No Gods! Thomas Paine, “The Age of Reason” 1794-1795

More so than his political thought, I wonder if Paine’s  attack on Christianity is the most important contribution of Paine to radicalism.  As it turns out his public attack on Christianity was very selfless, in that much of his unpopularity and poverty later is his life is due to the bad reputation he gained in the U.S. due to his The Age of Reason.  Famously, his funeral was poorly attended by six people, including 2 free blacks.  Included in this Library of America volume is Samuel Adams harsh criticism of Paine. “But when I heard , that you had turned your mind to a defense of infidelity, I felt myself much astonished, and more grieved, that you had attempted a measure so injurious to the feelings, and so repugnant to the true interest of so great a part of citizens of the United States.” (415)

Certainly anarchism can be compatible with Christianity, as were many radical movements throughout modern history.  As Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker point out in The Many-Headed Hydra, if not for religious dissenters – such as “The Diggers”, Quakers, and assorted anabaptists, many of the radical alternatives to Atlantic capitalism would have not emerged.  Religious dissenters sustained these ideas.  Stool, of course, is a prime example of a Christian anarchist from more recent times.  (“Christian Anarchism” even has its own Wikipedia page.)  Their inspirations seem to be the life of Jesus, the communities of early Christians, and some teachings of Jesus on non-violence or equality.  Nevertheless, along with Christopher Hitchens, I cannot help but notice that the entire idea of a God is rife with hierarchical assumptions, which seem to undermine a commitment to individual liberties and community solidarity.  Equality from this perspective is perverse as it is based on our commonality of fallen sinners, dependent on a redemptive creator.  That is, we are all equal worms writhing through this piece of shit we call the material world.  Bedsides promotion hierarchical sensibilities, religion also imposes external morality that make radical revision of even economic relationships difficult.  David Graeber pointed this out in Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, when he showed how debt became a moral obligation, often informed with religious ideas.

Paine’s The Age of Reason was published in two parts in 1794 and 1795.  The first part was more general, restating Hume’s argument against belief in miracles and presenting Paine’s support for “natural philosophy” or science  instead of revealed truth.  Part two is longer and more systematic and is a close textual reading of much of the Bible.  Paine points out immoralities, contradictions, and absurdities in the Bible.  I urge one to read it, if for no other reason than it saves a lot of time reading the “New Atheists” who make many of the same points and add Darwin.

Paine provides us with his creed early in the text. “I believe in one God, and no more; and i hope for happiness beyond this life.  I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy.” (666) [Did the editors do that on purpose?]  A Deist position.  I doubt modern atheism would have been likely in Paine’s generation, but I doubt any freethinker would find much odious about his position.  Paine also believed that revolution would necessarily coincide with the destruction of organized churches.  On this point he was almost certainly wrong.  If anything, the American Revolution led to an open market in religions leading to a more Christian population compared to places with state churches.  This market-based religion has contributed to a great deal of heterodoxy in the United States.  Without any central dogma, people believe what they want to be believe and what they can be convinced is true.  I find it entertaining to watch, if not at times horrifying.  Why is is that when Americans leave the church they were raised in, they find it necessary to replace those believes with even nuttier New Age beliefs.

Well, The Age of Reason is quite straightforward and convincing.  I doubt anyone who reads it can look at the Bible in the same way.  Most of absurdities and contradictions he mentioned remain well-known to atheists interested in tedious debates with believers.

Thus end’s this blog’s comments on Paine’s Collected Works.



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