Paul D. Wilke
Thomas Paine’s Totally Reasonable Deism for an Unreasonable World
I. Paine Goes to War With Organized Religion
Thomas Paine went to war with organized religion in 1795 when he published The Age of Reason, one of the earliest and harshest attacks on American Christianity. In Paine's telling, the Bible was nothing but a mishmash of contradictory and irrational fables that melted like warm butter once exposed to the light of reason.
Paine asked a valid question: Why give such authority to an illegitimate text? Because of tradition? Because that's what mom and dad and Sunday preachers have always insisted, generation after generation, century after century? No, this wasn't good enough for someone like Paine, a man passionate about people having the ability to think freely and rationally so they could arrive at their own independent conclusions.
Paine was by nature radically skeptical of any authority that wasn’t democratic in origin. The targets in his previous works, Common Sense (1776), and The Rights of Man (1791) had been secular authorities, specifically hereditary rulers whose only qualifications were birth and title. Paine now turned his pen on Christianity, which he felt was also grounded on the same false authority as kings and aristocrats. Far too long had the Word of God been exempt from the kind of critical examination that Paine conducted.
That changed when The Age of Reason hit the shelves, going through twenty editions and provoking twenty-one fuming responses between 1794 -1800 (Schlereth). The book was a hit, though a controversial one. Many Americans were deeply offended by Paine’s contemptuous treatment of their most sacred beliefs.
Here's a good encapsulation of the entire book in one, albeit long paragraph, written by Paine himself near the end.
"I have advanced in that work are the effect of the most clear and long-established conviction, -- that the Bible and the Testament are impositions upon the world; -- that the fall of man, the account of Jesus Christ being the Son of God, and of his dying to appease the wrath of God, and of salvation by that strange means, are all fabulous inventions, dishonourable to the wisdom and power of the Almighty; -- that the only true religion is deism, by which I then meant and now mean the belief of one God, and an imitation of his moral character, or the practice of what are called moral virtues; -- and that it was upon this only (so far as religion is concerned) that I rested all my hopes of happiness hereafter. So say I now -- and so help me God."
Nevertheless, despite Paine's repeated professions of belief in God, his book hit a nerve among mainstream Protestant pastors unaccustomed to having their faith mocked. He did this by going through the books of the Old and New Testaments and pointing out the many inconsistencies and errors. He also wrote in a way accessible to the general public, using basic common sense, wry humor, simple logic, and clear explanations to make his points. Moreover, anyone could pull out a Bible and fact-check his examples. How democratic!
He didn’t pull any punches, either. Take the birth of Jesus, for example, which frames the hallowed Christmas story somewhat differently.
"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 i. 35,) that 'the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.'"
That's one way to put it.
The hero of the Old Testament, Moses, was "among the detestable villains that in any period of the world have disgraced the name of man" for ordering a war of extermination on his enemies that spared neither women nor children from the sword. He quotes Numbers 31.17-18 to hammer this home. If you aren't familiar with this chapter in his story, it’s when Moses angrily ordered his commanders to commit atrocities: “Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man” (Numbers). We're far from the heroic leader of the underdog Jews fighting to escape bondage in Egypt.
These are just two examples. If you haven't read the Bible cover-to-cover, especially the Old Testament, you’re in for an eye-opening orgy of violence. The brutality of Homer’s Iliad has nothing on what you get in the Old Testament. The Age of Reason is filled with many examples like those quoted above which haven't aged well in the modern world.
This is a tactic the modern critic of religion will be familiar with. Paine used the Bible's own words to discredit it, and with devastating effect. For him, the Bible wasn't the inerrant word of a benevolent deity who loved all humanity — that’s the God we’ve created today to reflect our modern values — no, it was a book of myths about an angry and vengeful God-emperor who smote his enemies and punished his hapless Israelites for disobedience, again and again and again. This was a God created to reflect the values of the ancient Middle East.
While the New Testament is much less bloody (with one notably famous exception), the central tenets of Christianity like the Resurrection, the divine nature of Christ, the Ascension, and the Apocalypse of Revelation, all get dismantled by Paine as fabulous fictions concocted by ancient mythologizers. Paine felt this was an obsolete religion unworthy of a democratic people founded on liberal principles like freedom of conscience and individual liberty. We deserved something better, something more in accord with those principles.
What would that look like?
II. Paine’s Deism Alternative
Paine argued for a deist alternative. This was God without all the theological sludge accumulated over the last two thousand years. He believed a more authentic conception of God could emerge once you cleared away this sludge.
