Yesterday, as I sat at home enjoying a day off because of the snow, a friend of mine sent me a link to an article by Richard Carrier entitled “Christianity Was Not Responsible for American Democracy.” This article was intended to be included in the 2010 book The Christian Delusion edited by John Loftus, but was instead published on the book’s accompanying website. Carrier’s claims sparked a lot of interest among atheists, and he was asked to give a speech on this topic at the 2013 convention of the National Atheist Party. Carrier later published the transcript of that speech on his blog under the title of “That Christian Nation Nonsense (Gods Bless Our Pagan Nation).” And it is rumored that he will be publishing similar material in Loftus’ next book Christianity is not Great which is slated to be published at the end of this year. I will eventually be writing a point-by-point critique of Carrier’s claims, but I would like to take just a moment to point out some of the more obvious flaws in his position which show that he is just as wrong in this area of historical research as he is in denying the existence of Jesus.
Carrier’s article is his attempt to refute the claim that “The Ten Commandments are the foundation of Western morality and the American Constitution and government.” To do this, he claims instead that America was founded on the principles of Solon who established democracy in the city of Athens. According to Carrier, Solon is “our true hero, the real man to whom we owe all reverence.” Carrier claims that all of the foundational components of the American system of government were instituted by Solon, and that he even gave a list of ten commandments which are a much better match to the American system than the Ten Commandments of Moses.
The great irony of Carrier’s praise for Solon is that there is less evidence of him being a real, historical figure than there is for Jesus Christ whose existence Carrier vigorously denies. As far as I know, there is not a single, first-hand account of Solon ever even existing much less of his writing a list of ten commandments or a constitution of government. Most of the information that we have about him comes from Herodotus (who wrote more than a century after Solon’s death) and Plutarch (who wrote nearly 600 years after Solon). Carrier claims that Solon’s importance to America is confirmed by what John Adams wrote about him in his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, but even Adams admitted that it is impossible to know anything for sure about this character known as Solon.
As the laws of Solon were derived from Crete and Egypt, were afterwards adopted by the Romans as their model, and have by them been transmitted to all Europe, they are a most interesting subject of inquiry; but it is not possible to ascertain exactly which were his, which were those of Epimenides or Theseus, or what was, in fact, the constitution of Athens. (emphasis mine)
Carrier’s list of the ten commandments of Solon comes not from Solon himself but rather from Diogenes Laertius who lived 800 years after Solon’s time. Laertius in turn claims to have obtained this list from the writings of Apollodorus who was only about 400 years removed from Solon. But as delicious as all this irony is, it is merely incidental to Carrier’s claim. Even if he said that Solon didn’t exist, it is still possible for Carrier to claim that the founders modeled the American system of government on a system of laws which they thought had been written by Solon.
To show that Carrier is wrong in this claim, all we have to do is follow Carrier’s own advice and read John Adams’ Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. I just provided a quote from this book in which Adams admitted that he didn’t know anything for sure about the laws of Solon, but let’s look at a few other things Adams had to say about Solon. For example, immediately after the above quote, Adams continued by discussing the fact that there were 21,000 voters in Athens, but then he pointed out that:
At the same time, there were ten thousand freemen, consisting of foreigners and freed slaves, and four hundred thousand souls in actual bondage, who had no vote in the assembly of the people.
Then Adams continues his criticism of Solon by noting that:
the title of king was preserved to the high-priest, so the person presiding over the religion of each tribe was called philobasileus, king’s friend, and was always appointed from among the nobly born, eupatridæ. Thus religion was always in the hands of the aristocratical part of the community.
Thus we see that this man – whom Carrier calls “our true hero” and “the real man to whom we owe all reverence” – established a government in which more than 90% of the population had no right to vote and in which the high-priest was the king. Oops. So much for Solon being the foundation of American ideals. I guess Carrier must have skipped over that part when he was reading the works of John Adams. And I guess he also skipped over the part where Adams blamed Solon for the ruin of the entire nation.
he put all power into hands the least capable of properly using it; and, accordingly, these, by uniting, altered the constitution at their pleasure, and brought on the ruin of the nation.
Indeed, Adams could have been writing about Carrier himself when he wrote that:
our author nowhere recollects the checks to the popular government of Athens, which, however, was never at any one moment so popular as his project. He nowhere recollects, that there were ten slaves to one citizen; that the education of the citizens, therefore, was superior to that which is possible in any nation that has not slaves. He nowhere recollects, that the whole of religion was saved in the hands of the nobly born, which gave a few families such an influence as no part of Christendom now affords an example of, not even in Catholic countries. He nowhere recollects, that the whole people were divided into ranks, and all magistrates taken out of the higher ranks. He nowhere recollects the senate of one hundred, and afterwards of five hundred, appointed by lot, which formed the council of state, which had the constant charge of political affairs, and particularly the preparation of business for the assembly of the people. He nowhere pays a sufficient attention to the court of Areopagus and its important powers, and the persons of whom it was composed. All the archons out of office were members for life. He nowhere recollects that a single representative assembly, being necessarily few, are more liable to corruption than even a collective assembly, who are many. He nowhere recollects that Solon’s institution was at last ruined by allowing to the fourth class of citizens an equal vote in the assembly of the people; a terrible warning against all such projects of government. These important checks, which gave such vast weight to the aristocratical part of the community in the government of Athens, have no equivalent in our author’s plan.
Well, I think that’s enough for this blog post. I have much more to say about Carrier’s claims, and I’ll likely write a post tomorrow about how John Adams specifically attributed the American form of government to the Law of Moses, but in the meantime, let me suggest that you take a moment to review my article entitled “We the People: The Biblical Precedent for Popular Sovereignty” as well as the article “Adams, Jefferson and the General Principles of Christianity.”
Click here to read part 2
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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