by Nick Gier
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, 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 revolution.
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 assail Christianity."
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 false as God is true."
Behind this irreverent rhetoric, 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.
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.
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."
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.
Nick Gier taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read his essay "Religious Liberalism and the Founding Fathers" at http://www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/foundfathers.htm Read or listen to his other columns at http://www.NickGier.com.
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