Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine.

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:

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Crowded with Genius. The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind by James Buchan.

Crowded with Genius is James Buchan’s well-documented study of the Scottish Enlightenment. This book presents a sober account of the economic, political and cultural conditions in Edinburgh, that permitted an intellectual flowering between 1745 and 1789. It does an admirable job of balancing these environmental conditions with short biographies of the major players at this time. In addition, Buchan has an excellent grasp of the key components to philosophers’ thoughts, scientists’ discoveries, and writers’ styles of this period. His writing is lucid and his presentation of concepts is understandable.

There is a provincial bias of which one must be aware when reading Crowded with Genius. The opening sentence of the prologue states “For a period of nearly half a century, from about the time of the Highland rebellion of 1745 until the French Revolution of 1789, the small city of Edinburgh ruled the Western intellect.” (Buchan, p. 1). There are many cities that could claim they “ruled” during the Enlightenment: The intellectual centers of London and Paris, the publishing centers in Geneva and Leiden, the scientific and education centers of the German territories, could each claim to have influenced all of Europe.

While the opening sentence is a transparent over-sell of Edinburgh, there are ways by simply examining Buchan's text to determine which of the cities had the most influence. When looking at advertisements on television, one can determine the best automobile in a given class by seeing to whom the advertiser is comparing their product. If Ford is comparing itself to Honda, you’re probably better-off purchasing a Honda. So, when James Buchan discusses how Edinburg came to “rival Paris” (Buchan, p. 3), quotes Stevenson saying that Edinburg “is what Paris ought to be” (Buchan, p. 204), or finally admits “of course, Edinburg was not Paris” (Buchan, p. 242), you know what city Buchan himself thinks of as the center of the Enlightenment. Paris is a spectre that looms behind each of the author’s boasts.

And boast he does: “David Hume, Adam Smith, William Robertson Adam Ferguson and Hugh Blair were the first intellectual celebrities of the modern world” (Buchan, p. 2). London could make an argument for Newton. Paris could make an argument for Voltaire. Rotterdam could make an argument for Bayle. All of the aforementioned cities had a number of stunning intellects in residence. “Edinburg became the most celebrated centre for medical education in the world” (Buchan, p. 273). Bologna, Cologne, Leipzig and Lund are all older, highly prestigious, and could make such a claim. Leiden could make that claim and follow it with the information that they were the parent institution to the medical school in Edinburg. The question is not really who has the best intellectuals, the best medical schools or the best city. Concepts like “best” do little to illuminate history. Instead, this provincial bias undermines the reputation of the author for accuracy and distorts the history of Edinburg.

Some of the bias even extends to the individuals profiled in Crowded with Genius: “The picture of Adam Smith as the apostle of amoral modern capitalism has been under attack in Scotland for some years, and is indeed unhistorical” (Buchan, p. 120). But Buchan virulently criticizes a rival political philosopher, Karl Marx, who has been subjected to the same kinds of partisan analyses as Smith. He showers ad hominem attacks on Marx for everything from his “habitual Caliban sneer” (Buchan, p. 239) to his responsibility for “the Leftist nightmare of an atomized state and ‘alienated’ personality” (Buchan, p. 222). Objecting to Adam Smith’s detractors, while attacking Marx appears politically facile. Smith is just as responsible for, or innocent of, abuses committed in his name as Marx is for abuses committed in his name. This “Capitalist Good; Communist Bad” analysis belongs on a 20th Century pick-up truck bumper sticker, next to a Confederate flag decal; not in a book on the 18th Century Enlightenment. Such a prejudicial set of simplistic political ideas is beneath a writer who is capable of elucidating the intricacies of Hume’s skepticism.

