BIRTHDAY TOM PAINE
(January 29, 1737)
Patriot and Vilified Theologian
In 1975 America was preparing to celebrate its
Bicentennial, and I wanted to write something special for the occasion. There
was a program on NPR in which Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as calling Tom Paine
"a dirty little atheist." That comment definitely piqued my interest, and I
decided that I would research the religious views of our founding thinkers. The
result was an article "Religious Liberalism and the
Founding Fathers," which I presented at the Bicentennial Symposium of
Philosophy in New York City in October of 1976.
Thomas Paine did more for the
success of the American Revolution than any other thinker. As Lafayette once
said, "Free America without Thomas Paine is unthinkable." Practically every
literate American read Paine’s "Common Sense." The illiterate, among whom were
many of Washington’s soldiers, were indirectly inspired by it.
A later book by Paine, Age of
Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology, was also
widely read in America, but this time Americans, in an incredible display of
religious intolerance, turned against the great patriot. Paine quickly realized
that, contrary to his prediction, the revolution for complete religious liberty
and freedom of thought had not followed upon the heels of the political
Paine’s reputation did not improve
as Americans, who knew Age of Reason, looked back in retrospect. As I
said above, Theodore Roosevelt condemned Paine as an atheist and also declared:
"There are infidels and infidels, but Paine belonged to the variety … that
apparently esteems a bladder of dirty water as the proper weapon with which to
If one reads Age of Reason, one must agree
that Paine’s criticism of Christianity is not a model of diplomatic scholarship.
The tone of the book is aptly portrayed in this statement concerning the virgin
birth: "Jesus Christ, begotten, they say, by a ghost, whom they call holy, on
the body of a woman, engaged in marriage, and after married . . . a theory
which, speaking for myself, I hesitate not to disbelieve, and to say, is as
fabulous and as false as God is true."
Behind irreverent rhetoric like the
above, there are some interesting and, for some who read it, compelling points.
Paine makes it clear that he is not an atheist. In fact, he claims that his book
is designed to counter the effects of atheism. In his opinion, Christianity is
founded on such poor arguments that it, rather than subduing atheism,
unwittingly promotes its spread in the world.
The first axiom of Paine’s theology
is that there is God and his creation and "no more." What he meant by this "no
more" is this: no more idolatry of the Bible as the Word of God, no more
deification of Jesus the man and moral teacher, no miracles, no angels, no Hell,
no original sin, and no Trinity. All of these additions to the first axiom are
erroneous or mythical, and are actually detrimental to the cause of religion.
There is an interesting connection
between Paine and Joel Barlow, who shared the same religious views and who was
entrusted with a copy of Age of Reason while Paine was in a French
prison. Barlow’s main claim to fame was the diplomat who negotiated the Treaty
of Tripoli with the notorious Barbary Pirates. The beginning of 11th
article of the treaty is the following: "As the Government of the United States
of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion . . . ."
President Washington approved the treaty and it was ratified, with no recorded
debate, by the Senate on June 7, 1797. President Adams signed it on June 10,
1797 and it was first published in the Session Laws of the Fifth Congress, first
session in 1797.
An investigation of the Arabic copy
of the treaty reveals that the 11th article is very different. All
that is stated here is a principle of general religious tolerance: that
Christians should respect Muslims when in America and vice versa. There is
nothing at all in the Arabic to support Barlow’s strong statement. There is a
good possibility that, long before the dirty tricks of America’s Religious
Right, Barlow committed one of first deceptions of early America’s Religious
Perhaps the most interesting points
that Paine makes in Age of Reason are the objections he raises against
the concept of Revelation. Orthodox Christians take the entire Bible as pure
Revelation, a direct and immediate message from God. Paine observes, however,
that most of the Bible is straightforward historical fact or fancy that is not
of this character at all.
When Revelation is purported to have
occurred, as in the case of Moses, God was speaking to one person and one person
only. Revelation is always in the first person and therefore it is, by legal
definition, only hearsay if the message goes beyond the single person.
For Paine true Revelation is nature
itself. Human language cannot serve as God’s medium; it is too fragile and
inadequate. Nature, however, is "an ever-existing original which every man can
read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it
cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of
man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of
the earth to the other. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this
word of God reveals to man all that is necessary for man to know of God."
This is called natural theology and
even the Apostle Paul supports it in the Book of Romans (1:19-20), and those who
fail to see the existence of God in "the things that have been made . . . are
without excuse." The Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas built the fundamentals of
Christian theology on what human reason could clearly affirm.
The full implication of this theory
is Paine’s declaration that the true language of religion was the language of
science. Paine sums up his religious creed in this statement: "The Almighty
Lecturer, by displaying the principles of science in the structure of the
universe, has invited man to study and imitation. It is as if He said to the
inhabitants of this globe, that we call ours, ‘I have made an earth for man to
dwell upon, and I have rendered the starry heavens visible, to teach him science
and the arts. He can now provide for his own comfort, and learn from my
munificence to all, to be kind to each other.’ "
Such was the New Gospel of the great
patriot, Thomas Paine. But because of this new gospel, Paine was vilified by a
people whom he had helped to become free. Religious liberals such as John Adams
rejected him; the sponsor for his return to America, Thomas Jefferson, who
agreed with his religious views, shunned him out of political expediency; and
his own Quakers refused to bury him. There were only six people at his funeral
and two of them were African Americans.
Tom Paine, the voice of the American
Revolution, deserved much, much better than this.