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Bill Bucko

TOM PAINE, THE FOUNDING FATHER:

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Great Free-Thinkers of History

TOM PAINE, THE FOUNDING FATHER:

“WHY IS MAN AFRAID TO THINK?”

a selection from his works

compiled by Bill Bucko

Thomas Paine, the patriot who played so important a role in the American Revolution, was a Founding Father of modern unbelief, as well. He was neither an agnostic nor an atheist, but a fervent deist—yet in his great classic The Age of Reason he launched the most devastating attack on Christianity ever to appear in print, defending the God of Nature against what he considered the fraud and slander of the Christians.

Paine (1737-1809) was born to poor parents in England, where he found his opportunities much restricted by the British aristocracy and the government’s policy of mercantilism. He emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1774 upon the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin, who was very impressed with his potential. In 1775 Paine published an article calling for an end to slavery, thus becoming one of America’s first abolitionists. Early in 1776 his pamphlet Common Sense appeared, persuading thousands (including Washington and other leaders) to seek independence from England. His ideas strongly influenced Thomas Jefferson, and appear throughout the Declaration of Independence. George Washington made a point of having Paine’s spirited Crisis papers read to his starving troops (“These are the times that try men’s souls”), as an inspiration to keep on fighting for liberty. After the War that he did so much to win Paine wrote The Rights of Man (1791, 1792), a daring defense of individual rights, so radical for its time that a number of British printers and booksellers were sent to prison for the “crime” of distributing it. His attempts to export freedom to England and France brought him condemnation for treason in the former country, imprisonment and a narrow escape from the Reign of Terror in the latter. To put on record his thoughts on theology, he wrote The Age of Reason (Part I, 1794; Part II, 1795), addressing it:

To my fellow citizens of the United States of America: I put the following work under your protection. It contains my opinion upon religion. You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine ... The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall. [p. 1]

All quotes in this article are taken from the ten-volume Patriot’s edition of The Life and Works of Thomas Paine, published by the Thomas Paine National Historical Association (New Rochelle, New York, 1925). Unless otherwise noted, they are taken from The Age of Reason, in volume VIII. The remaining quotes are from Paine’s letters in that volume, or from volume IX, Theological Discussions, which includes a stimulating series of papers he wrote in 1804 for a monthly publication called “The Prospect.”

EPISTEMOLOGY

At the very beginning of The Age of Reason Paine makes a logical distinction that cuts the ground from under all revealed religions with their allegedly “sacred” books:

Revelation, when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man.

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 revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.

It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. [p. 7]

Paine tells the Christians:

As you can make no appeal to reason in support of an unreasonable religion, you then (and others of your profession) bring yourselves off by telling people they must not believe in reason but in revelation.

This is the artifice of habit without reflection. It is putting words in the place of things; for do you not see that when you tell people to believe in revelation, you must first prove that what you call revelation, is revelation; and as you cannot do this, you put the word, which is easily spoken, in the place of the thing you cannot prove.

You have no more evidence that your Gospel is revelation than the Turks have that their Koran is revelation, and the only difference between them and you is, that they preach their delusion and you preach yours. [vol. IX, p. 133, from “The Prospect Papers”]

Would a God who created man as a rational animal, ask him to abandon and betray his reason and blindly accept some pretended revelation? ... Referring to the story invented by the Church of Rome, about Jesus Christ serving as a human sacrifice to redeem mankind from Original Sin:

But as it is impossible for reason to believe such a story, because it can see no reason for it, nor have any evidence of it, the Church then tells us we must not regard our reason, but must believe, as it were, and that through thick and thin, as if God had given man reason like a plaything, or a rattle, on purpose to make fun of him. [vol. IX, p. 106, from “The Prospect Papers”]

And as for the miracles that supposedly “prove” the truth of revelations (in place of logical argument):

... 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 of 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. [p. 95]

By this standard, the pretensions of the Bible must very quickly fall. Like most prominent thinkers of the 18th-century Enlightenment, Paine accepted the Argument from Design and the First Cause Argument, but believed only in a benevolent God of Nature, who wrote no books, founded no churches and demanded no sacrifices:

I believe in one God and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life ...

But, lest it should be supposed that I believe 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. [pp. 4-5]

It is by the exercise of our reason that we are enabled to contemplate God in His works, and imitate Him in His way ... It is by forgetting God in His works, and running after the books of pretended revelation, that man has wandered from the straight path of duty and happiness, and become by turns the victim of doubt and the dupe of delusion.

Except in the first article of the Christian creed, that of believing in God, there is not an article in it but fills the mind with doubt as to the truth of it, the instant man begins to think. [vol. IX, pp. 100-101, from “The Prospect Papers”]

For instance:

The story of the redemption will not stand examination. That man should redeem himself from the sin of eating an apple by committing a murder on Jesus Christ, is the strangest system of religion ever set up. Deism is perfect purity compared with this.

It is an established principle with the Quakers not to shed blood; suppose then all Jerusalem had been Quakers when Christ lived, there would have been nobody to crucify him, and in that case, if man is redeemed by his blood, which is the belief of the Church, there could have been no redemption; and the people of Jerusalem must all have been damned because they were too good to commit murder. The Christian system of religion is an outrage on common sense. Why is man afraid to think?