In Chapter Nine, “The Art of Dancing,” Buchan returns to a truly nuanced study of history. He covers the changing social relations between men and women. Buchan includes a sensitive class aspect to his observations: working women “were not too ‘delicate’ to labor in the bleach-fields, collieries and cotton and flax mills” (Buchan, p. 245). This is where the author shines. Buchan does an excellent job of presenting Scottish culture and society, as well as the thoughts and lives of individual figures therein. When he is discussing how new ideas changed the culture, and how culture affected individuals, he is at his most insightful. This is not a flawless work. If one chooses to undertake this book, I recommend that the reader to be aware of Buchan’s incautious claims. If one is cognizant of the bias, one will benefit from his otherwise able representation.

Buchan, James. Crowded with Genius. The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2003.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Cathedral Paradox. A Review of Great Gothic Cathedrals of France by Stan Parry.

Cathedrals are marvelous, three-dimensional works of art that one can walk around inside. Certainly, for Christians, there is an additional layer of emotion concerning their feelings about biblical mythology and legends about the life of Jesus. But even for me, an Atheist of Jewish ancestry, the joy of aesthetic appreciation alone is incomparable. Additionally, I experience conflicting emotions: revelry in the beauty; alongside sorrow over the poverty, social inequality and predatory Church hierarchy, which produced such magnificent buildings.

Great Gothic Cathedrals of France is one architecture-lover’s research from his once-in-a-lifetime journey.  Each chapter represents, an individual cathedral visited by the author. There are 17 buildings covered in all. Most of each chapter is devoted to an exhaustive description of the external and internal features. The descriptions are accompanied by 173 color plates and photos.

Clearly, Stan Parry loves his cathedrals. He has an excellent grasp of the architecture. But the history in his book can most charitably be described as politic. The author understands that his audience is largely composed of tourists who are in France for a pleasant lark. Why disturb them with the darker facts about cathedrals? It might affect book sales. And especially if the audience is Christian, they may just be offended.

So Mr Parry sticks to the unexamined official history. He claims that these edifices were built “for immediate religious and community needs as well as for the glory of God and posterity” (Parry, p. 2). This is, at best, a half-truth. Cathedrals were also built to display the temporal power of the Church, thereby inducing awe and obedience among the peasant majority. It is unnecessary to have such a huge building in which to pray.  Jesus advocated humility in worship. These buildings are anything but humble. Parry does mention that these religious structures were paid for through the unethical practice of selling indulgences. But he does not go that step further to explain that the money from those indulgences came from taxing serfs and forcing them to pay rents on land that they could not leave.

Throughout French history, cathedrals served many unsavory political purposes.  In Toulouse, the Jewish community was forced to choose representatives who went to the cathedral for a weekly, public ear-boxing as punishment over the death of Jesus. (Virtual Jewish History Tour; citation below).  In Laon Cathedral, Nicole Aubrey was publicly exorcised of a demon by eating the host. (Ferber, pp. 30-33). The incident was used as a foil against Protestant Huguenots who, of course, deny the magical properties of the Eucharist. In Paris, the signal calling Catholics to begin the St. Bartholomew's Massacre was the tolling of the cathedral bells. (Richard, p. 1). These huge buildings were centers for propaganda as well as symbols of power.

Instead of critical thought, the reader is regaled with stories of miracles like that of The Virgin’s Tunic. After the 1194 fire in Chartres Cathedral, their relic, The Virgin’s Tunic, was discovered undamaged. (Parry, pp. 64-65). There is no skepticism concerning the veracity of this or other claims about relics and miracles.

As an examination of architecture, Great Gothic Cathedrals of France is a meticulous resource. For an understanding of the history of these religious institutions, I’m afraid the reader will have to turn elsewhere.


Ferber, Sarah. Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France. London: Routledge Publishers, 2004.

"France: Virtual Jewish History Tour." France: Virtual Jewish History Tour. The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2013. Web. 22 July 2013.

Parry, Stan. Great Gothic Cathedrals of France. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2001.

Richard, Henry J. "Huguenots." Huguenots., 1997. Web. 22 July 2013.

For a book review on Paris architecture, see: