The Age of Reason (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

Overview

Thomas Paine's primary object in writing The Age of Reason was to call into question the conventional understanding of religion and to undermine the power of the Christian church. As provocative and controversial today as when Paine first wrote it, this incendiary work suggests what is necessary to transform religion into a social force that has its foundation in reason.
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Overview

Thomas Paine's primary object in writing The Age of Reason was to call into question the conventional understanding of religion and to undermine the power of the Christian church. As provocative and controversial today as when Paine first wrote it, this incendiary work suggests what is necessary to transform religion into a social force that has its foundation in reason.
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Product Details

Introduction

The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine, is an uncompromising critique of organized religion and an impassioned plea to throw off the intellectual bondage of the church and embrace a new theology grounded in rational and scientific inquiry. Paine was one of the most influential thinkers of the American Enlightenment, and he played a key role in the American war for independence. The success of this revolution and the establishment of a limited government, based in the rule of law and committed to the protection of individual liberty and the rights of man, reflected the institutionalization of liberal political principles. According to Paine, this development marked the beginning of a rationalization of politics that eventually would be reproduced around the world. However, the horrifying events of the French Revolution, and of Robespierre's Reign of Terror in particular, reminded Paine that political revolution is not an innocuous occurrence but has the potential to release forces that, if left unchecked, might result in the absolute self-destruction of society. He believed that it was vital that there be some counterforce to moderate the effects of revolution. Religion might provide such a counterforce, if it sufficiently conforms to the principles of human reason. But, as Paine argues in The Age of Reason, Christianity could never serve this purpose because it has no rational basis. What is necessary is a religious revolution, one that would reconceptualize the very nature of religion. The Age of Reason lays the groundwork for such a revolution. Paine's primary object in writing this incendiary work was to call into question the conventional understanding of religion and to undermine the power of the Christian church. He believed that individual liberty requires the mind to be freed from its attachment to what he saw as the irrational beliefs inculcated by revealed religion. In The Age of Reason, Paine suggests that the properly free mind should instead be directed by opinions that emerge from a reasoned devotion to the "true theology." Without this freedom, the liberty achieved in political revolution could never be complete. As provocative and controversial today as when Paine first wrote it, The Age of Reason demonstrates, in simple, candid, and compelling language, the irrationality of Christian doctrine; and it suggests, with equal directness, what is necessary to transform religion into a social force that has its foundation in reason.

Though less influential than some of his other works, The Age of Reason was arguably the most controversial of the many pamphlets that Thomas Paine published during his lifetime. More than twenty years earlier, Paine had written a short pamphlet called The Case of the Officers of Excise, which advocated raising the salaries of British excise officers as a barrier to corruption. This pamphlet ultimately led to his dismissal from the excise service. His most famous pamphlet, Common Sense, written shortly before the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, advocated the creation of an independent American republic at a time when it was quite dangerous to make such suggestions publicly. And Rights of Man, written in 1791 and 1792, defended the principles of the French Revolution and called for the overthrow of the British monarchy. Its publication resulted in the establishment of laws in Britain banning the pamphlet and prohibiting its sale; British loyalists hanged and burned Paine in effigy; and eventually he was convicted in absentia for seditious libel. In spite of these reactions to his earlier writings, however, the effect of The Age of Reason was more severe and more personal. The pamphlet was generally regarded as a support of atheism, and Paine himself an atheist and "infidel." Printers who tried to sell the pamphlet were condemned for blasphemy. But, more significantly to Paine, he lost many of his friends (including Samuel Adams and Benjamin Rush); his request to be buried in a Quaker cemetery was refused; and he suffered a damaged reputation following his death to the point that, well into the nineteenth century, he was unjustly excluded from the ranks of those considered to be among the major leaders of the American Revolution.

As might be gathered even from this brief account, Paine did little to avoid confrontation. However, it is unlikely that he acquired this taste for controversy from his parents. He was born on January 29, 1737, in Thetford, England. His mother was a practicing Anglican and his father a Quaker. As a boy, Paine frequently attended Quaker meetings with his father, and this exposure had a lasting influence on him. Later in life, even as he was writing The Age of Reason in condemnation of organized religion, he remained sympathetic to the Quakers and characterized Quakerism as the religion that approaches most closely the true, rational religion. This is not to suggest that, in his youth, Paine had a particularly strong interest in questions of religion. He was drawn rather to the study of history, mathematics, and science; and it was these interests that ultimately had the greatest influence on his thinking.