[vol. IX, pp. 86-87, from “The Prospect Papers”]

Paine’s respect for reason, “the choicest gift of God to man” [p. 40], was boundless:

The remark of the [pagan] Emperor Julian on the story of the Tree of Knowledge is worth observing. “If,” said he, “there ever had been, or could be, a Tree of Knowledge, instead of God forbidding man to eat thereof, it would be that of which he would order him to eat the most.” [vol. IX, p. 107n, from “The Prospect Papers”]

And he insisted that no book or system of thought, no matter how time-honored, could be held exempt from rational examination:

When a book, as is the case with the Old and New Testament, is ushered into the world under the title of being the WORD OF GOD, it ought to be examined with the utmost strictness, in order to know if it has a well founded claim to that title or not, and whether we are or are not imposed upon: for no poison is so dangerous as that which poisons the physic [medicine], so no falsehood is so fatal as that which is made an article of faith. [vol. IX, p. 272, from “Examination of the Prophecies”]

I know that this bold investigation will alarm many, but it would be paying too great a compliment to their credulity to forbear it upon that account; the times and the subject demand it to be done. The suspicion that the theory of what is called the Christian Church is fabulous is becoming very extensive in all countries; and it will be a consolation to men staggering under that suspicion, and doubting what to believe and what to disbelieve, to see the object freely investigated. [p. 20]

HISTORY

If Christians bothered to examine the historical roots of their pretended “holy” books, they would immediately encounter a host of embarrassing difficulties:

When the Church Mythologists established their system, they collected all the writings they could find and managed them as they pleased. It is a matter altogether of uncertainty to us whether such of the writings as now appear under the name of the Old and New Testaments are in the same state in which those collectors say they found them, or whether they added, altered, abridged or dressed them up.

Be this as it may, they decided by vote which of the books out of the collection they had made should be the WORD OF GOD, and which should not. They rejected several; they voted others to be doubtful, such as the books called the Apocrypha; and those books which had a majority of votes were voted to be the Word of God. Had they voted otherwise, all the people, since calling themselves Christians, had believed otherwise—for the belief of the one comes from the vote of the other. [pp. 21-22]

At what time the books ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John began to appear is altogether a matter of uncertainty. There is not the least shadow of evidence of who the persons were that wrote them, nor at what time they were written; and they might as well have been called by the names of any of the other supposed apostles, as by the names they are now called. The originals are not in the possession of any Christian Church existing, any more than the two tables of stone written on, they pretend, by the finger of God, upon Mount Sinai, and given to Moses, are in the possession of the Jews. And even if they were, there is no possibility of proving the handwriting in either case. [pp. 246-247]

Speaking of the books of the New Testament:

They come to us on no other authority than the Church of Rome, which the Protestant priests, especially those of New England, call the Whore of Babylon.

This Church, or to use their own vulgar language, this whore, appointed sundry councils to be held, to compose creeds for the people, and to regulate Church affairs. Two of the principal of these councils were that of Nice, and of Laodicea (names of the places where the councils were held) about three hundred and fifty years after the time that Jesus is said to have lived. Before this time there was no such book as the New Testament.

But the Church could not well go on without having something to show, as the Persians showed the Zend-Avesta, revealed they say by God to Zoroaster ...

The Church was resolved to have a New Testament, and as, after the lapse of more than three hundred years, no handwriting could be proved or disproved, the Church, which like former impostors had then gotten possession of the State, had everything its own way. It invented creeds, such as that called the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicean Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and out of the loads of rubbish that were presented it voted four to be Gospels, and others to be Epistles, as we now find them arranged.

Of those called Gospels, above forty were presented, each pretending to be genuine. Four only were voted in ... [vol. IX, pp. 146-148, from “The Prospect Papers”]

It was upon the vote of such men as Athanasius, that the Testament was decreed to be the Word of God; and nothing can present to us a more strange idea than that of decreeing the word of God by vote. [p. 265]

On what slender cobweb evidence do the priests and professors of the Christian religion hang their faith! The same degree of hearsay evidence, and that at third and fourth hand, would not, in a court of justice, give a man title to a cottage, and yet the priests of this profession presumptuously promise their deluded followers the Kingdom of Heaven. [vol. IX, p. 154, from “The Prospect Papers”]

THE OLD TESTAMENT

Paine exposed many self-contradictions in the allegedly perfect, divinely inspired Bible:

The evidence I shall produce is contained in the book itself; I will not go out of the Bible for proof against the supposed authenticity of the Bible. False testimony is always good against itself. [p. 139]

Paine called attention, as had a few daring men before him, to the co-existence of two mutually contradictory creation accounts in the first books of Genesis, which use different expressions for the name of God and different chronologies:

According to the first, the two sexes, the male and the female, were made at the same time. According to the second, they were made at different times; the man first, and the woman afterwards.

