The Age of Reason, Part I
By Thomas Paine
Available online at (among other web sites):
Thomas Paine coined the term "The United States of America."
Thomas Paine wrote the most influential political pamphlet in human history, "Common Sense," which showed the American colonists why they need not respect the authority of a king who claimed to rule by divine right.
When the colonists and the redcoats broke into open combat, Paine wrote "The American Crisis," which maintained the colonial spirit with its stirring words:
It is not hyperbole to say that without Paine's efforts, the USA's separation from Great Britain would not have been accomplished in 1776.
Yet there is no statue to Paine in Washington DC, and men who deemed themselves great patriots have vilified him. And why is this?
It is because Paine also wrote "The Age of Reason," a profoundly religious work that stirred up great religious hatred against him, to the point that his contributions to American independence were all but written out of the history books.
What a devastating work "The Age of Reason" must be. How subversive, how offensive, how un-American it must be.
Yet it is none of these.
"The Age of Reason" is in two parts, but this essay shall be restricted to Part I. Part I is the nobler of the two, with more reasoned analysis, a less angry tone and a wider topical scope.
Paine targets the notion that a revealed religion—and although Paine addresses the popular Christianity of his day, his rationale applies to ANY revealed religion—is likely to be true.
The nature of revelation, Paine notes, is for The Word to be hearsay, and when The Word is told and retold, it becomes hearsay upon hearsay. From the very outset, therefore, religions based upon revelation have a serious evidentiary problem:
The standard answer to this quite legitimate evidentiary problem is that the hearer must have faith. But faith in what?
One of Paine's repeated themes is that what is called faith in God is not really faith in God at all. It is, rather, faith in people. It is faith that the one who tells the story knows what he is talking about, and that the one who told him relayed the account honestly, and so on and so on. The accounts in the Bible show overt signs of being multigenerational hearsay, and further it seems clear that many were written by individuals other than the persons to whom they are credited. One cannot be sure who the people are, in whom one is asked to have faith.
It is not difficult to smell rats in this system. For one thing, Christianity reeks with the incorporation of old mythology:
Even more troubling, there is the very serious concern about hypocrisy associated with pretending to model the church upon Christ, while in fact acting contrary to the very stories that they supposedly revere:
Perhaps most troubling of all, there are principles in Christianity that place it at odds with moral justice, thereby suggesting very strongly that its message has a human, rather than divine, origin. Paine offers many examples, including the tale of Adam, which he calls "the outrage offered to the moral justice of God, by supposing him to make the innocent suffer for the guilty." But perhaps none is so damning as the moral injustice at the very heart of Christian belief:
If revelation does not lead to truth, what practice does lead to the truth? Paine answers thus:
This can be said to be one of the principal bases of deism. The Almighty is in nature. Science, not revelation, shall therefore be the path to truth.
And yet, Paine takes his argument too far, by saying that the divine will can be inferred from what humankind observes in creation. Paine's own examples show that the inferences are—perhaps entirely—in the eye of the beholder. The message may be noble, but it is hard to put one's faith in Paine that he reports the message accurately:
Against the background of what path leads to genuine truth, Paine turns to the question of whether Christianity can be a path to truth. Right away there is a problem, for Christianity holds itself out as having the truth from the Divine, and therefore it is loathe to admit mistakes, even when science has shown the church to be in error:
Christianity is also hopelessly handicapped by its reliance upon Mystery, Miracle, and Prophecy. All three actively work against the discovery of truth:
As to the notion of miracles, Paine one again makes the point that miracles direct faith not in the Almighty but in a human being, who is more likely than not, being untruthful:
If there is one exceptionally profound thought in the above-quoted passage, it is that a claimed miracle "implies a lameness or weakness in the doctrine that is preached." It is one thing to say observe that a doctrine of moral justice needs no miracle to attest to it, and quite another to say that the assertion of a miracle affirmatively indicates a weakness in the doctrine. Were Paine to write today, he might well cite examples of other things that imply a lameness or weakness in the doctrine. Forced conversion at the point of a sword or gun barrel is such a thing, as the one converted cannot be won over upon the merits of the philosophy. Another phenomenon that indicates a lameness or weakness in doctrine might be religiously motivated terrorist activity, and still another might be efforts to force specific religious principles upon citizens through the machinery of government.
Paine also points out that because Christian dogma holds that the devil can perform supernatural feats, miracles are not necessarily indicative of the presence, will or intent of the Almighty.
On the subject of prophesy, Paine points out problems that afflict not only Bible prophets, but modern-day soothsayers: retrofitting the facts, forgetting or discounting the incorrect guesses, and predicting the future with incomprehensible language:
Although there have been provided extensive quotations, there is much more to Paine's work. Paine writes exceptionally well, and although his sentences tend to run on too long for modern taste, it is worthwhile to work one's way through his work to discover many careful points and nuances.
Paine makes a few errors in his work. Some of the errors are due to the fact that Paine did not have a Bible handy when he wrote Part I. (He did have a Bible handy when he wrote Part II, however, and he wielded it like a sledgehammer.) But virtually none of the errors detracts from his principal arguments.
Paine's message is frank, but not overtly insulting. In a sense, what he did to Christianity was to apply some "tough love." If it wishes to continue to call itself a vehicle of truth, every revealed religion in general, and Christianity in particular, must answer Paine's arguments. In the more than 200-plus years since Paine put his arguments to paper, many of them go unanswered, and Paine himself continues to be denigrated.
Might this imply a lameness or weakness in the doctrine that is preached?