Thursday, April 06, 2006

Good News, everyone . . .

The Gospel According to Franklin
The Real Good News

Benjamin Franklin’s opinions on religion are ambiguous—while he has no qualms against the idea of religion, he is very much unimpressed with the practice of religion. In his autobiography, Franklin relates to his reader a tale of his encounters with a Presbyterian minister to elaborate upon this point. Beginning with a general overview on Franklin’s opinions on his past experiences with religion, Franklin shifts to his story of the minister then concludes with his final perspective on the subject in general. The end result of his contemplations on the subject of religion is that while his fundamental beliefs are not atheistic, he, himself, is not in favor of any form of organized religion.
Franklin details his brief association with religion with regards to his current set of beliefs in an effort to lay a foundation for his later discussion. His opening sentence on the subject begins with “I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian” (590), in a straightforwardness that identifies not only Franklin’s original religious upbringing, but an opening view on the subject of religion. He immediately identifies Presbyterianism as an institution of religious education, giving it a concrete purpose and meaning. Thus, Presbyterianism, and by extension, all other organized religions are institutions established with the clear goal and purpose of educating people about religion. It is important at this point to distinguish between two meanings of the word “religion” and how they are used by Benjamin Franklin in this portion of his work. In regards to such organizations as Presbyterianism, Franklin uses the designation “religion” as in “the Essentials of every Religion, and being to be found in all the Religions we had in our country” (590). However, in regards to a set system of beliefs that apply on a personal level, Franklin uses the term “religious Principles” (590). Thus, when Franklin establishes that he did not take well to Presbyterianism—“[it] appear’d to me unintelligible” (590)—but was still “never . . . without some religious Principles” (590), he differentiates for himself the distinction between religion on an organizational level and religion on a personal level.
In regards to his personal beliefs, Franklin states, “I was never without some religious Principles; I never doubted, for instance, the Existence of the Deity, that he made the World and govern’d it in his Providence” (590). This first portion of his list of beliefs establishes a belief in a general Christian practice of God. However, the next few lines are less Christian than they are humanist. “the most acceptable Service of God was the doing Good to Man; that out Souls are immortal,; and that all Crime will be punished and Virtue rewarded either here or hereafter” (590). Aside from the middle portion concerning the immortal soul, this half appears to take on a different perspective on the subject of God than standard Christianity. “The most acceptable Service of God was the doing Good to Man” flips a long-held standard of Christianity onto its head. Rather than man serving to give glory to God, or to live out lives of penance, Franklin states clearly that God’s purpose is to do well for man, and that even this is not so much a great gift as it is “acceptable,” a satisfactory fulfillment of God’s obligations. The last portion, “all Crime will be punished and Virtue rewarded here or hereafter” contains a Franklinism revealed to the keen eye. Franklin here does not affirm any sort of belief in the afterlife, but instead offers it as an alternative to justice on earth. Even its placement in the sentence sets “the hereafter” secondary to “here” indicating a belief that punishment and reward are most likely to happen in “the here.”
Franklin does not openly devalue institutionalized religion, however. In regards to the religions found in the United States, Franklin states, “I respected them all” (590). He is quick to add, however, that he regards such “with different degrees of Respect as I found them more or less mix’d with other Articles which without any tendency to inspire, promote or confirm Morality, serv’d principally to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another” (590). Franklin’s primary complaint is not the religions themselves, for they all seem to be the same to him, but rather, their diversity schisms the people, and the multitude of religions is a cause for discord. A second complaint about religion contained within this quote is the failure of any religion to truly impress Franklin.
This failure on the part of religion to truly take hold of Franklin is illustrated by his anecdote of a minister trying to entice Franklin into becoming an active participant of the Presbyterian Church. Admonished by this minister, Franklin attends church for five consecutive Sundays. However, in Franklin’s words, “Had he been, in my Opinion, a good Preacher perhaps I might have continued . . . But his discourses . . . were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral Principle was inculcated or enforc’d” (590, 1). Here, it becomes clear what Franklin expects from religion and does not receive. Having expressed dissatisfaction with the inspirational and moral qualities of religion earlier (“without any Tendency to inspire, promote or confirm Morality” 590) it becomes clear that Franklin sees the purpose of religion as a serving as a vessel in which one instills morals unto followers. Instead, what Franklin concludes from listening to five weeks of sermons, is that “their Aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good Citizens” (591). Thus, through Franklin’s eyes, the goal of organized religion is not to instill morals, as Franklin thinks should be the case, but rather to perpetuate itself, in a form of religious bureaucracy, or auto-reproduction. What Franklin found to be the tenements of the religion in question were five points that seemed to only function as methods pertaining to habits that only affect church-going life and not daily life. In regards to this, Franklin states, “These might be all good things, but as they were not the kind of good Things that I expected from that text, I despaired of ever meeting with them from any other, was disgusted, and attended his preaching no more” (591). Here, Franklin very clearly states that since he could not find the morality for which he was seeking in this religion, that he gave up trying to find it in any other religion out of disgust.
Franklin’s overall thoughts on religion are that it should serve a purpose, and that purpose is to teach people morality, but instead, it creates a self-perpetuating system, concerned only with its own propagation. Franklin ends with a reference to a separate work on the subject, Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion, in which, presumably, he solves the discrepancy of morals and religion. He closes the subject with a not that though people may be upset with his words here, he is less concerned with apologizing for relaying what he has seen than with conveying the facts to his audience.

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