"The true deist has but one Deity; and his religion consists in contemplating the power, wisdom, and benignity of the Deity in his works, and in endeavouring to imitate him in every thing moral, scientifical, and mechanical."
That doesn't sound too radical, does it? But it wasn't going to be that easy. The offended pastors — and they were legion — counterattacked, launching one of America's first culture wars by portraying Paine as an atheist trying to impose his blasphemous vision on society. Over twenty rebuttals were published, trying to reassure any doubters out there that this was nothing more than, as Elias Boudinot phrased it in his own rebuttal, the work of an enemy of “truth and godliness” with “the horrid purpose of ruining the souls of men.” (Boudinot)
Boudinot frothed that if deism went mainstream, the chaos and violence of the atheistic French Revolution would soon follow. Infidelity would bring about anarchy and immorality. These would ultimately destroy the Republic. Such fear-mongering gained traction and permanently damaged Paine’s reputation. Indeed, many who haven't read The Age of Reason still believe Paine is a "dirty little atheist," as Teddy Roosevelt called him a century later. Paine still wears that label to this day among many of the faithful. All is not forgiven.
But was this an accurate portrayal?
In truth, Paine was a self-proclaimed deist, believing in one God and an afterlife. But he wanted more than that, and his ambition was bold. He didn’t merely want to promote deism but to tear down traditional Christianity. If he had his way, he’d throw out 1,700 years of Biblical canon and replace it with a streamlined humanistic God that didn't offend reason.
He writes, "It has been the scheme of the Christian church, and of all the other invented systems of religion, to hold man in ignorance of the Creator, as it is of government to hold him in ignorance of his rights. The systems of the one are as false as those of the other, and are calculated for mutual support."
On the other hand, deism gets its revelation from science and reason, two of the greatest gifts from God to humanity. Or, to put it in Paine’s words, “The creation is the Bible of the deist.” Deism doesn't require doubtful revelations from the distant past, sketchy prophecies of doubtful origin, or dubious miracles to justify itself. Contrary to what his critics say, belief in God was crucial for Paine. And anyway, it’s not entirely crazy to believe that the universe (and us) was created by a supreme being. Such a belief is simple, streamlined, and devoid of pointless rules for the sake of rules. In short, it need not justify itself to any mediating higher authority among mortals. Men and women could believe as their conscience permitted.
There's mystery here with this deist God, but not the kind of mystery immune to examination. He wrote, “We have only a confused idea of his power, if we have not the means of comprehending something of its immensity. We can have no idea of his wisdom, but by knowing the order and manner in which it acts. The principles of science lead to this knowledge; for the Creator of man is the Creator of science, and it is through that medium that man can see God, as it were, face to face."
That is the core of Paine's deism. Creation is vast, so grand that we can only begin to nibble at the edges of understanding it all. But the tools to understand anything come from science and reason, which open up creation and reveal nature's secrets. While our horizon of understanding will always be limited, that horizon of the knowable constantly expands through our efforts. This, not divine revelation, is how to better understand our universe and, by extension, the God who created it.
The spectacular images from the Webb Space Telescope, the physics revealed by the Large Hadron Collider, or just the elegant intricacies of evolution, are all examples of science doing God's work of proclaiming the wonderful tapestry of reality. The more we know, the better we see God’s true nature.
The tools of Christianity: revelation, prophecy, and miracles, are all in deism but can be verified empirically, unlike the extraordinary claims of the Bible. Science reveals (revelation) new wonders, it predicts (prophecy) based on models, and performs miracles, or at least the achievements of science would appear as miracles to anyone who lived before the nineteenth century. All this under the aegis of an all-power, all-good deist God.
David Voelker points out what Paine was trying to accomplish: "Over the course of his career as a publicist and polemicist, Paine attempted to articulate a universal civil religion of reason that he hoped would promote equality, freedom, and a democratic republican political order" (Dreisbach).
On the other side, the problem with Christianity was the cognitive burden of sustaining so many different mandatory beliefs. The revelations, miracles, and prophecies that proclaim the truth of Christianity also defy explanation or proof. What Noah did, if he even existed, is lost in the fog of time, verified nowhere else but in the Bible. And so it is with just about everything in the Bible: claims without verifiable evidence that demand faith to accept. Again, the burden.
Take, for example, Christ dying for our sins on the cross. Why? How does that make any sense at all when you think about it? Next, take the idea that Christ rose from the dead and ascended to the heavens to be with God. That does not happen in our everyday experience. In fact, we don’t have any other confirmed examples of this happening. Never mind, you must believe these things to be a genuine Christian.
