Friday, February 11, 2011

Thomas Paine, from "The Age of Reason"

--Paine wrote "The Age of Reason" to offer a public version of his religious views. Compare his "profession of faith" with Franklin's comments in his private autobiography. Do you think that they differ greatly or are they similar? Where are they similar or different?

--Paine offers a critique of the central place of revelation in the dominant organized religions and links the Christian Church to "heathen mythology." If you are a believer, how do you respond or refute his argument? (This could be a rather personal question and I ask this with reservations--I personally intend no attack upon anyone's beliefs here and if you feel uncomfortable answering it, you can avoid it).

--This was a very controversial text when it was published in 1794; would it still be controversial? Could an American public figure (i.e., a politician) today publish this without consequences?


  1. Paine and Franklin have extremely similar views of religion and they both seem to hold very true to the Enlightenment ideals. On pg. 643 of the text, Paine states, “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.” This is extremely similar to what Franklin said of his creation of “The Art of Virtue” on pg. 532, “It might be serviceable to people in all religions.” With this acceptance of all religions both of their religious views fit in with the cosmopolitan ideal of Enlightenment. These views they hold also have a strong focus on the freedom of the individual to make their own choices about their beliefs. Also, the doubt that Franklin had about religion that stemmed from books he read as a child was evident in Paine’s work as well. On pg. 645 Paine gives numerous examples of classic biblical stories and states why he chooses not to believe them saying, “It is hearsay upon hearsay, and I do not choose to rest my belief upon such evidence.” Overall I think that Paine was much more outspoken about his religious beliefs where as Franklin chose to be more subtle. He didn’t outright state specific issues he had with any religious text as Paine did. Regardless of that difference it is extremely clear that Paine holds strong beliefs in the Enlightenment ideals such as trust in method, faith in education and belief in progress when he discusses the sciences through the later portion of his work. These were all ideals that we discussed in regard to Franklin as well, focusing slightly less on actual sciences but still upholding the importance of these ideals through industry and hard work.

    --Jessica Schuster

  2. --This was a very controversial text when it was published in 1794; would it still be controversial? Could an American public figure (i.e., a politician) today publish this without consequences?

    I'm afraid that I might not have a lot to say about this question besides just giving an unequivocal "yes." When Mike Huckabee calls out Mitch Romney for being Mormon ("Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?" from a New York Times Magazine interview), which would surely be favorable to one of faith over someone making anti-religion remarks, then a politician publishing "The Age of Reason" today would be big news.

    Paine makes no attempt to steer away from controversy with his essay. With statements like "[the Christian faith] appears to me as a species of atheism; a sort of religious denial fo God," Paine's essay would be political suicide in today's society. JFK had a tough time getting people to move beyond the fact that he was Catholic. Obama still faces scrutiny over whether he is Christian of Muslim. With this being the case, a man who not only was not Christian, but also insulted Christianity, would face no chance at furthering his political career. While he (or she, and this applies to all my previous pronoun usages, also) might still be electable to the House (which is 8.4% Jewish, 2.6% Mormon, .9% unknown, .6% other, and .4% Muslim or Buddhist), they would still have to find the right district to elect them. Advancing to running for president would be virtually out of the question.

  3. Thomas Paine’s religion bashing doesn’t seem at all controversial according to today’s standards. It’s almost unoriginal. It’s easy to knock the church. The Daily Show and Cobert Report do at least weekly—and theirs is more entertaining.

    Paine speculates that there are priests out there who just do it for money. There are probably a few, but there are much easier ways to make money than to fake life-long celibacy so I say let them have it—they earned it. Paine also professes that religious people need to be mentally faithful, and that infidelity is the act of professing to believe something that they do not believe. No doubt millions of sermons have been given over time with this same idea as the main point. This idea is probably the first chapter covered for ministers and priests and pastors and imams and rabbis in Sermon Fundamentals 101 at theology school. It’s an old idea that Paine seems late to the party for.

    I doubt any politician would publish this type of essay today. Not in this country anyway. Right now we seem to be holding onto the presidential tradition of saying “in god we trust” at the end of every major address. Politicians operate in a constant fear of alienation—they don’t want to alienate any potential voters. There are enough people out there who are already single-issue voters (pro/con abortion etc) so writing something like this would lose huge numbers voters. Obama received 26% of evangelicals’ votes when he won in ‘08 ( No politician is going to risk an election just to keep their religious fidelity intact.

  4. Personally, I think it'd be very interesting if a politician today were to publish something like "The Age of Reason" in today's world. Certainly there would be repercussions, but at the same time, when you look at the things that politicians have said over the past few years, they continue to get more and more appalling. It seems as though people disregard what was once considered inappropriate. As cliche as it sounds, the times are changing, and resultantly, people, especially politicians, have become much more blunt.

