Thomas Paine is often trumpeted as an example of how America was not founded as a Christian Nation (although he didn't sign any important documents or attend the Constitutional Convention, and many of the "Founding Fathers" were, indeed, Christians, and the rest, being Deists, probably agreed with Paine on matters religious), so it's interesting that his book "The Age of Reason" seems to fit Mark Twain's definition of a classic: "A book which everyone praises but nobody reads."
Mr. Paine opens his book
As several of my colleagues and others of my fellow-citizens of France have given me the example of making their voluntary and individual profession of faith, I also will make mine; and I do this with all that sincerity and frankness with which the mind of man communicates with itself.
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 in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.
But, lest it should be supposed that I believe in many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.
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.
All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.
It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime. He takes up the trade of a priest for the sake of gain, and in order to qualify himself for that trade, he begins with a perjury. Can we conceive any thing more destructive to morality than this?
To be clear, Paine could have said "I don't believe in any god," and I'd be happy to go on with the analysis. But he doesn't; he distinctly rejects atheism as his credo.
Many of his on-line enthusiasts, though, insist Paine is their model of atheism. Oops.
His second sentence makes perfect sense to me: "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?" In light of Christianity, where Jesus says in the parable that "whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me," I can't find any conflict between Mr. Paine's second sentence and my interpretation of Christian living.
He rejects creedalism in his third sentence: well, so did the Congregational church, the descendant of the Puritan church, which is now part of the United Church of Christ, in which denomination I am ordained. Obviously I disagree with Mr. Paine on cerebellums and his explicit rejection of organized religion (which is his broader point), but I also agree with his fifth paragraph: I, too, do not condemn those who believe otherwise.
Unlike, say, Jeffrey Tayler, who weekly mounts his pulpit at Salon to denounce some new found religious outrage, and who makes reference to Mr. Paine's supposed atheism and absolute antipathy to all things theistic, whenever it suits his purposes (and who can't conceive of any reason not to be outraged at people who have religious beliefs, when he has none).
His fourth sentence seals the deal for me: Mr. Paine's thoughts on religion are Puritanism on steroids. or, more precisely, the logical outcome of Puritanism, determined as it was to be shorn of all trappings religious (i.e., "Papist") and all appearances of superstition (as defined by them), up to and including observing "holy days" (again, too Roman Catholic) and Christmas.
And lest you think that anti-Papist streak in American culture died with JFK's Presidency, I have a book on a year in the life of a UCC congregation. The E&R side of the UCC was virtually Lutheran (i.e., Catholic) in its liturgy, while the Congregational side was far more Calviniistic (i.e., Southern Baptist), and a life-long member of the Congregational church (now a UCC congregation) denounces the UCC Book of Worship, published in the 80's, for outlining suggested worship services. It is, he says, practically Roman Catholic.
When I changed the title of "The Lord's Prayer" to "Prayer of Our Savior," in keeping with UCC practice any my seminary education, I was accused in my first parish of using a Catholic title, because I was a closet Papist.
Old habits die hard.
Most of Mr. Paine's "reason" in his pamphlet easily reads as extreme Puritanism, with a nascent Unitarianism thrown in for good measure and to remove Mr. Paine (and Messrs. Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington, among others) away from the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth and toward a more general "do good" (but keep slaves, apparently) sense of religious practice. Deism, at least in Mr. Paine's description of it, takes the "anti-" aspects of Puritanism (which, after all, must be defined against Catholicism and the Church of England in order to have an identity at all. You can't "purify" something without having some institution to measure your purity against.) and makes them the raison d'être
of one's belief. So Paine goes on in his pamphlet to denigrate Judaism, Islam, and Christianity; but he save his longest diatribe for the latter, and what he condemns in it is almost wholly Catholic doctrine and practice, with, of course, the old complaint stemming back to the Reformation, that it's all about money:
the statue of Mary succeeded the statue of Diana of Ephesus; the deification of heroes changed into the canonization of saints; the Mythologists had gods for everything; the Christian Mythologists had saints for everything; the church became as crowded with one, as the Pantheon had been with the other, and Rome was the place of both. The Christian theory is little else than the idolatry of the ancient Mythologists, accommodated to the purposes of power and revenue; and it yet remains to reason and philosophy to abolish the amphibious fraud.
Those sentences could as well have come from the pen of Cotton Mather or John Robinson.
Of course, this line of argument also requires that you denigrate your opponent, as the Puritans denigrated the Church of Rome. So, for Mr. Paine, people who don't believe as he does practice that faith as William James would later characterize the definition: "Believin' what you know ain't so." It is a baseless reductio
argument that has been with us in America for a very, very long time, in other words.
But it allows Mr. Paine to tell us who the true atheists are:
As to the Christian system of faith, it appears to me as a species of Atheism — a sort of religious denial of God. It professes to believe in a man rather than in God. It is a compound made up chiefly of Manism with but little Deism, and is as near to Atheism as twilight is to darkness. It introduces between man and his Maker an opaque body, which it calls a Redeemer, as the moon introduces her opaque self between the earth and the sun, and it produces by this means a religious, or an irreligious, eclipse of light. It has put the whole orbit of reason into shade.
The effect of this obscurity has been that of turning everything upside down, and representing it in reverse, and among the revolutions it has thus magically produced, it has made a revolution in theology.
That which is now called natural philosophy, embracing the whole circle of science, of which astronomy occupies the chief place, is the study of the works of God, and of the power and wisdom of God in his works, and is the true theology.
As to the theology that is now studied in its place, it is the study of human opinions and of human fancies concerning God. It is not the study of God himself in the works that he has made, but in the works or writings that man has made; and it is not among the least of the mischiefs that the Christian system has done to the world, that it has abandoned the original and beautiful system of theology, like a beautiful innocent, to distress and reproach, to make room for the hag of superstition.
I like that first sentence: it could set up all manner of explosive discussions if dropped among the on-line atheists. All it really proves is that the word "atheist" has been freely used for centuries to describe a group you don't like and wish to discard from public life. But it certainly doesn't indicate that Paine would embrace that word as descriptive of him.
And science as theology has a proto-Romantic sound to it, except science is as denigrated as religion by the Romantics; and the current effort by scientists to replace with religion with "scientific truth" makes Paine's argument less than compelling over 200 years later.
True, the bulk of Paine's book is an attack on the historicity and the tales of the scriptures; but it's nothing I didn't learn in scriptural studies in seminary, so: been there, done that. It's more than a little ironic that the favored retort against Christianity is that it involves the study of a book written by "Bronze Age shepherds" (a wonderfully elitist argument, by the way), but the outdated and surpassed arguments of Thomas Paine are supposed to be treated as holy writ with new and refreshing insights for us.
As I say, I studied the work of scholars who wouldn't give Paine's arguments a passing glance (nor would they contradict all of them, either), and my Christianity is still intact, while Deism is an historical footnote.