And so on, we're forced to stack up these non-negotiables until we either acquiesce or become offended by such demands of blind faith. If this happens, if we begin to question, then Christianity has a trick up its sleeve. The value of faith as a Christian virtue rises in proportion to the spectacular nature of the claim. The harder something is to believe, the more your faith will be rewarded for believing it. It’s a recipe for non-thinking, and for blind acceptance of custom and tradition because it’s always been that way. The only thought that is done is to confirm the existing paradigm. Nothing else but faith can hold it all together. This was a sign of a bankrupt belief system to Paine.
He took issue with that. What is the point of all these extra beliefs? They get in the way of a more genuine worship of God. Again, the wonder of existence is the only Bible we should need. That is something real, democratically available to all who would look up at the night sky. No need to study dead languages or arcane points of theology that theologians invented to make it all make sense.
So, what then?
"The only religion that has not been invented, and that is in it every evidence of divine originality, is pure and simple deism."
Indeed, "pure and simple deism" is an excellent way of describing Paine's God.
III. Paine Was Against Atheism Too
In a strange twist, Paine argued that the absurdities of the Bible actually encourage atheism, especially when Christian authorities insist on the literal truth of everything in the Bible. This insistence is unacceptable for the enquiring mind no longer able to reconcile the many fallacies they encounter when reading the Good Book. The risk, Paine realized, was that they'd swing too far in the other direction, rejecting altogether the existence of God.
"A man, by hearing all this nonsense lumped and preached together, confounds the God of the Creation with the imagined God of the Christians, and lives as if there were none."
This was also a mistake because only "fools" would "live as if there were no god."
This is an essential point about Paine's writing on religion that often gets missed. He clearly viewed Biblically-grounded Christianity with contempt. No one who has read The Age of Reason can come away with any other conclusion. But he felt the same about atheism. The context here matters. He wrote the first volume of The Age of Reason under the shadow of arrest during the French Revolution (1793-1794); he wrote the second volume after his release from prison almost a year later.
The radical atheism of the Revolution had become a murderously intolerant ideology, just as poisonous to human freedom as any Inquisition ever was. During the La Terreur (the Terror), Robespierre's Jacobins organized a guillotine-fueled orgy of violence, dechristianizing French society at gunpoint and exterminating anyone who got in their way. Caught up in the chaos, Paine barely survived the ordeal. Indeed, but for the fall of Robespierre and his allies in July 1794, Paine likely would have lost his head, and that would have been that.
Thanks to the help of James Monroe, he was released from prison shortly after Robespierre's downfall. He was gravely ill by then and stayed in Monroe's home to recuperate where he began writing the second volume of The Age of Reason.
Organized religion was only part of the problem. Paine's contempt for that remained unwavering, but he now believed more firmly than ever that entirely banishing God from society was just as dangerous. As he had discovered to his misfortune (and as we did in the twentieth century), atheist regimes can be as violent and intolerant as anything done in the name of God.
About the French Revolution, he eloquently wrote: "The intolerant spirit of church persecution had transferred itself into politics; the tribunals, stiled Revolutionary, supplied the place of an Inquisition; and the Guillotine of the Stake."
Paine's deism was the middle way between these two extremes. After all, a well-governed, democratic society needed a common civic religion, and deism was meant to fill that need.
IV. Final Thoughts: Paine Lost the Battle But Won the War
Paine's efforts were not entirely in vain. Though he lost the battle to discredit the Bible and establish a civic religion grounded in deism, he didn't lose the war. That's ongoing, and argument by argument, the claims of traditional Christianity have been forced to give ground to reason and science. Still believing in the literal truth of the Biblical account puts one on the fringe of respectable, mainstream belief. Paine would have been encouraged by this development.
And let's give him some credit. His book set an important precedent. Religion could no longer expect a free pass from the kind of critical scrutiny a free society offers. Free people should also think freely. Indeed, they must, and in a free community, religion must compete in the marketplace of ideas. This radically new way of running a society was in its infancy during Paine's life. Still, he was the vanguard of a new method of discourse, where ideas had to convince, not coerce, to win acceptance, and nothing was sacred and off limits from criticism.
Of course, we know today that free and open discussion does not always lead to the best ideas winning out, especially regarding religion. Even bad ideas can and should co-exist in an open society. If you want to believe the book of Genesis is a work of history and the true word of God, go ahead. You are free to do so and free to meet in churches with others who share your beliefs. A free and open society protects your opinions too. You just can't force others to believe the same.