It was many years, however, before Paine began to articulate his thoughts in writing. He spent almost the whole of his first forty years in England, seemingly without any consistent direction to his life. At thirteen years of age, he became an apprentice to his father as a corset maker. Eventually, he established himself as a master corset maker and remained in this profession, off and on, for many years. Somewhat later, he studied for the excise service, and in 1764 was appointed as a permanent excise officer, only to be dismissed a year later on minor corruption charges. He returned to corset making for a short period, gave that up again, and moved to London to become a teacher. In 1768, he was reappointed as an excise officer; however, by 1774, he had been dismissed again, this time in response to his pamphlet petitioning Parliament for higher salaries.

To this point, Paine's life was neither easy nor uncomplicated. He was not particularly successful or satisfied in any of his chosen professions, and he was regularly in financial difficulty. Nor was his personal life much better. His first marriage (in 1759) ended, after less than a year, with the death of his wife. His second marriage (in 1771) lasted only slightly longer, this time ending in a formal separation following his second dismissal from the excise service in 1774. But in that same year, his life took a new direction. He returned to London, where he was introduced to Benjamin Franklin, who at that time was acting as representative of the American colonies in Great Britain. With a letter of introduction from Franklin to his son-in-law, Paine sailed to the colonies, arriving in Philadelphia at the end of 1774.

Once in Philadelphia, Paine quickly became aware of the volatile political conditions in the colonies; and he began to write pamphlets recommending policies he thought were necessary to ameliorate these conditions. By 1776, he had decided that American independence was the only adequate resolution of the political and economic crisis resulting from the continued injustices perpetuated by Great Britain. In order to advocate this course of action, he published Common Sense. This pamphlet was very widely read and brought him immediate recognition as one of the most skilled rhetoricians of the period. With its publication, Paine's fame was established, and the direction the remainder of his life would take was more or less set. During the revolutionary war, he wrote a series of influential political pamphlets called The American Crisis, in which he continued to support the American cause against Great Britain, and in which he further developed his views on republican government. Later, he turned his attention to France, and in 1791, after the outbreak of the French Revolution, he published Rights of Man as a response to the British statesman Edmund Burke's denunciation of the revolution. In this pamphlet, Paine gives a powerful defense of the right of the people to rebel against an unjust regime. He vindicates the specific actions taken by the French revolutionaries, and argues more generally against the inevitable corruption of monarchic governments and the inherent threat such governments pose to human rights. Rights of Man is perhaps Paine's most coherent and comprehensive articulation of his political theory, and it establishes him as one of the most important intellectual heirs of the seventeenth-century liberal theorist, John Locke.

Like Common Sense, Rights of Man was very widely read. The enormous influence of these two works was due in large part to Paine's straightforward writing style, which was intended not only to win over public intellectuals and political elites, but more importantly to be accessible to the ordinary citizen and to rouse his passions. This direct style is characteristic of all of his writing, including The Age of Reason, and perhaps helps to explain how he rose to prominence in so short a period of time after his arrival in the colonies. Nevertheless, Paine's success and popularity as an author did not translate into success in political affairs. Although at the time he was considered one of the leading figures of the revolution, once the war was over and the republic was established, Paine's involvement in politics was only peripheral. Whether due to temperament or circumstance, he never achieved success as a public official or political figure, as did Thomas Jefferson or James Madison or even Alexander Hamilton. He died in 1809, in New York City, at the age of seventy-two.

Paine's writings as a whole are an important part of the heritage of liberal political thought. Common Sense and Rights of Man focus on two of the central concerns of political liberalism-the abuse of political power by non-liberal governments, and the rights of individuals in the face of that abuse. The Age of Reason voices the closely related concern that there is a similar abuse of political power within the sphere of religion. In The Age of Reason, Paine makes an argument similar to that articulated by John Locke in The Reasonableness of Christianity and in the letters on toleration. As Locke did a century earlier, Paine maintains that religion must be based upon rational principles; and that, as a political matter, individual liberty requires the separation of church and state and a general adherence to the principle of religious toleration. So, in spite of its overtly religious theme, and in spite of the fact that almost half of the work involves careful scriptural exegesis, The Age of Reason is a political tract with a very definite political object.