According to the first story, they were to have dominion over all the earth. According to the second, their dominion was limited to a garden. [letter to Mr. Erskine, vol. VIII, pp. 317-318]

The God of the Bible is not dignified enough to suit Paine:

The idea that writers of the Old Testament had of a God was boisterous, contemptible, and vulgar. They make Him the Mars of the Jews, the fighting God of Israel, the conjuring God of their priests and prophets. They tell us as many fables of Him as the Greeks told of Hercules. They pit Him against Pharaoh, as it were to box with him, and Moses carries the challenge ... They make their God to rain fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah, and belch fire and smoke upon Mount Sinai, as if He was the Pluto of the lower regions. They make Him salt up Lot’s wife like pickled pork ... [“An Essay on Dream,” vol. IX, pp. 201, 202]

But worse than the foolishness and absurdity of the Bible, is its morality (or rather, the lack of it):

Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it as I detest everything that is cruel. [p. 25]

Paine was a great enemy of the Bible on moral grounds:

We have all heard of Noah’s Flood; and it is impossible to think of the whole human race—men, women, children, and infants, excepting one family—deliberately drowning, without feeling a painful sensation. That heart must be a heart of flint that can contemplate such a scene with tranquillity.

There is nothing of the ancient mythology, nor in the religion of any people we know of upon the globe, that records a sentence of their God, or of their gods, so tremendously severe and merciless. If the story be not true, we blasphemously dishonor God by believing it ... It is a relief to the genuine and sensible soul of man to find the story unfounded. It frees us from two painful sensations at once; that of having hard thoughts of the Creator, on account of the severity of the sentence; and that of sympathizing in the horrid tragedy of a drowning world. He who cannot feel the force of what I mean is not, in my estimation, of character worthy the name of a human being. [letter to Mr. Erskine, in vol. VIII, pp. 321, 323]

There are matters in that book, said to be done by the express command of God, that are as shocking to humanity and to every idea we have of moral justice as anything done by Robespierre, by Carrier [who guillotined or drowned thousands of people during the Reign of Terror] ... or by any other assassin in modern times. When we read in the books ascribed to Moses, Joshua, etc., that they (the Israelites) came by stealth upon whole nations of people, who, as history itself shows, had given them no offense; that they put all those nations to the sword; that they spared neither age nor infancy; that they utterly destroyed men, women and children; that they left not a soul to breathe—expressions that are repeated over and over again in those books, and that, too, with exulting ferocity—are we sure these things are facts? Are we sure that the Creator of man commissioned these things to be done? And are we sure that the books that tell us so were written by His authority? [pp. 112-113]

Paine quotes Moses’s order to his bloody-handed soldiers (Numbers 31: 17-18): “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves”—then comments:

Let any mother put herself in the situation of those mothers; one child murdered, another destined to violation, and herself in the hands of an executioner; let any daughter put herself in the situation of these daughters, destined as a prey to the murderers of a mother and a brother, and what will be their feelings? It is in vain that we attempt to impose upon nature, for nature will have her course, and the religion that tortures all her social ties is a false religion ...

People in general do not know what wickedness there is in this pretended Word of God. Brought up in habits of superstition, they take it for granted that the Bible is true, and that it is good; they permit themselves not to doubt of it, and they carry the ideas they form of the benevolence of the Almighty to the book which they have been taught to believe was written by His authority. Good heavens! it is quite another thing; it is a book of lies, wickedness and blasphemy; for what can be a greater blasphemy than to ascribe the wickedness of man to the orders of the Almighty? [pp. 134, 135-136]

This same Moses who ordered the murder and rape of children, is made to say of himself:

Numbers, chap. xii ver. 3. Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth. If Moses said this of himself, instead of being the meekest of men, he was one of the most arrogant of coxcombs ... [p. 120]

Such, according to the Bible, was God’s own chosen leader. Paine observes:

It is a duty incumbent on every true Deist, that he vindicate the moral justice of God against the calumnies of the Bible. [p. 123]

It [the Bible] abounds with too many ill examples to be made a rule for moral life, and were a man to copy after the lives of some of its most celebrated characters he would come to the gallows. [vol. IX, p. 144, from “The Prospect Papers”]

Paine refers to the story of Joshua commanding the sun to stand still as “a tale only fit to amuse children”:

This tale of the sun standing still upon mount Gibeon, and the moon in the valley of Ajalon, is one of those fables that detects itself. Such a circumstance could not have happened without being known all over the world. One half would have wondered why the sun did not rise, and the other why it did not set; and the tradition of it would be universal, whereas there is not a nation in the world that knows anything about it. [p. 142]

In his righteous scorn at Biblical follies and delusions, Paine once overstepped the bounds of good taste. Referring to Old Testament tales of “angels” visiting the earth:

They eat and drink, and up again to heaven.

What they do with the food they carry away in their bellies, the Bible does not tell us. Perhaps they do as the birds do, discharge it as they fly; for neither the Scripture nor the Church hath told us there are necessary houses for them in heaven. One would think that a system loaded with such gross and vulgar absurdities as Scripture religion is could never have obtained credit; yet we have seen what priestcraft and fanaticism could do, and credulity believe. [vol. IX, pp. 199-200, from “An Essay on Dream”]

[by the way, the original Greek word angelos, translated in the New Testament as “angel,” means not a winged supernatural being but simply “messenger.”]

