Thomas Paine and The Age of Reason

I've just been reading a bit of Thomas Paine's classic text The Age of Reason (pt 1, 1794). It really was the 18th century's equivalent of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Unlike Dawkins, Paine was not an atheist - he was a Deist. But like Dawkins he went for the jugular of Christianity and the Bible. His fierce critique of Christianity is, for the period, quite surprising and certainly lost him a lot of friends. It also solicited more than a few published responses (something in the region of 30).

Paine rejected 'revealed religion' - whether Christian, Jewish, or Islamic - and believed that religion should be based on reason alone. His own creed was minimalist:
I believe in God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.
I believe in the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

He felt that the social revolutions that were then occuring in systems of government (in both America and France) would inevitably lead to revolutions in the system of religion. To that end he set out to hold the Bible and Christianity up to the bar of reason and to show that they were wanting.

Paine was a fascinting man with fascinating ideas. Some of his arguments against the Bible or against Christianity are not very compelling (revealing his own ignorance of the facts on occasion) but he was certainly no fool and he made some very thought-provoking points which deserve to be heard by each fresh generation of Christians.

So I was just thinking what a fascinating PhD it would make to examine Paine's little volume along with all the published responses it prompted. It would be a great case-study in apologetics and would also be interesting to see how much the Enlightenment was shaping not merely Paine's critique but also the Christian responses to it.

So many things to do and such little time! But if anyone out there wants to do it then that would be great.


James Pate said…
I read the book years ago, and something from it that sticks in my mind is Paine making fun of the Joshua story. "And so Joshua sees this angel and what profound thing does the angel tell him? 'Take your shoe off.' (He might as well have told him to take his breeches off!)."

This isn't an exact quote, but it's what I remember.
Mark Wilensky said…
I'm a fifth-grade teacher in Colorado, and a crucial part of teaching civics is providing students with our primary sources: the founding documents. This is critical in understanding what “We the People” means. Today, like 230 years ago, those documents instill in students the belief that all voices are important. Every one of our citizens is needed to pursue liberty. Futures do not have to be inevitable and "Little voices" can make dramatic impacts on events. That is Paine's greatest contribution to our country. His pamphlet, Common Sense, spoke to all the voices in the 13 colonies during a time of great indecision. He gave a vast number of citizens a vision of what each could do, 176 days before the Declaration. A belief that power should radiate from the citizens. That message is still foundational for all our students today.

Mark Wilensky,
author of "The Elementary Common Sense of Thomas Paine: An Interactive Adaptation for All Ages"
Robin Parry said…

Yup - that sounds about right!
Robin Parry said…

Common Sense is a classic! And it won him many friends (in America anyway). But The Age of Reason made him very unpopular in America. Only six people attended his funeral. Very sad. To be fair he did not simply explain his views - he did it by absolutely bashing Christianity (including God and Christ) in a harsh and mocking way. That was not going to help him win friends and influence people.
Jason B. Hood said…
I bet some of those responses would be Paineful to read.
graham c. baker said…
Oh I don't know, Robin. To accuse Thomas Paine, of all people, of "ignorance of the facts" is like saying Toscanini doesn't know his orchestra.

Popular Posts