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.