Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason

In Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, The Age of Reason, Paine makes the claim that we should reject organized religion, Christianity in particular, because of the absurdity of revelation, the proposed truths they assert, and that the study of nature through science is a much better guarantor of truth than the superstitions and myths of religion. In Paine’s letter to Samuel Adams, he lays out the reasons for this critique of religion in his time:

I have said in the first page of the first part of that work that it had long been my intention to publish my thoughts upon religion, but that I had reserved it to a later time of life. I have now to inform you why I wrote it and published it at the time I did.

In the first place, I saw my life in continual danger. My friends were falling as fast as the guillotine could cut their heads off, and as I every day expected the same fate, I resolved to begin my work. I appeared to myself to be on my death-bed, for death was on every side of me, and I had no time to lose. This accounts for my writing it at the time I did…

Also, soon after writing “Common Sense,” Paine, “saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion.” As is shown by this letter, Paine talked about how he was afraid for his life and his “friends were falling as fast as the guillotine could cut their heads off.” Paine noticed that holding certain opinions is perilous under the government he lived in. In many parts of the world today it is difficult to hold certain beliefs about religion without being persecuted or even killed. The solution is to make an environment in which criticism of anything, even religion, is welcomed or at least bearable. The Age of Reason tried to help achieve that and break the hold that faith and organized religion had on people. In the words of Karl Marx, which beautifully convey and emphasize this point, in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:

Criticism [of religion] has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation but so that he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man to make him think and act and shape his reality like a man who has been disillusioned and has come to reason, so that he will revolve round himself and therefore round his true sun. Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves round man as long as he does not revolve round himself.

The first part of The Age of Reason contains his central arguments against organized religion, Christianity in particular, and a vindication of his own belief system, natural religion, or deism. In Chapter I, Paine gives an explanation of his belief in a creator god, “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.” He believed in a god that created the universe but did not involve himself in affairs of human beings. Therefore, he wasn’t an atheist. Paine says “My own mind is my own church”. Paine believes that all organized religions are “inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” He goes on to say that he does not “condemn those who believe”, but only condemns their religion. It’s analogous to saying that smoking is a filthy habit and recognizing that all smokers are not filthy people. He goes on to say that the merging and connection of church and state is “adulterous”. Throughout The Age of Reason, Paine’s comicality shines with quite witty summaries and remarks against religion.

In Chapter II, Paine goes on to lay out his opinions on “divine revelation”, the means in which a god reveals direct instruction to humans on how to live. “Every national church or religion,” Paine proclaims, has “established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet; as if the way to God was not open to every man alike.” On miracles, Paine writes, “Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie?” Paine believed that the only word of God is “the creation we behold”. He notices that if the creator of the universe gave humans instruction that he would most likely (if he is a just god) give it to all and not some particular person in a particular part of the world; in turn leaving many blind to the good news. “It is revelation to the first person only,” Paine says, discussing the unlikeliness of revelation. Revelation, is therefore limited to only one person. And to everyone else that hears of it isn’t hearing revelation but something at second hand. Paine says of those who hear of the “revelation” that they are not “obliged to believe it”. Paine warns not to believe things mainly on people’s word and not take things on faith but with evidence. Paine gives an example of Moses telling the children of Israel about receiving the 10 commandments, “They were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so; and I have no other authority for it than some historian telling me so.” Therefore, we should not believe anything on hearsay and should investigate further and only base our beliefs on evidence. Rumors seem to have been the way religions thrived long ago and Paine advises us to take these rumors lightly and challenge them.

How similar is the story of Jesus’ birth and of God impregnating a human compared to Greek mythology? Paine thinks it was surely similar, and quite common of a belief, “It was not a new thing at that time to believe a man to have been celestially begotten; the intercourse of gods with women was then a matter of familiar opinion.” Another aspect of Christianity that Paine pokes fun at is the story of Adam and Eve and the Satan being introduced as a talking serpent. Paine, very bluntly and accurately, shows how silly the story of Christianity is:

The Christian mythologists, after having confined Satan in a pit, were obliged to let him out again to bring on the sequel of the fable. He is then introduced into the garden of Eden in the shape of a snake, or a serpent, and in that shape he enters into familiar conversation with Eve, who is no ways surprised to hear a snake talk; and the issue of this tete-a-tate is, that he persuades her to eat an apple, and the eating of that apple damns all mankind.

Paine then summarizes most of Christianity with discussion of the virgin birth, god impregnating a woman, and the canonization of saints, with “The Christian theory is little else than the idolatry of the ancient mythologist, accommodated to the purposes of power and revenue; and it yet remains to reason and philosophy to abolish the amphibious fraud.” In Chapter VIII, Paine criticizes the doctrine of vicarious redemption, in which Christianity has its foundation. He says that Jesus dying on the cross for everyone’s sins is immoral. He explains with an analogy:

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.