    That being said, if someone were to publish this in the present time, it would clearly offend a large population of religious America. In particular, the line, "As to the Christian system of faith, it appears to me as a species of atheism; a sort of religious denial of God" would be sure to offend those who are very religious. Publishing this would negatively influence the politician's success. It would most likely be the target of lots of debate and criticism. Yet although it would be considered offensive or controversial by many, many others would hardly be stirred by it. Since "The Age of Reason" is so candid and honest, it would really depend on each reader as to his or her own reaction. Undoubtedly, it would receive lots of negative backlash, and any negativity would threaten to ruin a politician's career. No politician wants to or can afford to lose supporters, but this would be an easy way to do so if "The Age of Reason" was published today.

  5. I think that something like this could be published by a politician today, and there would be more than one result of it.

    The first result would be (of course) extremely controversial, and he/she may get attacked for having such a strong opinion about religions. Having boldly come forward and go down the list of religions that you don't respect would be branded disrespectful because people tip-toe around religion these days. While religion itself have been banned in some ways from public classrooms, it seemed that if a politician came out with such material, even though it's not exactly Christian, Jewish or Turkish material, he would be attacked, simply because it was on the subject of God and Revelations, and people are conscious how (if) they converse about such.

    A second possible result would be that of a positive one. Because we live in something like a "Yes Generation", where almost everything is tolerable, he/she would possibly find him/herself with followers. Seeing that a lot of people tend to follow science, even in the Christian church, people would see this literature as holding some actuality to it. Especially with the saying "My own mind is my own church" (643). I hear a lot of people (even Christians) saying that their mind is their church. A lot of people in this generation (that I know) shy away from the religion, but not the spiritual aspect of God. Or they just shy away from religion and spiritual, and focus on science.

  6. I wrote my post in Word and apparently it had too many characters for a single entry so here's Part I...

    Paine’s critique of the origins of Christianity is neither novel nor an opinion isolated within the period contemporary to his writings, which to me the reader, serves to deaden their incendiary intent more than the author may like. As a religious person who simultaneously lives with openly skeptical notions of his own Christian belief tradition, I readily acknowledge that the Bible’s value as a sacred text is derived from the seat of primacy it holds within the Western literary canon and the global philosophical and cultural influence that Western political and economic hegemony has brought it.

    Within the Bible I see myriad inflections of culture and belief that are idiosyncratic to the times in which the various portions of the text are written that are not compatible with the traditions and practices of contemporary society. These would include the Gospels, to which Paine refers in The Age of Reason, which do function, in my concurring opinion, by and large to create a mythology whose structure is strongly allusive to the “heathen” faith practices of Ancient Rome. However, the delivery and tone of Paine’s arguments make it apparent that he has made up his mind on the matter and is not interested in investigating or buttressing this claim any further. I would assert that whether the structural parallels of these respective belief systems are a specific result of the environment in which early Christian theology first coalesced, under the auspices of the polytheistic pagan beliefs of the dominant Latin culture, or are instead an example of the broader archetypal “monomyth” phenomenon espoused by the likes of eminent 20th century anthropologist and philosopher Joseph Campbell, is open for debate, as it is in essence a matter of causation vs. correlation. This is important because if Paine is to argue that Christianity is a mere re-working of the dominant pagan belief system that preceded it, then he diminishes the faith’s declaration and ambition to function as a creed of universal principle, debates about the veracity of its origins aside. As a believer whose faith choice has largely come to rest upon the merits of its structural utility, I take issue with Paine’s summary dismissal of the cultural and belief traditions outside of the Hellenistic world that influenced early Christianity. I am not saying his claims are necessarily incorrect, yet they are neither fully informed. To read the Gospel tales of origins without having first gleaned the Old Testament is akin to reading The Diary of Anne Frank in school without having learned the faintest notion of what the Holocaust was. Paine’s removal of context is to an extent insulting, both to his readers and his own magnanimous intellect.

  7. ...and here's Part II.

    Regarding his quibbles with the nature of spiritual revelation, it is here that his arguments gain more traction from a rationalist’s perspective. His problem with the way religious literature is disseminated among adherents and then cocooned in an aura of unquestioning veneration is not one that can be attacked from counter-arguments based upon reason. Any assault on his assertions must be faith-based appeals to the power of divine revelation and the infallibility of the temporal manifestations of God’s willful communications and documented interactions with select individuals on earth. Such arguments are ipso facto unable to answer the queries of rational discourse. Yet Paine again stumbles to an extent in assuming, or appearing to assume, that such matters can find resolution. As modern readers and thinkers, we have hopefully gained the critical abilities necessary to come to the conclusion that the human intellect, neither individually nor collectively, will ever achieve the capacity to definitively answer such questions for all individuals in all places living at all times. While mankind has throughout history attributed to metaphysical forces what today science can explain through physical ones, we must still do well to recognize what we can never know. For this reason, the concepts of faith and religion will always find relevance in some degree to the experiences of the human condition. It is, in my view, sometimes more rational to accept that reliance on a higher power for explanation is more prudent than the arrogant notion that through our own facility, we can determine that which is indeterminable.