Paine points out that the Hebrew word translated as “prophet” meant originally only a poet or one who played upon a musical instrument; and he demonstrates at length that the sayings of the prophets, when not outright lies or curses, apply to their own times, not to later times, as commentators have insanely twisted them.

But as every conjurer is not famous alike for the same thing, so neither were those prophets; for though all of them, at least those I have spoken of, were famous for lying, some of them excelled in cursing. Elisha, whom I have just mentioned, was a chief in this branch of prophesying; it was he that cursed the forty-two children in the name of the Lord, whom the two she-bears came and devoured. [p. 203]

He quotes God’s alleged words from the book of Jeremiah, chap. xviii, verse 10:

“... I shall repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them.” ... this manner of speaking of the Almighty, as one would speak of a man, is consistent with nothing but the stupidity of the Bible. [p. 188]

Paine issues a challenge to all Christian ministers:

And now, ye priests of every description, ... what have you to say? Will ye, with all this mass of evidence against you, and staring you in the face, still have the assurance to march into your pulpits and continue to impose these books on your congregations as the works of inspired penmen, and the Word of God, when it is as evident as demonstration can make truth appear that the persons who ye say are the authors are not the authors, and that ye know not who the authors are?

What shadow of pretense have ye now to produce for continuing the blasphemous fraud? What have ye still to offer against the pure and moral religion of Deism, in support of your system of falsehood, idolatry and pretended revelation? Had the cruel and murderous orders with which the Bible is filled, and the numberless torturing executions of men, women and children, in consequence of those orders, been ascribed to some friend whose memory you revered, you would have glowed with satisfaction at detecting the falsehood of the charge, and gloried in defending his injured fame.

Is it because ye are sunk in the cruelty of superstition, or feel no interest in the honor of your Creator, that ye listen to the horrid tales of the Bible, or hear them with callous indifference? [pp. 151-152]

Paine concludes his comments on the Old Testament (which he often referred to simply as “the Bible”):

I have now gone through the Bible, as a man would go through a wood with an axe on his shoulder and fell trees. Here they lie; and the priests, if they can, may replant them. They may, perhaps, stick them in the ground, but they will never make them grow. I pass on to the books of the new Testament. [p. 215]

THE NEW TESTAMENT

The story of Jesus Christ’s birth, Paine noted, rests on nothing but hearsay evidence concerning events that are inherently improbable, or even impossible:

When also I am told that a woman called the Virgin Mary, said, or gave out, that she was with child without any cohabitation with a man, and that her betrothed husband, Joseph, said that an angel told him so, I have a right to believe them or not; such a circumstance required a much stronger evidence than their bare word for it; but we have not even this—for neither Joseph nor Mary wrote any such matter themselves; it is only reported by others that they said so—it is hearsay upon hearsay, and I do not choose to rest my belief upon such evidence. [p. 9]

The story, taking it as it is told, is blasphemously obscene.

It gives an account of a young woman engaged to be married, and while under this engagement she is, to speak plain language, debauched by a ghost ... This is putting the story into intelligible language, and when told in this manner, there is not a priest but must be ashamed to own it. [p. 218]

If Joseph the carpenter dreamed (as the book of Matthew (i ) says he did), that his betrothed wife, Mary, was with child by the Holy Ghost, and that an angel told him so, I am not obliged to put faith in his dreams; nor do I put any, for I put no faith in my own dreams, and I should be weak and foolish indeed to put faith in the dreams of others. [letter to Andrew Dean, vol. IX, pp. 294-295]

Referring to the two genealogies of Jesus offered in the books of Matthew (chapter 1) and Luke (chapter 3), Paine observes that they contradict each other on almost every point, not only on names but on the number of generations:

If his natural genealogy be manufactured, which it certainly is, why are we not to suppose that his celestial genealogy is manufactured also, and that the whole is fabulous? Can any man of serious reflection hazard his future happiness upon the belief of a story naturally impossible, repugnant to every idea of decency, and related by persons already detected of falsehood? [p. 223]

Were any girl that is now with child to say, and even to swear it, that she was gotten with child by a ghost, and that an angel told her so, would she be believed? Certainly she would not. Why, then, are we to believe the same thing of another girl, whom we never saw, told by nobody knows who, nor when, nor where? [p. 225]

Paine exposed at length the shameful way in which Old Testament texts were wrenched out of their context and twisted, to be cited as alleged “prophecies” of the life of Jesus Christ. The most famous such text, namely, “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son” [isaiah 7:14], he shows to be fulfilled, not in the New Testament, but in the continuation of the passage:

... it has no more application to Christ and his mother than it has to me and my mother ...

Isaiah having committed himself thus far, it became necessary to him, in order to avoid the imputation of being a false prophet and the consequence thereof, to take measures to make this sign appear. It certainly was not a difficult thing, in any time of the world, to find a girl with child, or to make her so ... he says in the next chapter, ver. 2, “And I took unto me faithful witnesses to record, Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah, and I went unto the prophetess, and she conceived and bare a son.”

