In The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine is driven by the same impulses that energize such earlier works as the pamphlet Common Sense (1776) and a series of papers gathered under the title The American Crisis (1776-1783). In Rights of Man (1791-1792) he expresses his hatred of enslavement and his belief that all people have the natural right to be free of all tyranny—physical, mental, and spiritual. Benjamin Franklin once said, “Where liberty is, there is my country.” Paine replied, “Where liberty is not, there is mine.” This idealistic altruism motivated him to give his writings to the world without hope of financial remuneration.
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In approach and style, The Age of Reason is similar also to the earlier works. The author is direct, candid, and simple; he appeals to common sense and presents what to him is overwhelming evidence for his arguments. The author is at times ironic, jeering, or sarcastic. He never writes down to his audience or forgets for whom he is writing.
It is one of the ironies of the literary and theological world that The Age of Reason, which, although written to express the author’s doubts regarding traditional religion, was intended primarily to save the world from atheism, brought against Paine the charge of atheism. Paine, in The Age of Reason, seeks to combat atheism. As a result of this book, the great reputation he earlier enjoyed as one of the prime movers in the Revolutionary War was blackened. Paine became feared throughout America because of his alleged atheism.
Paine’s doubts about conventional religion were deep. John Adams said that Paine had them in 1776, and Paine says in The Age of Reason that he had entertained such ideas for many years. Paine’s ideas grew out of his idealistic view that the human condition could be better. They were strengthened by the influences of his Quakerism; by his Newtonian bent toward science; by the examples of classical antiquity in the teachings of such people as Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato and the great society in which they lived; and by the revelations of research into Eastern religions. Paine was one of the early comparative religionists.
The Age of Reason is subtitled Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology. In the dedication to his “Fellow-Citizens of the United States of America,” Paine insists that the views he is about to express are his alone, and he reaffirms his belief in the right of all to form their own opinions, for to deny the right of all to their own beliefs leads to slavery. He will, therefore, he says, examine all aspects of life, especially religion, with reason.
Paine’s own position is made clear from the start. He believes in one God, and, like all Newtonians, he professes the Deistic hope for happiness in another world because, contrary to the Calvinistic doctrines that he detests, Deism affords a happiness not found in other religions. Paine states explicitly that he does not believe in the creeds professed by any churches, for his own mind is his tabernacle. All national institutions of faith and dogma have been instituted to rule over the lives of people, he opines.
The universal purpose of churches—to beguile or to deceive the people—is strengthened by another characteristic churches have in common: the pretense of some special mission from God communicated to certain individuals, for example, Moses to the Jews, Jesus Christ to the Christians, Mahomet to the Turks. These revelations must be accepted on faith because there is never a pragmatic truth to grant their validity.
Paine has no criticism of Jesus, who was, Paine feels, a virtuous and amiable man. Jesus, Paine notes, wrote nothing about his so-called special mission on Earth. Thus, all accounts about him were written by others, many long after his death. For this reason they are open to suspicion. That Jesus existed is an unquestionable historical fact, and that he preached morality is certain. That he claimed to be the Savior of the world, however, is suspect. Further, most of the writings about Jesus as Savior, the bases of Christianity, differ very little from the writings of other mythologies. Such writings, written by limited and particular human minds, calumniate the wisdom of the Almighty.
Paine examines in detail the whole structure of Christianity. He investigates the books of the Old Testament. He seizes upon the Apocrypha, rejected by those who established the biblical canon, and concludes that all books were chosen arbitrarily; had others been chosen or rejected, the present basic structure of Christianity would have been altered. The books that were chosen are filled with “obscene” stories, “voluptuous debaucheries,” and “cruel and torturous executions” that constitute a “history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.” Paine detests these stories, as he despises all cruelty. The Proverbs, attributed to Solomon, are inferior to the proverbs of the Spaniards and are less wise and economical than those of Benjamin Franklin. Here, as elsewhere, Paine demonstrates his great respect for the wisdom and general goodness of Franklin, who was instrumental in getting Paine to come to America in 1774.
