Freethought NOW!

A salon on religious freedom in Thomas Jefferson’s dining room

Atheists are often accused of being joyless, miserable humans. If we don’t believe in a god, how can we celebrate the wonder in this world, how can we revel in the numinous? In reality — where we nonbelievers tend to dwell — studies show that we feel as much or more wonder about the universe than Christians. Perhaps because we are focused on this world and this life, not the faulty promise of a world to come.

I often feel this awe in nature: when I gaze out over the Grand Canyon or when I put my hand over Powell’s Unconformity in the canyon, spanning nearly 1.2 billion years of earth’s history. Watching a lioness sink into the tall grass and begin stalking her prey or seeing a Great White off Cape Agulhas glide alongside our boat. Or seeing blue ice calve from glaciers to feed the Jökulsárlón lagoon before slowly drifting to the sea — the list is long and wonderful.

The other night, I felt this awe in Thomas Jefferson’s dining room. Everyone knows Jefferson’s home at Monticello, but few people know of Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s country retreat tucked away near Lynchburg, Va. In a way, it’s more moving than Monticello because it is far more intimate. It was where Jefferson went to get away. He wrote much of his “Notes on the State of Virginia” there, and it is a magnificent, if somewhat hidden gem. I can’t recommend it enough.

FFRF Attorney Andrew L. Seidel in front of Thomas Jefferson's home at Poplar Forest. Jefferson designed the villa with a distinctive octagonal shape and the Palladian style shows the influence of talian architect Andrea Palladio.
FFRF Attorney Andrew L. Seidel in front of Thomas Jefferson’s home at Poplar Forest. Jefferson designed the villa with a distinctive octagonal shape and the Palladian style shows the influence of talian architect Andrea Palladio.

As part of its “salon series,” Poplar Forest invited me to take part in a conversation about religious liberty and Thomas Jefferson — in his dining room. Jefferson designed the building and made the dining room a cube, 20 feet wide, long and high, with a skylight running the length.

As the sun dipped below the Virginia hills, I gathered in that dining room with Doug Laycock, John Ragosta — both attorneys and law professors — and about 40 guests to talk about “Religious Freedom: Now and in Jefferson’s Time.” Doug and John have stellar resumes and it was an honor to have a civil conversation with them about such an interesting topic.

But the true honor stayed with me throughout our talk: the privilege I had to talk about religious freedom in the house of the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, which toppled the established church in that state. He gutted the bible with a razor, excising all the supernatural “dunghills” in favor of the few “diamonds” he could salvage.

This is the man who gave us the very phrase, “a wall of separation between Church & State.” And my chosen career as an FFRF attorney is to be a watcher on that wall.

Without doubt, Thomas Jefferson discussed this same subject in that same room more than 200 years ago. This is where he wrote some of the words that will appear in my book, that I quoted in our discussion: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” And his thoughts on “religious education” for children: “putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children, at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history.”

As in any discussion, there were challenging moments, when a thought was inexpertly expressed or an interjection pointing out the very point you’re making. But those could not detract from the awe at discussing these matters as Jefferson might have, in his house, in his dining room.

Acting as moderator, John Ragosta chose the perfect quote to close out the evening. In his first inaugural, Jefferson worked to soothe the discord of a contentious election and he urged citizens to remember that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” We’d do well to heed Jefferson’s counsel on that point.

Poplar forest dining room
The dining room at Poplar Forest. Left, the restored room as it is today. Second from left, the floor plan with the cube-shaped dining room in the center of the octagon. Second from right, the dining room before restoration of the plaster and skylight. Right, the skylight. Photos courtesy of Poplar Forest.
The view of Poplar Forest Jefferson and others would have seen upon arriving. Courtesy of Poplar Forest.
The view of Poplar Forest Jefferson and others would have seen upon arriving. Courtesy of Poplar Forest.

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