Here, then, is the whole story, foolish as it is, of this child and this virgin; and it is upon the barefaced perversion of this story, that the book of Matthew, and the impudence and sordid interests of priests in later times, have founded a theory which they call the Gospel; and have applied this story to signify the person they call Jesus Christ, begotten, they say, by a ghost, whom they call holy, on the body of a woman, engaged in marriage, and afterward married, whom they call a virgin, 700 years after this foolish story was told ... [pp. 184-186]

It may not be improper here to observe, that the word translated as virgin in Isaiah, does not signify a virgin in Hebrew, but merely a young woman. [“Examination of the Prophecies,” vol. IX, p. 217]

Turning to Jesus’s death and pretended “resurrection”:

But the resurrection of a dead person from the grave, and his ascension through the air, is a thing very different as to the evidence it admits of, to the invisible conception of a child in the womb. The resurrection and ascension, supposing them to have taken place, admitted of public and ocular demonstration, like that of the ascension of a balloon, or the sun at noon-day, to all Jerusalem at least.

A thing which everybody is required to believe requires that the proof and evidence of it should be equal to all, and universal; and as the public visibility of this last related act was the only evidence that could give sanction to the former part, the whole of it falls to the ground, because that evidence never was given. Instead of this, a small number of persons, not more than eight or nine, are introduced as proxies for the whole world to say they saw it, and all the rest of the world are called upon to believe it. But it appears that Thomas did not believe the resurrection, and, as they say, would not believe without having ocular and manual demonstration himself. So neither will I, and the reason is equally good for me, and for every other person, as for Thomas.

It is in vain to attempt to palliate or disguise this matter. The story, so far as relates to the supernatural part, has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it. Who were the authors of it is as impossible for us now to know, as it is for us to be assured that the books in which the account is related were written by the persons whose names they bear ... [pp. 12-13]

The alleged reason for Christ’s death, concocted by theologians in the years after his death, will not hold up to rational scrutiny:

The Christian Mythologists tell us that Christ died for the sins of the world, and that he came on purpose to die. Would it not then have been the same if he had died of a fever or of the small-pox, of old age, or of anything else? ... A fever would have done as well as a cross, if there was any occasion for either. [p. 34]

If I owe a person money and cannot pay him, and he threatens to put me in prison, another person can take the debt upon himself and pay it for me; but if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed; moral justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty, even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose justice to do this is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thing itself; it is then no longer justice, it is indiscriminate revenge. [p. 39]

From the time I was capable of conceiving an idea and acting upon it by reflection, I either doubted the truth of the Christian system or thought it to be a strange affair; I scarcely knew which it was, but I well remember, when about seven or eight years of age, hearing a sermon ... upon the subject of what is called redemption by the death of the Son of God ... I revolted at the recollection of what I had heard, and thought to myself that it was making God Almighty act like a passionate man who killed His son when He could not revenge Himself in any other way, and, as I was sure a man would be hanged who did such a thing, I could not see for what purpose they preached such sermons. This was not one of that kind of thoughts that had anything in it of childish levity; it was to me a serious reflection, arising from the idea I had that God was too good to do such an action, and also too almighty to be under any necessity of doing it. I believe in the same manner at this moment; and I moreover believe that any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child cannot be a true system. [pp. 71-72]

In reply to a minister, Paine wrote:

You spoke of what you call, “the precious blood of Christ.” This savage style of language belongs to the priests of the Christian religion. The professors of this religion say they are shocked at the accounts of human sacrifices of which they read in the histories of some countries. Do they not see that their own religion is founded on a human sacrifice, the blood of a man, of which their priests talk like so many butchers?

It is no wonder the Christian religion has been so bloody in its effects, for it began in blood, and many thousands of human sacrifices have since been offered on the altar of the Christian religion ...

As adoration paid to any being but God Himself is idolatry, the Christian religion by paying adoration to a man, born of a woman called Mary, belongs to the idolatrous class of religions; consequently the consolation drawn from it is delusion. [vol. IX, pp. 134-135, 136, from “The Prospect Papers”]

Turning to the alleged miracles that occurred after Christ’s death, Paine caustically notes that the book of Matthew tells of an earthquake and of dead saints coming back to life, while the other Gospel writers make no mention of such extraordinary events. But if they had really happened, wouldn’t all four have been careful to record them?

It is an easy thing to tell a lie, but it is difficult to support the lie after it is told. The writer of the book of Matthew should have told us who the saints were that came to life again and went into the city, and what became of them afterward, and who it was that saw them—for he is not hardy enough to say he saw them himself; whether they came out naked, and all in natural buff, he-saints and she-saints; or whether they came full dressed, and where they got their dresses; whether they went to their former habitations, and reclaimed their wives, their husbands and their property, and how they were received; whether they entered ejectments for the recovery of their possessions, or brought actions of crim. con. [criminal conversation, i.e. adultery] against the rival interlopers; whether they remained on earth, and followed their former occupation of preaching or working; or whether they died again, or went back to their graves alive and buried themselves. [pp. 229-230]

The book of Matthew continues its account, and says (chap. xxviii., ver. 10 that at the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, to see the sepulchre. Mark says it was sunrising, and John says it was dark. Luke says it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna, and Mary, the mother of James, and other women, that came to the sepulchre; and John states that Mary Magdalene came alone. So well do they agree about their first evidence! they all, however, appear to have known most about Mary Magdalene; she was a woman of a large acquaintance, and it was not an ill conjecture that she might be upon the stroll. [pp. 231-232]

(Outraged ministers have denounced Paine for this passage, thinking it infamous of him to allude so flippantly to Mary Magdalene’s former profession!)

