Atheists' Billboard Falsely Attributes Anti-Christian Quote to Thomas Jefferson

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  • Thomas Jefferson billboard Backyard Skeptics
    (Photo: Backyard Skeptics)
    The billboard set up by Backyard Skeptics in Costa Mesa, Calif., which falsely attributes a quote to Thomas Jefferson.
By Luiza Oleszczuk, Christian Post Reporter
October 28, 2011|11:22 am

The anti-Christian billboard set up by an atheist group called Backyard Skeptics this week in Costa Mesa, Calif., has falsely attributed a quotation to Thomas Jefferson, it emerged Thursday.

The billboard unveiled at 1545 Newport Boulevard on Oct. 17 and sponsored by Backyard Skeptics, a group known for campaigning against Christianity in the United States, features the quote: "I do not find in Christianity one redeeming feature. It is founded on fables and mythology."

The billboard attributes the quote to Thomas Jefferson.

However, experts at Monticello, a research institution and library supported by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., claim that the quotation is not that of Jefferson. The institution has that specific quote listed with many others on its list of "spurious [Jefferson] quotes."

The library has confirmed with The Orange County Register, who discovered the mistake and publicized it first, that that the quote is most likely not that of Jefferson.

"Another suspicious element is the statement that he [Jefferson] does not find in Christianity 'one redeeming feature,' " the Monticello experts reportedly added. "One presumes that Jefferson did, in fact, find some redeeming features in Christianity, otherwise he would not have taken the time to paste together his own versions of the Bible."

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The Backyard Skeptics have acknowledged the mistake.

"I have an apology to make to the secular community," Bruce Gleason, a leading member of the group, wrote in a statement published on the Backyard Skeptics website. "Although I placed the 'Jefferson' billboard up in good faith that this quote was made by Jefferson, I have now learned that it was not. It was started in 1906 by an unknown author. I have requested the billboard to be replaced with a previous secular billboard we have used."

"I was quite surprised," Gleason told The Christian Post Friday after being asked what his reaction was when he found out that the quote was wrongly attributed to Jefferson. "I did not do research on that quote because nearly all of the Jefferson quotes I have been quoting for the last 10 years have not been argued against from any Christian standpoint at all."

"Obviously, when you're going to place it on a billboard, you need to do your research; and I did not do my research. I know it was a mistake," Gleason added.

However, Gleason also told CP that, according to his knowledge, Jefferson said many similar things. The spokesman of the atheist group even ventured to guess what the third U.S. president would say, were he alive and witnessing the misquote.

"He would probably say: 'No, I didn't say that. But I might have said that. It says the same thing as my other writings.' And he would definitely not disagree with me," Gleason told CP.

The Backyard Skeptics have already requested to change the billboard to one of their old ones, one that reads: "Faith Has No Answers – It Only Impedes Questions," Gleason said.

The Orange County-based group has a history of launching advertising campaigns challenging the Christian faith. In August, Backyard Atheists organized a $6,000-worth billboard showing an image of an atheist from Maryland, Natalie Khazaal, saying: "Atheism is philanthropy without mythology, peace without superstition."

At the time, a blog post on the group's website stated: "Lots of feedback on the many sites which allow comments from the billboard we placed in Santa Ana, CA last week. (…) we'll be placing two more billboards on Sept 11th. The billboard company has rejected any add that has to do with 9/11 (sad) so you won't be seeing any twin towers pictures."

An online commenter, Stephanie, wrote under that blog post: "I agree that atheists can be good and philanthropic, I just don't see any reason why they should want to be. Truly, if there is no God, then what does it matter how you live? if there is no after life, what does it matter if you waste your life? how can it even be wasted? when you are gone, you are gone, and there is nothing to be sad about because you won’t exist anyway. If there is no God, there is no objective standard by which to judge anything, so how do you call anything good or bad? Isn't it all just relative and then we are back to 'so what does it matter how I live?' I applaud you all for wanting to live a good moral life but I really don't see any reason why you would want to."

Meanwhile, Monticello's website also lists another quote by the founding father. In this one, Jefferson allegedly said something quite opposite to what the atheist group alleged: "Sir, no nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man, and I as chief magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example."

In this case, likewise, the researchers have not managed to confirm the origin of the quote with absolute certainty. The note under the quote states that the quotation is "a sticky one, since Jefferson was supposedly overheard saying this, rather than having written it."

"We remain skeptical of its authenticity," researchers stated.

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