And then Paine analyzes the believer and prayer:

Yet, with all this strange appearance of humility, and this contempt for human reason, he ventures into the boldest presumptions. He finds fault with everything. His selfishness is never satisfied; his ingratitude is never at an end. He takes on himself to direct the Almighty what to do, even in the government of the universe. He prays dictatorially. When it is sunshine, he prays for rain, and when it is rain, he prays for sunshine. He follows the same idea in everything that he prays for; for what is the amount of all his prayers, but an attempt to make the Almighty change his mind, and act otherwise than he does? It is as if he were to say—thou knowest not so well as I.

In the next couple of chapters of The Age of Reason, Paine talks about many different aspects of Christianity and how they are absurd. In Chapter VI, Paine talks about the “true theology,” deism. Paine calls the universe a gift and something to marvel at instead of the story of the burning bush, “But if objects for gratitude and admiration are our desire, do they not present themselves every hour to our eyes? Do we not see a fair creation prepared to receive us the instant we are born—a world furnished to our hands, that cost us nothing?” He is referring to miracles and that we don’t need to believe in them because everything we see is filled more with beauty and elegance and mystery than the stories in religion. The study of nature and of “creation” should fulfill us, Paine implies. Later in the paragraph, he refers to the universe that we take for granted in place of religion, “Or is the gloomy pride of man become so intolerable, that nothing can flatter it but a sacrifice of the Creator?”

Paine sees an alternative to revelation and religion. He says that nature is our revelation and that the universe our word of God, “The word of God is the creation we behold: And it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man.” To study nature through science is to truly understand God, Paine suggests. He goes on to say that nature, or science, speaks all languages; that it is a universal language and can be known by all peoples. Language, Paine says, is “local and changeable”. This is why so many people across the world can come together to solve problems through the scientific method, which, penetrates even language and Paine knew this; being a scientist and astronomer himself. Here, Paine shows the universality of science and nature, “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”. Instead of revelation, Paine says, the world around us can be the means to knowing and understanding God.

Thomas Paine believed that the idea of God sending Jesus to give this revelation to the rest of the world was inconsistent with how the universe works:

The idea that God sent Jesus Christ to publish, as they say, the glad tidings to all nations, from one end of the earth unto the other, is consistent only with the ignorance of those who know nothing of the extent of the world, and who believed, as those world-saviours believed, and continued to believe for several centuries, (and that in contradiction to the discoveries of philosophers and the experience of navigators,) that the earth was flat like a trencher; and that a man might walk to the end of it.

Paine questioned why we should believe those who didn’t know the planet was round, or that the earth orbits the sun, because why would a god give this message to people who were so ignorant of the cosmos? Here, Paine summarizes Christianity and points to science as an alternative:

Putting then aside, as matter of distinct consideration, the outrage offered to the moral justice of God, by supposing him to make the innocent suffer for the guilty, and also the loose morality and low contrivance of supposing him to change himself into the shape of a man, in order to make an excuse to himself for not executing his supposed sentence upon Adam; putting, I say, those things aside as matter of distinct consideration, it is certain that what is called the Christian system of faith, including in it the whimsical account of the creation—the strange story of Eve, the snake, and the apple—the amphibious idea of a man-god—the corporeal idea of the death of a god—the mythological idea of a family of gods, and the Christian system of arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three, are all irreconcilable, not only to the divine gift of reason, that God has given to man, but to the knowledge that man gains of the power and wisdom of God by the aid of the sciences, and by studying the structure of the universe that God has made.

In Part II of The Age of Reason, Paine continues his criticism of religion by picking apart the Bible specifically:

It has often been said that anything may be proved from the Bible; but before anything can be admitted as proved by the Bible, the Bible itself must be proved to be true; for if the Bible be not true, or the truth of it be doubtful, it ceases to have authority, and cannot be admitted as proof of anything.

Throughout Part II, Paine looks into whether or not the Bible has sufficient authority to be considered proof or evidence of anything. First he wants to see if the books of ascribed to Moses, Joshua, and Samuel were actually written by them; Moses, having supposedly written Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And then sheds light on many of the contradictions in the books. If they were not written by their supposed authors then “every part of the authority and authenticity of those books is gone at once; for there can be no such thing as forged or invented testimony”. Then, in Chapter II, he will move on to the New Testament and reveal more contradictions. Here, he will discover whether or not the words of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John are worth listening to.

