Thomas Paine, THE AGE OF REASON (1796)

Thomas Paine was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, author of Common Sense in 1776, which inspired the American revolution, and Rights of Man in 1791, which defended the French Revolution.

He’s one of those Founding Fathers that Christian partisans like to believe intended to create a Christian nation. On the contrary, I’ve discovered, Paine also wrote, late in his life and partly in prison, The Age of Reason, published in parts from 1794 to 1807, about which Wikipedia has a long article, which is a passionate denouncement of Christianity. In it Paine defends his deistic belief – that the obvious magnificence of the universe indicates a creator God – but ridicules the Bible on numerous grounds, and rejects all formal creeds. The book was controversial (for its tone as much as for its arguments) and drew many angry critiques, though as the 19th century advanced, many of his ideas took hold, and were reflected, for example, in the writings of Mark Twain.

From my contemporary perspective, the book says a great many very obvious things about the implausibility of many parts of the Bible, and how and why they came to be written without actually being the word of some celestial being. What strikes me most about the book is not its arguments, which by now are familiar from many sources, but its timing — that is, it was easy, even two centuries ago, for a diligent person to perceive all those implausibilities through a close reading and comparison of the various Biblical texts. These texts have always been there in plain view, in millions of copies in millions of households. That the absurdities and historical oddities of the anthology of texts that comprise the Bible aren’t more widely appreciated and understood would be, I think, due to the facts that casual believers never read the entire Bible, but rather selectively read and cherry-quote certain passages directed to them by serious believers, and serious believers (including the clergy) are motivated to ignore or explain away its problems in order to preserve the status quo. There is no motive in religion, as there is in science, to undermine established assumptions with new evidence or reasoning.

I bought a print copy of Paine’s book a few weeks ago, without realizing until I finished that it includes only the first and second parts. The entire text is online, of course — here, for example – and I see that Part III is an exhaustive examination of all the citations, in the New Testament gospels, to passages from the Old Testament that are implied to be prophecies about Jesus Christ, from which Paine concludes,

The practice which the writers of those books employ is not more false than it is absurd. They state some trilling case of the person they call Jesus Christ, and then cut out a sentence from some passage of the Old Testament and call it a prophecy of that case. But when the words thus cut out are restored to the place they are taken from, and read with the words before and after them, they give the lie to the New Testament.

I’ll not post all my detailed notes about the book, as I’ve been doing with the NT books, but will try instead to summarize Paine’s key points.

  • First, Paine was not an atheist; he was a deist, finding evidence for god in the vastness of the universe. (That is, the so-called “argument from design.”) In fact, he was *offended* that the incoherence and implausibility of the Bible should detract from what he believed was the true god.
  • He finds many parallels between Christian faith and Greek or “heathen” mythology. (For example: the centrality of Rome; how the pantheon of Christian saints resembles the pantheon of Greek gods.)
  • He repeatedly notes how the supposed “word of God” was decided *by vote* centuries after the various texts were written down.
  • He repeatedly observes, and is offended by, how the OT is full of “obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness…”
  • He finds the NT not “a history of the life of Jesus Christ, but only detached anecdotes of him”. He finds the notion of Jesus coming to Earth to die by crucifixion incoherent; why instead not suffer by staying alive? — “everything in this strange system is the reverse of what it pretends to be.”
  • He observes that the teaching of Greek and Latin in schools is maintained mostly to distract from the teaching of science that would undermine “Christian absurdities”; moreover, it’s the persecution of scientists by the Church that led to the “long interregnum of science” between the Greeks and his present day. The visible breadth of the stars undermines the “solitary and strange conceit” that ours is the only world; he calls this a pious fraud and charges the church with persecuting science because they knew all of this.
  • He examines the methods of “Mystery, Miracle, and Prophecy” as the ways by which the church carries out this fraud, to imply to believers that religious faith is not easily understood, while asking why such implausible tactics would be necessary to any true religion.
  • The second part of the book examines the OT and NT systematically, examining the implausibilities and horrors: the evidence that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses; the savagery and treachery of the Jews toward other peoples; the dicey chronologies; and the famous passage in Isaiah, used by Matthew as prophetic justification for the virginity of Mary, about which 1) the word used by Isaiah didn’t necessarily mean virgin at all; 2) the passage in Isaiah concerned a prophecy (of something to happen very soon) that didn’t actually come true (!).
  • About the traditional story of Jesus:

    The story, taking it as it is told, is blasphemously obscene. It gives an account of a young woman engaged to be married, and while under this engagement she is, to speak plain language, debauched by a ghost, under the impious pretence (Luke, chap. i., ver. 35), that “the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.” Notwithstanding which, Joseph afterward marries her, cohabits with her as his wife, and in his turn rivals the ghost. This is putting the story into intelligible language, and when told in this manner, there is not a priest but must be ashamed to own it.

  • He compares the Jesus story to Greek myths, and concludes “that the Christian faith is built upon the heathen Mythology.” He compares the discrepant genealogies of Jesus. He makes common sense observations about how the story of Mary being a virgin could possibly be known (as I’ve often wondered, who was the witness? How did this story get passed down?). Thus, “Were any girl that is now with child to say, and even swear it, that she was gotten with child by a ghost, and that an angel told her so, would she be believed? Certainly she would not.”
  • And the story of Herod, told only in Mark. And so on and on. Matthew claimed that when the crucifixion occurred, there was an earthquake and the saints rose out of their graves; a story told in no other gospel. Who were these saints, Paine wonders, and how did no one else notice these ancients wandering around, what, naked? Clothed? (Where did the clothes come from?) What happened to these saints later? (Of course, we now understand, even fellow eyewitnesses tell slightly different stories. Presumably most believers dismiss discrepancies among the gospels on those grounds. Memory is fallible. But Paine points out obvious fabulous events that no eyewitness, or reporter, could possibly have overlooked.)
  • One final quote, in which Paine defends his own faith against what he sees as the absurdity of Christianity:

    All the knowledge man has of science and of machinery, by the aid of which his existence is rendered comfortable upon earth, and without which he would be scarcely distinguishable in appearance and condition from a common animal, comes from the great machine and structure of the universe. The constant and unwearied observations of our ancestors upon the movements and revolutions of the heavenly bodies, in what are supposed to have been the early ages of the world, have brought this knowledge upon earth. It is not Moses and the prophets, nor Jesus Christ, nor his apostles, that have done it. The Almighty is the great mechanic of the creation; the first philosopher and original teacher of all science. Let us, then, learn to reverence our master, and let us not forget the labors of our ancestors.

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