The New Testament, Paine claims, is likewise spurious. Had Jesus been truly the Savior of humanity, he surely would have arranged to have this knowledge transmitted to the world during his lifetime. He was in fact a Son of God only in the way all people are children of God, and the falsehoods about his divinity were written after his death. Like scholars interested in comparative mythologies, Paine notes that it is curious that all leaders of religions come from obscure or unusual parentage: “Moses was a foundling; Jesus was born in a stable; Mahomet was a mule driver.”
Having destroyed the sanctity of the Bible as a basis of religion, Paine asks if there is no word of God, no revelation. A Deist, his response is without equivocation. The true theology is nature, and the “word of God is the Creation we behold,” and only in the Creation are united all of humanity’s “ideas and conceptions of a word of God.” To Paine, God is a first cause. Here, with an adroitness and wit more characteristic of his earlier works, he turns the Christian’s own assertions against him. The Christian “system of faith,” he says, seems to be a “species of atheism,” a kind of “denial of God,” for it believes in a man rather than in the true God and interposes “between man and his Maker an opaque body, which it calls a Redeemer.” All such beliefs run counter to Deism, the belief in one Deity who is wise and benign.
The Christian belief in miracles brings forth from Paine his bitterest tirades, almost as fiery and heated as they were in his earlier works. Mysteries, he says, run counter to true religion. He jeeringly examines the miracle of the whale swallowing Jonah and concludes that although it approaches the marvelous, it would have been much more marvelous if Jonah had swallowed the whale. He derides especially the “most extraordinary” of all miracles of the New Testament, that of Satan flying Jesus to the top of a high mountain and promising him all the kingdoms throughout the world. Paine wonders why both then did not discover America; he questions whether “his sooty highness” was interested only in kingdoms.
One of Paine’s more amusing refutations of biblical lore is found in part 2. His book is clearly serious in intent, but he delights in poking fun wherever possible. He attacks the wisdom of Solomon as claimed in Ecclesiastes. Paine affirms that Solomon should have cried out that “All is vanity,” for with seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, how could any man in retrospect conclude anything else? Then Paine contrasts Solomon with Franklin, whom he glorifies almost to deification; he claims that Franklin is wiser than Solomon, for his “mind was ever young, his temper ever serene; science, that never grows gray, was always his mistress.”
Between the writing of part 1 and part 2 Paine spent eleven months in a French prison. Believing that part 1 had been written in too great haste without a Bible handy for reference, Paine attempts in part 2 to buttress his former statements with details. He directs part 1 against the “three frauds, mystery, miracle, and prophecy,” and he intends to blast revelation in part 2, for although all things are possible with God, he is against the use of “pretended revelation,” which is “the imposition of one man upon another.” He believes that most of the wickedness, the greatest cruelties, and the miseries that have broken the human race originated in the hoax called revelation. Whereas Deism teaches without any possibility of deceit, Christianity thrives on deceit. Religion becomes form instead of fact, “of notion instead of principle,” and morality is replaced by faith, which had its beginnings in a “supposed debauchery.”
Part 2 attacks the Bible as an imperfect collection of words, not as a statement of religion. Except in details, in more evidence, and in more direct examination and refutation, part 2 advances Paine’s thesis little beyond its points in part 1. Paine ends part 2, as he generally ends his works, with a challenge to the reader. He shows, he says, that the Bible is filled with “impositions and forgeries,” and he invites readers to refute him if they can. He hopes that his ideas will cause readers to think for themselves, for he is certain that when opinions are allowed to thrive in a free air “truth will finally and powerfully prevail.”
Paine’s style and technique are uniquely his. He is candid in approach and unrelenting in carrying out his thesis. His style is simple, honest, direct, and free of all cant and reverence. His subject matter and his approach led to his being accused of being unscientific and vulgar. When it was first announced that Paine was going to write on the subject of religion, many Americans approved. As the work appeared, reprinted far and wide in newspapers, approval turned to disapprobation. His reputation was so blackened that after his return to the United States in 1802 he found himself virtually without friends. Paine’s pen was always his most important weapon, but the reputation that his earlier writings created was what The Age of Reason destroyed.