Now, if the writers of those four books had gone into a court of justice to prove an alibi (for it is of the nature of an alibi that is here attempted to be proved, namely, the absence of a dead body by supernatural means), and had they given their evidence in the same contradictory manner as it is here given, they would have been in danger of having their ears cropped for perjury, and would have justly deserved it. Yet this is the evidence, and these are the books that have been imposed upon the world as being given by divine inspiration and as the unchangeable Word of God. [p. 233]

Paine returns to one of his central arguments against Christianity: since the true God of Nature is all-powerful, His acts must always show a perfect proportion between His means and His ends. When, on the contrary, you hear of some bungled, ill-adapted act attributed to Him, you can be sure God did not act thus:

This is the contradictory manner in which the evidence of this pretended re-appearance of Christ is stated; the only point in which the writers agree is the skulking privacy of that reappearance; for whether it was in the recess of a mountain in Galilee, or a shut-up house in Jerusalem, it was still skulking. To what cause, then, are we to assign this skulking? On the one hand it is directly repugnant to the supposed or pretended end—that of convincing the world that Christ was risen; and, on the other hand, to have asserted the publicity of it would have exposed the writers of those books to public detection, and, therefore, they have been under the necessity of making it a private affair. [p. 238]

They tell us that Christ was the Son of God; in that case, he would have known everything; and he came upon earth to make known the will of God to man throughout the whole earth.

If this had been true, Christ would have known and would have been furnished with all the possible means of doing it; and would have instructed mankind, or at least his apostles, in the use of such of the means as they could use themselves to facilitate the accomplishment of the mission; consequently he would have instructed them in the art of printing, for the press is the tongue of the world, and without which, his or their preaching was less than a whistle compared to thunder.

Since then he did not do this, he had not the means necessary to the mission; and consequently had not the mission. [“Reply to the Bishop of Llandaff,” vol. IX, pp. 75-76]

Would a good God who possessed infinite power and wisdom leave most of his creatures in ignorance of the only knowledge that could save them from burning in hell forever?

Now, had the news of salvation by Jesus Christ been inscribed on the face of the sun and the moon, in characters that all nations would have understood, the whole earth had known it in twenty-four hours, and all nations would have believed it; whereas, though it is now almost two thousand years since, as they tell us, Christ came upon earth, not a twentieth part of the people of the earth know anything about it, and among those who do, the wiser part do not believe it. [“Examination of the Prophecies,” vol. IX, p. 291]

Incredibly, the priests who patched together the New Testament in the centuries after Christ and then voted on which writings were to be the “Word of God,” let pass a real howler of a contradiction:

The book of Luke, xxiv, makes Jesus ascend into heaven the very same day that it makes him rise from the grave. The book of Acts, i,3, says that he remained on earth forty days after his crucifixion. There is no believing what either of them says. [vol. IX, p. 149, from “The Prospect Papers”]

No one before Paine’s time seems to have noticed the embarrassing contradiction—or if they did, they prudently kept quiet about it; for as Paine observes:

While the terrors of the Church, and the tyranny of the State, hung like a pointed sword over Europe, men were commanded to believe what the Church told them, or go to the stake. All inquiries into the authenticity of the Bible were shut out by the Inquisition. We ought therefore to suspect that a great mass of information respecting the Bible, and the introduction of it into the world, has been suppressed by the united tyranny of Church and State, for the purpose of keeping people in ignorance, and which ought to be known. [vol. IX, pp. 143-144, from “The Prospect Papers”]

Paine points out other embarrassing problems in the allegedly Holy Bible:

... for it is said (and they have made Christ to say it of himself), Matt. chap. xii, ver. 40, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

But it happens, awkwardly enough, that Christ, according to their account, was but one day and two nights in the grave; about 36 hours, instead of 72; that is, the Friday night, the Saturday, and the Saturday night; for they say he was up on the Sunday morning by sunrise, or before. [p. 256]

Apparently the omniscient Creator of the universe can’t do simple arithmetic. (Tell that to the dishonest evangelists who prattle that the Bible is miraculously free of self-contradictions!)

