When The Age of Reason was published in 1794, its author was subjected to a great deal of public censure. The work, though occasionally flawed in its reasoning, was uncompromising in its dedication to using reason as a tool. In a style typical of his pamphleteering, Thomas Paine mercilessly, humorously and clearly scrutinized revealed religion and the Bible. The work was begun earlier in 1794, when Paine was being held as a prisoner by the revolutionary government of Robespierre, and his survival was uncertain.
Since Part One was composed in prison, Paine did not have access to a Bible. As a result, it relies more upon philosophical thought and rhetoric than Part Two. Some of the opening ideas are expressed in truly memorable fashion. For example, after repudiating connection with any church, the author states “my own mind is my own church.” (Paine, p. 6). It should be pointed-out that, while Paine claims in that passage to disbelieve the creeds of all churches, including the “Turkish church” (read Islam), he confines his criticism primarily to those institutions professing belief in the Old and New Testament, since these are the works with which he is familiar. Additionally, he does not see his own Deism as a creed.
Paine goes on to discuss the Bible as a work of mythology no different than that of any other religion, and reinforces this idea by showing how the authors of this book used common mythological devices. About Jesus’ divine parentage, he states “almost all the extraordinary men that lived under the heathen mythology were reputed to be the sons of some of their gods. It was not a new thing, at that time, to believe a man to have been celestially begotten.” (Paine, p. 9). Further on he claims “the Mythologists had gods for everything; the Christian Mythologists had saints for everything.” (Paine, p. 9). The implication is, if we call pagan stories “myth,” then why don’t we use the same term for Christian stories?
There are arguments presented where, even I as a supportive skeptic, can see a reasonable counter-argument. Paine wrote “the Christian system of faith…appears to me as a species of atheism…it professes to believe in a man rather than in God.” (Paine, p. 33). But if one believes Jesus was God incarnated there is no atheism, just a belief that God took a unique form. It is difficult to tell which of the pamphleteer’s ideas were original, and which borrowed. The originality is more in the boldness and satire with which Paine presents his ideas; and the fact that he was willing to place his name on the document in full knowledge that it would create for him an unpopular legacy.
Part Two, published in 1796, is where the author truly shines. The superiority of the second part is owed largely to the conditions of its writing. Paine was no longer suffering the deprivations of prison where he had “little expectation of surviving,” and he finally had a Bible in hand. (Paine, p. 73). The now freed citizen of the United States takes exception to the cruelty exhibited by people in the Bible who claimed to be following God’s commandment. In particular, he objects to the passages exhibiting genocide where the Israelites “put all nations to the sword; that they spared neither age nor infancy; that they utterly destroyed men, women and children; that they left not a soul to breathe.” (Paine, p. 76). Paine did not think his creator would sanction such actions, and at least pretended to be outraged that anyone would ascribe such immoral behavior to his god.
Paine uses the words of the Bible itself to deny that the first five books were written by Moses. If Moses died in the second book, how does he then write the next three books? Also, an anonymous writer of Exodus states that no one knows where the sepulchre of Moses is “unto this day.” That phrase indicates a time after Moses died and in which one of the actual writers lived. (Paine, p. 83).
In regards to the New Testament, Paine exploits contradictions between the Gospels to discredit their veracity. Discussing Jesus’ genealogy from King David through his father Joseph, this careful reader points out that no two Gospels agree. Matthew counts 28 generations between David and Joseph, while Luke counts 43. In addition, between the two lists of Matthew and Luke, only the names of David and Joseph match. The two apostles cannot agree on whom Jesus’ ancestors were, and only one can be correct. (Paine, p. 143). Further evidence of inconsistency is shown in Matthew’s description of an earthquake and the rising of many dead saints, which coincide with Jesus’ crucifixion. Neither Mark, nor John, nor Luke mentions these occurrences. (Paine, pp. 147-8). One might assume that, if the ground were shaking and numerous zombie saints were wandering about Jerusalem, the other three writers would have considered it worth mentioning.
Paine catalogs a multitude of disagreements between the Testaments. But he leaves out a glaring discrepancy concerning the death of Judas. Matthew 27: 3-5 reports that Judas “hanged himself.” However in Acts 1: 16-19, Luke quotes Peter’s speech in which Judas died in a different manner. Judas is walking in a field bought with his blood money and “falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out.” Despite the entertainment it may provide believers to choose a pet gruesome end for God’s betrayer, only one scenario can be correct.
The importance of these discrepancies is not in the niggling details themselves, but in what they show about the New Testament. In the first place, any claim to biblical inerrancy or divine inspiration is disproven. An all-knowing god would not inspire a book that contained falsehoods. In Paine’s words “the disagreement of the parts of a story proves the whole cannot be true…if Matthew speaks truth, Luke speaks falsehood…there is no authority for believing either. ” (Paine, p. 143). If a witness in court was proven to have lied or reported events inaccurately, it casts doubt upon that individual’s entire testimony.
The rest of the pamphlet is more an advertisement for Deism in contrast to Christianity. Paine discusses “the horrid assassinations of whole nations…with which the Bible is filled,” followed by “the bloody persecutions and tortures unto death, and religious wars that since that time have laid Europe in blood and ashes,” and concludes “whence rose they but from this impious thing called revealed religion?” (Paine, pp. 173-4). He goes on to advocate for his purportedly improved belief system.
Deism, the belief that the existence of nature proves the existence of God, is presented by the author as a religion of peace. This is stated in spite of the fact that Robespierre, who imprisoned Paine and instituted “The Terror” in France, made Deism the state religion, complete with ceremonies and holidays. It doesn’t really matter what the dominant religion of a culture professes. In a system without separation of church and state, the chosen religion will be used to reinforce the political authority regardless of that faith’s moral precepts.
But Paine did not believe that Deism had been “invented” by humankind. He thought this natural religion “must have been the first, and will probably be the last, that man believes.” (Paine, p. 179). In his mind, Deism was simply a rational conclusion that anyone would draw by observing “the Creation.” This of course presupposes that earlier Homo Sapiens were governed by rational thought. Employing hindsight, we of the 21st Century can see how a group of post-Scientific-Revolution thinkers used a form of corrupted empiricism to contrive a religion. But the Deists of the Enlightenment had been raised in a society where God was a given. It was too frightening a prospect to discard this long-held precept and contemplate the universe without a deity.
While Paine’s then-fashionable Enlightenment faith has mutated over time, his criticisms of organized religion remain as contemporary as they were when first written. As long as there is a Bible and a set of corresponding Judeo-Christian traditions that are practiced, the arguments propounded in The Age of Reason will continue to haunt those traditions. The inconsistencies, injustices and superstitions, recorded in the Bible and believed by a segment of the world population, allow the objections of Thomas Paine to remain living ideas.
Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason. Avenel: Gramercy Books, 1993.
For review of a biography on Thomas Paine, see: http://greatnonfictionbooks.blogspot.com/2013/02/tom-paine-political-life-by-john-keane.html