Thomas Paine on God and Religion

Thomas Paine was perhaps the most important “call to action” author to have ever existed. His pamphlets are almost single-handedly credited for sparking the American and French revolution. A great writer, politician, and philosopher Paine, above all, was concerned for the rights of his fellow man, their liberty, and freedom.

It is in this context that we look to Paine for his thoughts on Religion and God as written in “Age of Reason”.

1. Was Thomas Paine an Atheist or a Christian?

First, I believe it is fair to immediately present, as Paine himself did in “Age of Reason”, his beliefs on God. Paine made it very clear that he was neither an Atheist nor a Christian, but rather a Deist.

“I believe in one 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 of doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy….I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.”

2. Thomas Paine on the Bible

Overall, Thomas Paine argued that the idea that God would communicate to mankind in the form of speech or writing is highly unlikely. Especially due to verbal and written communication’s tendency to change over time, vary widely between humans, and subject to alterations.

“…the idea or belief of a word of God existing in print, or in writing, or in speech, is inconsistent in itself for the reasons already assigned. These reasons, among many others, are the want of an universal language; the mutability of language, the errors to which translations are subject; the possibility of totally suppressing such a word; the probability of altering it, or of fabrication the whole, and imposing it upon the world.”

2a. The problem with Miracles

The problem with miracles, even if they are witnessed personally, is that we cannot conclude with certainty that we have not witnessed something that we just do not understand. For example, for ages people of the world found the Sun and stars to be miraculous. Today we understand them as Science. In 1794 Thomas Paine recognized the facts of human ignorance as well:

“Mankind have conceived to themselves certain laws by which they call nature is supposed to act; and that a miracle is something contrary to the operation and effect of those laws. But unless we know the whole extent of those laws, and of what are commonly called, the powers of nature, we are not able to judge whether any thing that may appear to us wonderful or miraculous, be within, or beyond, or be contrary to, her natural power of acting.”

Furthermore, if we do not witness the miracle ourselves and are told of it second-hand is it more likely a fabrication, an error, or a true miracle?

“[if a person says they saw a miracle] it raises the question in the mind very easily decided, which is, is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.”

2b. Prophecy’s weakness

Prophecy, even if it were real, would not be sufficient evidence of God due to the very nature of prophecy. If it has not happened yet then it is to come in the future. If something like the prophecy happens than it cannot be proven that it was not a coincidence. Therefore, prophecy by its very nature lacks the ingredients necessary to convince a skeptic of a Christian God. Thomas Pain put it this way:

“[Prophecy] could not answer the purpose [of proving a Christian God] even if it were real. Those to whom a prophecy should be told could not tell whether the man a prophesied or lied, or whether it had been revealed to him or whether he conceited it; and if the thing that he prophesied, or pretended to prophesy, should happen, or something like it, among the multitude of things that are daily happening, nobody could again know whether he foreknew it, or guessed at it, or whether it was accidental.”

2c. The Problem with Revelation

The problem with revelation, Thomas Paine argues, is that revelation is only revealed to the person who hears it. To everyone else revelation becomes hearsay.

“No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth , and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is hearsay to every other, and consequently, they are not obliged to believe it.”

3. Examining the timing and length of “Age of Reason”

The timing and length of “Age of Reason”, I believe, is important. For one, Paine was careful to publish “Age of Reason” toward the end of his political and writing career. He was no doubt aware that his rejection of Christianity would hinder his ability to broadcast political ideas that were, by themselves, controversial.

“Age of Reason” (1794) was published almost two decades after his call for American revolution in the pamphlet “Common Sense” (1776) and French Revolution in “Rights of Man” (1791). Paine even admits in the opening paragraph that he waited “several years” before publishing his thoughts on Religion. It seems that Paine had his priorities in line when it came to religion versus that of human rights.

Secondly, I believe the length of “Age of Reason” – which is roughly 1/3rd or less the length of this other famous works – demonstrate the importance (or lack there of) religion had in his life compared to the other important issues of his time (i.e., rights of mankind, liberty). That is to say about 1/3rd as important as everything else.

I think that it is in this context we should evaluate the overall importance of religion in our own life.  Philosophically, perhaps it is important to put first things first (improving life for our fellow man) and worry about mythology  and religion a little less.

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5 thoughts on “Thomas Paine on God and Religion

  1. trueandreasonable

    As you know I am not much impressed with Thomas Paine as a philosopher. Let me share my thoughts on the quotes you offer.