Paine was genuinely shocked by the crude polytheism of the Christians, who replace the one God of Nature with three gods:

But when, according to the Christian Trinitarian scheme, one part of God is represented by a dying man, and another part, called the Holy Ghost, by a flying pigeon, it is impossible that belief can attach itself to such wild conceits ... The book called the book of Matthew says (chap. iii, verse 16), that the Holy Ghost descended in the shape of a dove. It might as well have said a goose; the creatures are equally harmless, and the one is as much of a nonsensical lie as the other. [pp. 279, 279n]

MORALITY

As we have seen, Paine was a devout man, far from being an atheist; but he believed atheism is a more honorable position than Christianity:

Is man ever to be the dupe of priestcraft, the slave of superstition? Is he never to have just ideas of his Creator? It is better not to believe there is a God than to believe of Him falsely. When we behold the mighty universe that surrounds us, and dart our contemplation into the eternity of space, filled with innumerable orbs revolving in eternal harmony, how paltry must the tales of the Old and New Testaments, profanely called the Word of God, appear to thoughtful man!

The stupendous wisdom and unerring order that reign and govern throughout this wondrous whole, and call us to reflection, put to shame the Bible! The God of eternity and of all that is real, is not the god of passing dreams and shadows of man’s imagination. The God of truth is not the god of fable; the belief of a god begotten and a god crucified, is a god blasphemed. It is making a profane use of reason. [vol. IX, pp. 202-203, from “An Essay on Dream”]

Christianity offers many irrational commandments:

... when it is said, as in the Testament, “If a man smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also”; it is assassinating the dignity of forebearance, and sinking man into a spaniel.

Loving of enemies is another dogma of feigned morality, and has besides no meaning ... to love in proportion to the injury, if it could be done, would be to offer a premium for crime ... to say that we can love voluntarily, and without a motive, is morally and physically impossible. Morality is injured by prescribing to it duties that, in the first place, are impossible to be performed; and, if they could be, would be productive of evil; or, as before said, be premiums for crime. [pp. 272-274]

And it debases character:

The dogma of the redemption is the fable of priestcraft invented since the time the New Testament was compiled, and the agreeable delusion of it suited with the depravity of immoral livers. When men are taught to ascribe all their crimes and vices to the temptations of the devil, and to believe that Jesus, by his death, rubs all off, and pays their passage to heaven gratis, they become as careless in morals as a spendthrift would be of money were he told that his father had engaged to pay off all his scores. It is a doctrine not only dangerous to morals in this world, but to our happiness in the next world, because it holds out such a cheap, easy, and lazy way of getting to heaven, as has a tendency to induce men to hug the delusion of it to their own injury. [vol. IX, pp. 108-109, from “The Prospect Papers”]

Upon hearing of a Missionary Society giving a copy of the Bible to an Indian tribe, Paine wrote:

It is to be hoped some humane person will, on account of our people on the frontiers, as well as of the Indians, undeceive them with respect to the present the missionaries have made them, and which they call a good book, containing, they say, the will and laws of the GREAT SPIRIT. Can those missionaries suppose that the assassination of men, women and children, and sucking infants, related in the books ascribed to Moses, Joshua, etc., and blasphemously said to be done by the command of the Lord, the Great Spirit, can be edifying to our Indian neighbors, or advantageous to us?

Is not the Bible warfare the same kind of warfare as the Indians themselves carry on, that of indiscriminate destruction, and against which humanity shudders? Can the horrid examples and vulgar obscenity with which the Bible abounds improve the morals or civilize the manners of the Indians? Will they learn sobriety and decency from drunken Noah and beastly Lot; or will their daughters be edified by the example of Lot’s daughters [who got their father drunk and then had sex with him—see Genesis chapter 19]?

Will the prisoners they take in war be treated the better by their knowing the horrid story of Samuel’s hewing Agag in pieces like a block of wood, or David’s putting them under harrows of iron?

Will not the shocking accounts of the destruction of the Canaanites, when the Israelites invaded their country, suggest the idea that we may serve them in the same manner, or the accounts stir them up to do the like to our people on the frontiers, and then justify the assassination by the Bible the missionaries have given them? Will those missionary societies never leave off doing mischief? [vol. IX, pp. 111-113, from “The Prospect Papers”]

Paine, I am sure, would be appalled to know that the self-deluded Christians are still clinging blindly to their “mischief” fully 200 years after his unanswerable book refuted Christianity for all time.

CONCLUSION

Paine described his life’s work as follows:

As in my political works my motive and object have been to give man an elevated sense of his own character, and free him from the slavish and superstitious absurdity of monarchy and hereditary government, so in my publications on religious subjects my endeavors have been directed to bring man to a right use of the reason that God has given him, to impress on him the great principles of divine morality, justice, mercy and a benevolent disposition ... unshackled by the fables of books pretending to be the Word of God. [“Examination of the Prophecies,” vol. IX, pp. 208-209]

But his courage in openly challenging popular superstition had a price. Most of his friends, including Sam Adams and Dr. Benjamin Rush, broke with him or ostracized him. Mobs who had never read The Age of Reason burnt him in effigy, cursing his name and vilifying him as a “blasphemer” and “atheist.” As the crowning insult, he was illegally denied the right to vote by local officials who claimed that, in spite of his service in the Revolutionary War, he was “not an American citizen.” Bigots drank to Paine’s damnation from cups on which his painted effigy was adorned with a devil’s horns, while popular songs consigned him to hell:

“Paine, Paine, damned be his name,

Damned be his fame and lasting his shame,

God damn Paine! God damn Paine!”