The character of Moses, as mentioned by Paine, “is the most horrid that can be imagined. If those accounts be true, he was the wretch that first began and carried on wars on the score or on the pretense of religion; and under that mask, or that infatuation, committed the most unexampled atrocities that are to be found in the history of any nation”. One instance that Paine brings attention to regarding a story about Moses is in the Old Testament book Numbers:

And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp; and Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle; and Moses said unto them, ‘Have ye saved all the women alive?’ behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, ‘kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known a man by lying with him; but all the women-children that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.'”

Paine detested Moses because of his villainy and utter brutality. In the last line, Moses orders to kill everyone except the virgins. What else can be more callous than this? After these verses in Numbers, is the account of reward and plunder of these crimes against humanity. Summarizing this account in one sentence, Paine writes, “In short, the matters contained in this chapter, as well as in many other parts of the Bible, are too horrid for humanity to read, or for decency to hear; for it appears, from the 35th verse of this chapter, that the number of women-children consigned to debauchery by the order of Moses was thirty-two thousand”. Then Paine articulates in addressing the Old Testament as not the word of God, but a “book of lies”:

People in general know not 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 greater blasphemy, than to ascribe the wickedness of man to the orders of the Almighty!

In Part III, Paine moves on to the New Testament to tête-à-tête about the story of Jesus Christ, and whether or not the story is probable or not. Paine writes, “There are, however, some glaring contradictions, which, exclusive of the fallacy of the pretended probphecies, are sufficient to show the story of Jesus Christ to be false”. Here, we have a situation where four writers, Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John; are purported to be telling the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Paine explains the situation given here about the implications of this story if each of the books contradict or disagree with one another:

I lay it down as a position which cannot be controverted, first, that the agreement of all the parts of a story does not prove that story to be true, because the parts may agree, and the whole may be false; secondly, that the disagreement of the parts of a story proves the whole cannot be true. The agreement does not prove truth, but the disagreement proves falsehood positively.

Early on this topic Paine discusses the contradictions of the genealogies of Jesus that they contain. But, these are spurious compared to the contradictions of what Jesus said, when he said it, who was there, and so on. First, he goes on to write that the writers didn’t even agree on the inscription that was supposedly put over Jesus as he hung from the cross. And besides, Paine writes, “Mark says, He [Jesus] was crucified at the third hour, (nine in the morning;) and John says it was the sixth hour, (twelve at noon.) Why would these writers disagree on such an important detail? He certainly couldn’t have been crucified at both times so either Mark is wrong and John is right, or both are wrong. In the book of Mathew, the inscription is “This is Jesus the king of the Jews”; in Mark “The king of the Jews”; in Luke “This is the king of the Jews”; and in John “Jesus of Nazareth the king of the Jews”. Did they all see four different inscriptions? This is very unlikely. Paine says that we can conclude from these circumstances “trivial as they are” that the writers of these books were surely not present at the scene of the crucifixion. So then, how can we believe these accounts since they differ? Paine points out in the book of Mathew which says:

There was a darkness over all the land from the sixth hour unto the ninth hour—that the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom—that there was an earthquake—that the rocks rent—that the graves opened, that the bodies of many of the saints that slept arose and came out of their graves after the resurrection, and went into the holy city and appeared unto many.

But this account is not mentioned by the other writers. Paine writes that the author of Mark, Luke, and John make no allusion to anything of the sort. But how can none of the other “eye-witnesses” leave out such an astounding circumstance in which people rose from their graves and wondered throughout Jerusalem? And also of the earthquake and the total darkness? All of these writers should have recorded the earthquake or the mass resurrections if both would have happened. Paine writes of the inanity of the writers, “it was not possible for them, as true historians, even without the aid of inspiration, not to have recorded them.” During the resurrection, the writers also disagree and not trivially either. Paine notices that the writers don’t agree on how many angels there were at the resurrection or how many women witnesses were there or if in earthquake occurred at the time of the resurrection or not:

Mathew says, that the angel that was sitting upon the stone on the outside of the sepulcher told the two Marys that Christ was risen, and that the women went away quickly. Mark says, that the women, upon seeing the stone rolled away, and wondering at it, went into the sepulcher, and that it was the angel that was sitting within on the right side, that told them so. Luke says, it was the two angels that were standing up; and John says, it was Jesus Christ himself that told it to Mary Magdalene; and that she did not go into the sepulcher, but only stooped down and looked in.

Then, Paine remarks on how this situation of the irreconcilable accounts would stand water in his time:

Now, if the writers of these 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 cropt 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.

Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, lays out an evident and convincing critique of organized faith and provokes us to stay clear from believing with all absolute certainty in religious scripture because they are full of voids and cavities of illogic, murder, and vileness. And that these myths are smaller than nothing in comparison to the universe and the study of nature through science and provides an ultimate answer: that we should base our views and opinions on evidence and not myth or hear-say.