a Christian, he will be joining a distinguished body of some of our country’s best leaders, a body that includes close to half of our presidents!

Update: Honorable Mentions

Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were both Quakers. The Quakers are a religious group which has no set dogma, and there is a variety of belief amongst Quakers. Many, if not most, Quakers would self-identify as Christians. Some conservative Christians, however, have accused the Quakers of not being Christian (much like they have done with Mormons). If you include Hoover and Nixon on our list, the number of non-Christian presidents rises to 20.


2 "Electing Mitt Romney in 2012 would mean electing, for the first time, a president whose religion is not part of orthodox Christianity.”

3 “[T]heological honesty demands that we recognize that Romney would be the first president to be so far outside the Christian denominational mainstream.”

4 Most of my sources come from the citations to this Wikipedia article:

5 Ford, Paul Leicester. The True George Washington (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1897), 78.

10 Holmes, David Lynn (2006). The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. US: Oxford University Press. pp. 225 pages. ISBN 0195300920; Clark, J. C. D.. The language of liberty, 1660-1832. p. 347. (letter to J.P.P Derieux, July 25, 1788, Papers vol 13, p 418)

11 Thomas Jefferson (1803). H.A. Washington (1861). ed. April 9, 1803 letter to Dr. Joseph Priestley; Albert Ellery Bergh, ed (1853). May 5, 1817 letter to John Adams.

14 Steiner, Franklin (July 1995) [1936] (Paperback,190pp). The Religious Beliefs Of Our Presidents: From Washington to F. D. R.. Freethought Library. NY: Prometheus Books. ISBN 0879759755.

22 Id.

28 Id.

Nov 03 2011

Links of the day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 10:14 pm

1. The hundred year starship project. A new DARPA initiative to explore what it would take to develop interstellar travel over the next hundred years.

2. The genetics of happiness. Recent research suggests that about one-third of the variation in people’s happiness levels is accounted for by heritable. The gene which seems to account for increased happiness was found least often among those of Asian ancestry and most often among those of African ancestry, with Europeans falling in the middle.

3. More jobs for machines, not people. Machines are predicted to take over more and more of the things that people have usually done. This sounds like good news to me — automation has always increased productivity in the past, leading to higher incomes and greater economic development. But it would be wise to focus on developing skills not easily replaced by a machine!

4. Aged Wisdom.

You might look inside yourself and think you know yourself, but over many decades you can change in ways you won’t see ahead of time. Don’t assume you know who you will become. This applies all the more to folks around you. You may know who they are now, but not who they will become.

5. How Brazil Is Sending 75,000 Students to the World’s Best Colleges.

“Brazilians have gotten used to going abroad for tourism, business, shopping and diplomacy. Now their students are finally getting an incentive to see the world, thanks to a major government program that aims to award 75,000 scholarships to attend the world’s top universities. Available only to Brazilians studying subjects of strategic national importance, like engineering, they reflect “an effort by the government to take a quantum leap in the formation of a scientific and technological elite,” says Aloizio Mercadante, Brazil’s Science and Technology Minister.”

A great idea! The United States government would be well-served by doing something to incentivize more people to study STEM fields — perhaps better student loan terms for STEM majors, and making the amount of student loan money available for non-STEM majors proportional to the average salaries for people with that major.