He became the most hated man in the English-speaking world. It is no wonder that men like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who shared most of Paine’s views, did not choose to broadcast them to the general public. The persecution continued even after Paine’s death, when his role in the American Revolution was downplayed by bigots—Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, slandering him as a “dirty little atheist.”

And some, I am sorry to say, paid an even heavier price for the cause of reason than Paine did.

I want to pause here to commemorate the boundless courage and dedication of the British printer Richard Carlile, who published The Age of Reason, knowing that His Majesty’s government would send him to prison for it:

A name not to be forgotten by those who value obscure service to human freedom is that of Richard Carlile, who between 1819 and 1835 underwent nine years’ imprisonment in his unyielding struggle for the freedom of the Press, of thought and of speech. [John M. Robertson, A Short History of Freethought, Ancient and Modern (1-volume edition), p. 386]

Carlile (1791-1843), a fearless republican, did his utmost to publish Paine’s writings and spread his ideas. The British government prosecuted him for blasphemy before a “packed” special jury, giving him no chance to defend himself. He fought back by publishing broadside accounts of the mock trial, and for his resistance he was cheered by hundreds of freedom-loving Englishmen who vowed not to let him or his ideals be forgotten. His wife and over 20 brave volunteers who worked in his bookstore were also jailed ... However, by the time Carlile was released he found that wealthy patrons stood ready to help him start his business over again. The tide had turned, the ideas of the Enlightenment had spread, and in the last years of his life he published and sold Paine’s works unmolested by the law. [source: editor’s note in the Patriots’ Edition, vol. IX, p. 307]

* * *

After Paine’s death no cemetery would accept his body—even the Quakers, the most tolerant of all Christian sects, refused him burial. So he was laid to rest on the grounds of his farm in New York; his body was later dug up, carried off to England, and lost. But Andrew Jackson said of him:

Thomas Paine needs no monument made by hands; he has erected a monument in the hearts of all lovers of liberty.

And his shining thoughts will live on as long as men still search for a rational view of existence. Thomas Edison, an officer of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, wrote:

It was my good fortune to encounter Thomas Paine’s works in my boyhood. I discovered a set of the writings of Paine on my father’s bookshelves when I was thirteen. It was, indeed, a revelation to me to read that great thinker’s views of political and theological subjects. Paine educated me then about many matters of which I had never before thought. I remember very vividly the flash of enlightenment that shone from Paine’s writings, and I recall thinking at that time “What a pity these works are not today the school-books for all children!” [introduction to the Patriots’ Edition, vol. I, p. vii]

What a pity, indeed!

Copyright © 1995 by Bill Bucko

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Great essay! Not only was Paine a great advocate against both religious morality and deterministic nihilism (which is what "atheism" meant at the time), he was a great patriot too, as you said. If not for his Common Sense, a very strong argument can be made that the American Revolution never would have gathered enough supporters. And again, without him, during the horrible 1776/7 winter at Valley Forge, the hopeless American army would never have held enough spirit.

"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot may, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

Immortal words.

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Wonderful essay, Mr. Bucko. It was a pleasure to read Thomas Paine's words again. I first discovered The Age Of Reason in my teens and it was the most riveting thing I had ever read. (Until two years later when I discovered Ayn Rand.)

There is a steely quality to his style that I love, and coming out of a religious upbringing his logic was a "miracle".

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Thank you, Free Capitalist, B. Royce, and Piz. Tom Paine certainly was a great stylist as well as a great thinker, and I was fortunate, many years ago, to find a nearly-complete set of the Patriot's Edition of his works. They are now available on CD:

http://www.bankofwisdom.com/catalog.php

as well as the writings of Thomas Jefferson. I own one of the other CDs in the Bank of Wisdom series, and it is of very high quality, very professionally done.

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I just ask about how you said it "launched the most devastating attack on Christianity ever to appear in print, defending the God of Nature against what he considered the fraud and slander of the Christians".

Was Ethan Allen's book(with very similar ideas and supporting details)REason:The Only Oracle of Man published before it or after it? It, to me, appeared to have the same overall attempt at bringing down christianity. At an Academic Bowl competition, they even quoted his book as the first anti-christian book published in America. Was this before Paine's, or was Paine's published somewhere other than America. I was just wondering.

Otherwise, great essay!

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Was Ethan Allen's book(with very similar ideas and supporting details)Reason:The Only Oracle of Man published before it or after it?

I haven't seen a copy of Reason the Only Oracle of Man since I was a grad student exploring the murky depths of the Purdue stacks, 30 years ago. As far as I can remember, it didn't impress me as nearly as comprehensive as Paine's magnificent book.

Happily, I just located a copy of Ethan Allen's book on line! It's at:

http://www.infidels.org/library/historical...cle_of_man.html

It gives the date of first publication as 1784. I look forward to reading it again and seeing if I need to revise my estimate. I just found there are also some printed copies for sale at www.AddAll.com, though none are inexpensive.

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