The second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence begins with these immortal and oft quoted words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
These statements may have been self-evident truths to Jefferson and many of the other founding fathers of this nation in 1776, but in the year 2015 (and for some considerable time before that) a great many people, while still holding that all human beings are of equal value and are possessed of the unalienable rights referred by the Declaration , no longer base that claim on the idea that there even is such a thing as a creator to endow anybody with anything.
The word “self-evident” in common English usage means something akin to “obvious.” In the Declaration, Jefferson is making the claim that the existence of a creator is obvious. He is also making the claim that this creator has intentions for humankind and bestows rights on us so that we might pursue those intentions. Put another way, he is saying that it is obvious that there is a God/Creator, that this God has created human beings with rights and, by implication, these rights are not to be abridged because they are divinely bestowed. This argument is analogous to the argument for the divine right of kings to which the republicans of Jefferson’s time were so opposed. Whether ruling by divine right or living as a free citizen by divine right, Jefferson is saying that his conclusion is obvious. But is it really?
One need not be an atheist or agnostic to have problems with the “obviousness” of the existence of a creator. All three of the major Western religious traditions present themselves as “revealed” religions; i.e., dependent on God to reveal him/herself through a prophet or spokesperson of some sort. They do not make the case that the particular God whom they reveal is in any sense self-evident.
What is obvious, however, is that many people belief in a divine creator and ground their notion of the rights of human beings on that belief. Belief in a creator is much more self-evident than the existence of that creator and, I suppose, that is what Jefferson assumed when he penned the Declaration. He no doubt hoped to make the case for the nascent United States an obvious one–a “no brainer,” so to speak.
The philosophical, theological and general intellectual framework of the early 21st Century no longer presupposes the existence of a creator God or any God at all for that matter. Advances in physics and cosmology have raised all sorts of questions about the nature of matter, energy, time and space.
The more we learn; the more things become less “self-evident.” Once obvious observations about nature are demonstrated to be illusory as science delves deeper into the nature of the cosmos.
The Declaration of Independence is surely an important document in the history of our nation and political science in general, but since it grounds its claims on the existence of a creator (whose existence was once obvious but is no longer so), it should not be used as a cornerstone for building individual, social or political ethics.
In this post-modern, pluralistic age, building an ethic on the existence of a creator is to build that ethic on a highly debatable and not self-evident premise. The two lines quoted above might better be put in something like the following form to avoid the use of a potentially false premise while still advocating for human equality and rights:
We hold these principles to be inviolable: all human beings are of equal value and that this equality entitles them to certain permanent rights among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
While my restatement may lack the historical ring of Jefferson’s famous lines, it avoids the assumption of the existence of God, establishes ethical principles as ideals affirmed by a people and avoids exchanging the divine right of kings for the divine right of a citizens. In short, it separates church from state, as they should be.
I think your post somewhat shifts the priorities in question. Jefferson isn’t making an argument for the existence of god. He is using the existence of a creator to make the argument for the existence of rights. How essential is that creator? Well, that’s something we’ll never know, but it enters this argument as a presupposition rather than a conclusion.
You are exactly right. He is using his presumption that God exists to build his point about rights. In the process, he does say that the existence of a creator is self-evident (obvious). He grounds his notion of rights on the assumption that they were granted to human beings by a God the existence of whom he takes to be self-evident.