Although Paine was a great supporter of the French Revolution and wrote Rights of Man in defense of the principles of this revolution, he was unquestionably appalled at the actions of Robespierre and his followers during the Reign of Terror. Paine was staying in Paris at the height of the Terror, and he publicly gave his support to the more moderate Girondin revolutionary faction. Because of this support, he was thrown in prison, where he remained for almost a year, in constant fear of execution. Paine wrote the first part of The Age of Reason immediately prior to his imprisonment. Only after his release, at the end of 1794, was he able to complete the work. It is likely that Paine's immediate experience of the excesses of the Terror led him to begin writing The Age of Reason, "lest," as he says there, "in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government, and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity, and of the theology that is true." This, Paine's stated purpose in writing The Age of Reason, belies the criticism of his contemporaries that he was a proponent of atheism. Again, Paine's primary concern is political, not theological-the threat to human liberty and the rights of man that exists when the power of the state is united with the power of the church. His attack on organized religion is not an expression of antagonism to the belief in God per se. It is, rather, an attempt to destroy the authority of the church and to remove it as an oppressive political tool of the state.

Paine states explicitly that all revealed religion (by which he means the church as an institution) is a human invention designed "to terrify and enslave mankind" and "to monopolize power and profit." Just as governments maintain their power by keeping individuals in ignorance of their natural and political rights, the church maintains its power by keeping individuals in ignorance of their rightful place in relation to God. Paine argues that most everyone believes in God. Where people differ is with respect to what he calls the "redundancies" of that belief, by which he means that people disagree over the trappings of revealed religion. But it is commitment to and dispute over these redundancies that gives rise to religious wars and religious persecution. More important, the power and authority of the church, and of the governments that co-opt this power and authority, rest in the position of the church as interpreter and adjudicator in cases of religious redundancy. In this way, the church sets itself up as intermediary between man and God, as the locus of moral authority and the determinant of moral truth. A true theology eschews the trappings of religion, and therefore cannot be used by church or government as a basis for political and social control. Revealed religion, on the contrary, embraces religious redundancy precisely in order to exercise such political and social control. Historically, the Christian church consolidated its power by attaching itself to the "sword" of the state; and it has preserved its position by means of religious persecution and an increasing and calculated insistence on the impotence of human reason. According to Paine, even the Protestant Reformation did little to shake the foundations of Christian power or to alter the basic relationship between the individual and the church. The authority of church leaders was, perhaps, diminished; but the close connection between church and state, as well as the status of the individual in relation to both institutions, remained effectively unchanged. The eradication of religious power requires a "religious revolution," which can occur only after a political revolution has taken place, moving society toward republican and democratic forms of government.

Initially, Paine thought that the American and French revolutions would be followed by just such a religious revolution. But, by 1793, he began to worry that political revolution might go too far. The French Revolution, as it played itself out in front of his eyes, suggested the possibility that a political revolution, if sufficiently radical, might involve a religious revolution that, in its wholesale rejection of the power and authority of the church, could result in a society left unconstrained by any system of morals whatsoever. Anticipating Nietzsche, Paine argues in The Age of Reason that institutionalized religion (and the Christian church in particular) tends to weaken a true belief in God. To the extent that revealed religion is based upon beliefs that run counter to and are, in fact, antithetical to reason, it tends to breed either fanatics or atheists. The implication is that, once it is discovered that "God is dead," there is little to fill the moral vacuum left by the rejection of religion. To Paine, the Reign of Terror exemplified this problem. France was beginning to exhibit the characteristics of a completely amoral society.