However, when Paine wrote in the late eighteen century, most people still took the Bible to be the literal word of God. Therefore, The Age of Reason found a curious but also easily offended American public. Local religious leaders were able to marshal convincing counter-arguments that blunted the impact of Paine's book while accusing him of beliefs he did not hold.
Two centuries later, the religious landscape has dramatically transformed. Now, pointed and detailed critiques of the Bible are a click away. Skeptical takes like Paine's are available everywhere. In fact, those who read The Age of Reason might find today's arguments sound familiar to those made by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or any of the other modern atheists.
Moreover, traditional Christianity has been in retreat since the late twentieth century. The rise of the "Nones," or those religiously unaffiliated, now represent around a third of the population. Most (72%) of these "Nones" are not atheists or agnostics but believe in a higher power. If trends continue, these unaffiliated "Nones" will continue to grow.
Of course, Christians see the decline of their faith as a sign of the moral decay of civil society. Maybe they are correct, but they have no one to blame but themselves. The right-wing populist drift of American white evangelicals shows they no longer have any higher spiritual values to distinguish them from the materialistic culture they despise. They became what they hated.
When Christians come to believe that someone like Donald Trump can reverse this decline and so embrace him enthusiastically and unconditionally despite evidence of the man's brazen narcissistic immorality, they've already lost the war of ideas and are in it only for raw political power.
However, if Christianity is losing this front of the culture war, Paine's deist alternative isn't winning either. Far from it. The "Nones" are hardly deists like Paine described, believing in one God whose mysteries are revealed by science and reason. Some support this kind of deism, and I suppose I do too, and some like me respect science and reason as the best tools for revealing God's creation.
But let's be honest, most of these "Nones" have discarded the structure of traditional Christianity for a vague and fuzzy spiritual new-age egotism that prioritizes the individual's selfish desires over any stronger sense of civic duty. They’ve also embraced that broader, hedonistic culture like their evangelical compatriots, just without the structure and authority of a church to give it meaning. Even more telling, they are just as skeptical of science as many of their Christian counterparts.
Paine's kind of deism can wonder at the mysteries of existence, but it leaves too many questions unanswered. What's the purpose of life? What happens after death? What about evil? Why do bad things happen to good people? Paine's deism is honest enough not to give easy answers to these timeless mysteries, mysteries that science can't solve. They just are.
The appeal of the revealed faiths is that they provide answers confidently and seemingly full of authority. It's bullshit, of course, but bullshit can be pretty compelling when you desperately want a reason to believe something larger than yourself. People are uncomfortable with uncertainty; life, death, and the meaning of it all are among the most significant uncertainties in the world. Deism's lack of detail here limits its appeal.
So deism isn't enough to appeal to a broader audience while Christianity's explanatory power is receding. Meanwhile, surrogate beliefs are appearing that try and fill the void. Again, we crave certainty and want to believe in something more. Behold the age of emptiness: the never-ending appeal of self-help, the cult of good health, the rise of conspiracy theories with pseudo-religious dimensions, social media addiction, and crass consumer culture emerge to fill the vacuum. Or at least try.
Each of these has eroded the possibility of the kind of civic religion Paine wanted. But the old faiths have succumbed as well. Instead, everything gets replaced by a new tech metaphysic that increasingly offers tantalizing worlds within worlds as a means of escaping from this world, which is still the real world, no matter how we try and forget this basic fact. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The new metaphysic is a lot like the old one.
As long as our society is democratic, free, and most importantly, affluent, this fragmented status quo will probably stagger on. Most people will choose their selfish interests, however truncated and fleeting those might be, instead of working toward any greater societal goals. The new metaphysic will not allow it. Church, State, and Science have given way to the lonely and alienated ego triumphant. It's a bad trade in the long run. Nothing is there to hold it all together. This is why we're totally screwed if climate change is the looming disaster that climate scientists claim it to be. We won't be able to take off our headphones and leave our air-conditioned cocoons long enough to do anything about it as a society.
Not until it's too late.
But then...it's too late.
Boudinot, Ellias. The Age of Revelation or The Age of Reason Shewn to Be an Infidelity. Ashbury Dickens, 1801.
Dreisbach, Daniel L., et al. “Thomas Paine's Civil Religion of Reason.” The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 2009, pp. 171–195.
Kaye, Harvey J. Thomas Paine: Firebrand of the Revolution. Oxford Univ. Press, 2000.
Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason. Dover, 2004.
Schlereth, Eric R. An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.