Why Our Constitution's Silence on God Shouldn't Be Confused with Atheism (Especially by Atheists)

Given the increasingly complacently atheistic tone of many of the BIG THINKERS, I thought I'd introduce some realism about our Constitution's silence on God.  My position will be, of course, somewhere between the "Christian nation" view of some dogmatic evangelical thinkers (such as those who don't think a Mormon is fit to be president) and the "Godless republic" view of some dogmatic evangelical atheists who claim to revel in the daylight of disbelief.


I think our Constitution's silence on God is one of our Framers' debts to the philosopher John Locke.  Certainly our Constitution treats people as individuals—or not as members of classes, races, genders, or religions.  In that respect, we have a classless citizenry, although far, of course, from a classless society.  But Locke himself, as I will explain, thought of our Constitution's silence of God as a Christian contribution to human self-understanding.

Locke celebrates that breakthrough in egalitarian self-understanding that came with the Christians, the understanding that comes with the discovering of personal inwardness or subjectivity.  So while I think Locke was no Christian (unless you want to call a Socinian or anti-Trinitarian a Christian), he thought of himself as providing arguments and evidence for the fundamental Christian insight into personal reality. Christianity established the principle of the limitation of government by personal freedom. And Locke thought that, with his discovery of personal identity, that he could prove that individuals are both less and more than citizens. They consent to government to protect their interests as self-consciously needy and vulnerable beings with bodies without surrendering their freedom for conscientious self-determination in pursuit of happiness.

For Locke, as for the Christians, both the individual and the church are autonomous—or free from political coercion to determine the truth about the free being’s duties to his or her personal Creator. Locke could defend that conclusion, let me emphasize, without believing that most of what any particular church taught is true. He was highly doubtful that there is a living and giving personal God on which free beings could rely for love and security, and he taught individuals not to trust primarily in God, but in themselves. But he wasn’t so doubtful about personal freedom as, from a natural view, a mystery that left room for belief in a Creator.

Consider that our Christians and our Lockeans—inspired by the idea that the free individual or person—ally against the classical republicans—insofar as they think of people as basically citizens or part of a political community (or city fodder). Our Christians and our Lockeans agree that the emphatically Catholic Chesterton is right that America is a home for the homeless—a place for citizens who think of themselves as so equally unique and irreplaceable that they are far from merely citizens. In America, the homeless can be as at home as the homeless can be in any political community, precisely because that community does not compel them to deny what they really can know about themselves.

Christians, St. Augustine said, were often hated because they, on behalf of both the truth and their faith, had to dissent from the religious legislation of their political communities. They refused, like Socrates, to either believe in or worship the gods of their cities. From the classical, political view, the Christians actually seemed liked atheists. In our country, our Christians and our Lockeans have tended to ally against the classical republican idea of civil theology or, as Lincoln once put it, political religion.

The most noble and truthful Lockean interpretation of the Constitution of 1787′s silence on God cis that it’s anti-civil theological. It can be criticized for not placing our country “under God,” or for liberating political will from divine limits—for turning man into God. Or it can be praised for limiting the realm of political will, for freeing creatures and Creator from political domination for being who they truly are. Our Constitution, from the latter view, presupposes that the Christian view of the person and the God in whose image he or she is made is true. Our political leaders have always been free to express their faith in God, but not to turn it into legislation. For Christians, as John Courtney Murray says, American freedom is freedom for the church as an organized social entity with autonomous moral weight, and Locke, finally, wouldn’t think of disagreeing.

God, for Locke, may well exist. Opinions about our duties to our Creator, as Madison, the most purely Lockean of our Founders thought, are a personal or private matter. God is not to be put to degrading political use, and so “civil theology” is not to direct or inhibit the natural—and inevitably social—human inclination toward theological concern.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.