    On the bible. He seems to say: We don’t have a universal language, therefore god would not communicate to us in any language. He also seems to say: Translation errors can happen, therefore God would not communicate to us in any language. Let’s try to make this into a logical argument.

    Premise 1: Unless there is a universal language God would not speak to us in any written language.
    Premise 2: There is not universal language.
    Conclusion: Therefore God did not speak to us in any written language.

    It seems hard for me to understand why anyone would believe the first premise. Why would God need to wait until there was a universal language?

    Just because errors in translation are possible that doesn’t mean they happen or happen to such an extent that his word is not beneficial. The other arguments seem equally bad.

    Of course it’s possible in some sense that the word could be suppressed. But really God is usually described as having a pretty impressive set of powers such that he could see enough of it gets through to help us. It is surprising to me that someone would reject the bible because they somehow thought God would lack the resources to preserve the important parts of his word.

    He says no one is obliged to believe hearsay. Ok then I suppose we would never be obliged to believe any history. Everything I know about the holocaust is hearsay. Am I free to deny it?

    As far as miracles he gives 2 arguments. The first is that maybe we don’t fully understand the laws of nature, so when Jesus rose from the dead or, walked on water, or fed thousands from a few loaves, or healed people by his touch this wasn’t really supernatural. That might work for some alleged miracles but on the whole it seems a pretty tough case to make.

    The other argument against reports of miracles is that it seems more likely that the report is a lie rather than true. This I will concede is at the very least a sensible argument. But it seems with Paine you have to read allot of bad to get a few pearls of good.

    I also disagree that spending time on politics is more important than spending time on religion. Of course I don’t think religion is just a bunch of mythology.

    Reply
    1. Atticus C. Post author

      On you first point:

      “We don’t have a universal language, therefore god would not communicate to us in any language.”

      I think Paine is saying due to the variable nature of language, written, and spoken word it seems UNLIKELY that an all powerful god would resort to that form of communication to reveal his word. I agree with him on this point. Paine later argues, though I did not quote him, that it is more likely that God would communicate in non-verbal or written ways.

      “He says no one is obliged to believe hearsay. Ok then I suppose we would never be obliged to believe any history. Everything I know about the holocaust is hearsay. Am I free to deny it?”

      That is simply not true. We have videographic, photographic, and physical evidence that the holocaust happened. We also have first hand accounts from the people who it happened to. We have such evidence to corroborate most of history.

      The bible (and religious texts) are the only form of history that I am aware of that expect us to believe supernatural events occurred in the distant past, but offers no physical evidence that it occurred. We are expected to rely on the accounts of undocumented authors based on an oral tradition that was passed down for at least fifty years before it was written down. It seems strange to me that an all powerful God would rely on such a manner to communicate his word to his creation.

      Reply
  2. trueandreasonable

    In John Jesus is described as the “logos” which is a Greek word from which we get logic. It can mean “word” and/or “reason”. Is that what Paine means?

    If you mean the bible as how God reveals himself, I would say that is only one way God reveals himself. But I still see no reason why that avenue should be taboo to God.

    I think of hearsay as a strict American legal definition. “An out of court statement used to prove the truth of the matter asserted.”

    Almost all history is written and therefore not testimony that can one can listen to and ask questions as it goes (e.g. cross examination) Keep in mind that in our courts even if you did see the events yourself you typically can not just sign a written sworn statement and expect that the court will consider it, unless both sides agree to let it in. Otherwise it, typically, can be objected to as hearsay.

    You have to be able to confront your accusers and cross examine them as well as see their demeanor when they testify.

    The testimony as given in the Nuremberg trials was not hearsay for the people there. But for us the transcripts from the Nuremberg trials would themselves be hearsay. The video will need testimony to explain what is depicted (or the video itself will contain statements that would be hearsay.)

    Now, I am not saying one should deny the holocaust. But I never actually spoke with someone who personally witnessed the events so all my information is indeed hearsay. Most history is most certainly hearsay in the sense meant by rules of evidence in america.

    To the extent he does not mean hearsay in the sense of the legal definition (the definition would have applied at his time as well) then he would need to explain what he means. To the extent we wants to loosen the definition to include most other history we will likely find the bible is no longer hearsay.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Thoughts on Common Sense | The Leather Library

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