The Age of Reason was written in reaction to this perceived state of affairs. Paine's intent was to help give shape to the religious revolution by publicly dismantling the supposed "truths" of Christianity, but by doing it in such a way as to indicate what the principles of a "true theology" might be. Paine's most powerful argument against Christianity is that the moral system presented in the Bible is fundamentally perverse. The Old Testament, he points out, is filled with horrific stories "as shocking to humanity, and to every idea we have of moral justice, as any thing done by Robespierre … or by any other assassin in modern times." He describes Moses as "among the most detestable villains that in any period of the world have disgraced the name of man," who "committed the most unexampled atrocities that are to be found in the history of any nation." As an example of his character, Paine singles out one instance in which Moses orders his captains to return to a city they have recently defeated and "to butcher the boys, to massacre the mothers, and debauch the daughters" of the enemies of the Jews. Similarly, the book of Joshua is described as "a military history of rapine and murder, as savage and brutal, as those recorded of his predecessor in villany [sic] and hypocrisy." The two books of Kings "are little more than a history of assassinations, treachery, and wars," practiced in this period by the Jews against themselves. Paine characterizes the reputedly wise King Solomon as "witty, ostentatious, dissolute, and at last melancholy," ending his life at the age of fifty-eight after having committed "one thousand debaucheries" (calculated on the basis of the Bible's own account of his seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines). With the exception of Job, Paine spares no one in the Old Testament. The kings are murderers, the prophets are liars and political opportunists, and all are hypocrites. Far from providing any examples of moral goodness, according to Paine, the books of the Old Testament give a historical account-one that any truly moral individual must be ashamed to acknowledge-that has been the inspiration and justification for a good part of the "bloody persecutions and tortures unto death, and religious wars" that have occurred since the time of its acceptance as the word of God. This alone should be sufficient to call into question whether the books of the Bible were written by God's authority.

The New Testament is equally perverse, to Paine, though for somewhat different reasons. In Paine's view, the Christ story is incomprehensible as the basis for a moral system. The account of his birth describes "the Almighty committing debauchery with a woman engaged to be married; and the belief of this debauchery is called faith." Aside from the fact that this story is little more than a minor variation on Greek myths about the philandering of Zeus, it overtly contravenes most accepted moral practice. Similarly, the account of the end of Christ's life is a story, as Paine puts it, of a father putting his innocent son to death, an even greater contravention of accepted morality and a tale that would be particularly difficult for a parent to use as moral guidance in raising his children. Paine's point is that morality, if it is to be applicable to all, must be comprehensible to all. But the account of the life of Christ cannot serve as a moral paradigm because, if taken literally, it does not establish proper moral rules; and, if taken metaphorically, its meaning is not accessible to ordinary individuals. More important, the story as a whole destroys the principle of justice, since it indicates that the archetype of moral goodness (as exemplified in the life of Christ) is the innocent being punished and suffering in the place of the guilty, which is the direct opposite of what is generally understood as justice.

Paine finds Christ's teachings suspect, too. The golden rule, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," is perfectly acceptable as a moral tenet; however, it is taught in many different moral systems and cannot distinguish Christianity even from the non-religious systems of classical philosophy. What sets Christian teaching apart is the additional precept that "if a man smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also," and the doctrine that "a man should love his enemies." To Paine, these are examples of false, or "feigned," morality. The former precept "sinks man into a spaniel," whereas the latter is "impossible to be performed." He argues that this makes Christianity untenable, since there can be no moral obligation to follow rules that, in general, cannot be fulfilled. Furthermore, the presence of such rules at the center of Christian morality inevitably breeds a population of hypocrites, since clerics and laypeople alike will only be able to live a life of pretended goodness.

To complement his attack on Christian doctrine, in the second part of The Age of Reason Paine provides a systematic, book-by-book analysis of the dubious authorship, logical inconsistency, and historical inaccuracy of the Bible. He argues that the authority of the Bible is based upon the claim that it is the word of God. But, he says, there is no external evidence that this claim is true; for there is no documentation of when the various books were written, who wrote them, or how their words might legitimately be attributed to God. In fact, all that is certain about the compilation of books in the Bible is that a committee of church fathers determined by vote what should be considered the word of God and included in the Bible, which can hardly be seen as evidence that they are authorized by God. The internal evidence, derived from a reading of the Bible itself, clearly shows that the different books could not have been written by Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Mark, Luke, or any of the others who are generally accepted as their authors. As Paine points out, many of the events described occurred at times during which the authors could not conceivably have been present-Moses' death and burial, for example, is described in one of the books of Moses. Some of the names of towns given in the various books were not the names of those towns until after the lifetimes of the supposed authors of those books. And there are grammatical indications throughout the Old Testament that the books were written later than the periods in which the supposed authors lived. But, if they were not written by the authors to whom they are attributed, on whose authority are we to accept that the events actually occurred or that the accounts reflect the word of God?

