History, Religion, Reviews.

Reasoning with Thomas Paine

Book Book Review, Title The Age of Reason, Author Thomas Paine, Rating 4.0, Reasoning with Tom Paine

Thomas Paine was perhaps the most persuasive of those proponents of revolution in the American Colonies of Great Britain, and well after his influential Common Sense he continued to write about ‘revolting’ things (tongue well in cheek) in the following period of the French Revolution. His Age of Reason is a fiercely argued defense of freedom of religion, an argument against organized religion and an argument for deism, written between 1794 and 1797 from Revolutionary France.

Paine primarily addressed the dominant organized religion of Europe and America, Christianity; he offered extended and sometimes furious arguments regarding what he felt was overwhelming internal evidence that the Holy Bible was not the word of God, but written by diverse men, mostly not the men who purportedly authored the collected books, and finalized by the bishops of Council of Nicea, gathered together by the emperor Constantine to decide what was to be included in the Holy Bible and what was subsequently to be deemed heretical as a step in the effort to adopt Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire. He pointed out that for most of its history Christianity was a state religion; if you didn’t belong, you had to pretend to, or you would be hounded from society, or even tortured or destroyed.

-PD-US, Library of Congress

Thomas Paine, by Romney. Attrib: Library of Congress, PD-US.

Paine sought to demonstrate that an all knowing, all powerful, and most important, loving God, would not have countenanced the many brutal things done in his name as found in the Bible. He was skeptical that a loving God would blithely support the institution of slavery, both in the Old and New Testaments (a representative sampling, in 1 Timothy 6: 1: ‘Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed.’). He was also very skeptical that the Bible was God’s revealed truth, and felt that it was easy to confuse or even to fake, and problematic due to some obvious inconsistencies, internal contradictions and falsehoods both in the Old and New Testaments, which he took pains to point out.

Deism is Paine’s alternative to Christianity, a monotheism based on a rational and loving God that created the universe and a sentient human race to populate that universe; Paine insisted that the only direct evidence we have of God’s existence is his Creation, the natural world in which we live. ‘The true Deist has but one Deity, and his religion consists in contemplating the power, wisdom, and benignity of the Deity in his works, and in endeavoring to imitate him in everything moral, scientifical, and mechanical.

Paine made many enemies with his radical and often angry attacks on the status quo; the Age of Reason was no exception. He wrote some of the first part of the Age of Reason in Paris while imprisoned by the infamous Committee for Public Safety during the French Revolution. (He was released shortly after his enemy Robespierre met his end under the guillotine.) Paine was unable to publish this work in England.

Thomas Jefferson was a frequent defender of Paine, who often needed it. (See my review of Jefferson’s legacy here.) Jefferson took a great deal of political criticism over his defense of Paine’s Age of Reason, and in particular was inaccurately accused, as was Paine, of being an atheist, just as potent a political accusation in America then as it is today. The Age of Reason might be construed as an early test of religious freedom in the young American republic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Solve the puzzle to post a comment *