In the New Testament, the four gospels purportedly give parallel accounts of the same events. Here, Paine points to the contradictions among the various accounts-regarding the circumstances surrounding the crucifixion, for example, as well as those surrounding the resurrection and the actions of the apostles following the resurrection. Paine also points to the fact that some of the accounts inexplicably omit important details. Mark and John do not even mention the "immaculate conception." Only Matthew tells the story of Herod's destruction of all the children under two years old, the warning of the angel, and the flight of Jesus. According to Paine, it is hardly likely that there would be significant contradictions or that important details would be left out, if the gospels were written by individuals who were in truth eyewitnesses to the events. It is far more likely that they were written by others at some later date. Again (as with the books of the Old Testament), if this is so, the status of the gospels as revelation is greatly suspect.

There are difficulties in any case, as Paine argues, with the principle of revelation itself. Revelation is, by definition, God's communication of his will immediately to an individual. Any event that has been witnessed, or any action that has been observed, cannot be revelation properly speaking. For, if they have been witnessed, in what sense are they revealed? Since virtually the whole of the Old and New Testaments (including the gospels and the acts of the apostles) is a compilation of historical and anecdotal accounts of witnessed events, it cannot be revelation. And even were it to be considered revelation, it could only be so to those who were immediate witnesses to the events. To everyone else, the information is secondhand and, therefore, a matter of belief, not revelation. But an individual can have no moral obligation to believe something said to be a matter of revelation, but not revealed directly to him. Since, for most people, the books of the Bible were not directly revealed, they can have no moral force whatsoever except for the extent to which they express principles coincident with the dictates of human reason. For, ultimately, reason is the only determinant of what is morally obligatory.

Whether or not any rational principles do in fact appear in the Bible, for Paine, Christianity as an institution is irreconcilable with human reason, and not simply because rational principle is subordinated to revealed truth. Christianity is self-consciously irreconcilable with reason. Historically, the church has emphasized the "contemptible smallness" of man, and his fundamental inability to know. More important, because reason, in practice, has the potential to contradict or refute religious doctrine, the church has actively discouraged rational inquiry, not only with regard to the principles of religion, but also in the realm of natural philosophy and science. Such inquiry came to be considered morally reprehensible. According to Paine, this is the explanation for the descent of human society into the Dark Ages.

In truth, however, human reason is not inherently incompatible with religion. As noted above, it is central to Paine's argument that the rejection of religion in its entirety has critical dangers of its own; and it is his primary object to ground religion in reason. But this is only possible, in Paine's view, by means of religious revolution - that is, the replacement of revealed religion with a true theology. It is unlikely that Paine thought of himself as a theologian. However, in The Age of Reason, he claims to be a Deist, and he suggests the outlines of what a Deistic theology would look like. For himself, he says that he believes in one God, that he hopes for happiness beyond this life, and that he considers religious duty to consist in "doing justice, living mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy." None of this, however, requires a belief in any specific church. The mind of each individual is its own church, so there is no need for any institutionalized church to act as intermediary between the individual and God. Nor does the true theology require any written "word of God." The word of God is, in any case, not to be found in supposedly revealed religious texts. The word of God does not, in fact, make use of words at all. In Paine's view, the word of God is "the creation we behold"; and the true theology is the study of this creation. God is the mechanic of the universe, and so knowledge of God is knowledge of the workings of the universe-geometry, astronomy, physics, and the other sciences. Devotion to these sciences will lead to the knowledge of scientific principles. These are the actual truths of God; and with this knowledge will come technological advances that will ultimately bring about healthier, safer, and freer societies. This will, in turn, foster a greater "reverence and gratitude" for the creator. In this respect, Paine was the quintessential man of the Enlightenment. He believed not only that man is perfectible, but also that the nature of human reason is such that there is a direct relation between its function in the scientific realm and its function in the moral realm. Moral progress inexorably follows scientific progress. To the extent that political and religious revolutions result in a free society, the advance of science will continue. "When opinions are free, either in matters of government or religion, truth will finally and powerfully prevail." The implication is that, as truth prevails, so does the moral and just society. Paine provides no argument for this position, and it could be that it is simply a part of his Enlightenment faith. Be this as it may, Paine has lost little of his persuasive power. Even today, at a time when liberalism is the dominant paradigm, and when it might be thought that arguments questioning the authority of the church or the reasonableness of religion are no longer necessary, The Age of Reason remains surprisingly relevant. It serves as a reminder that there is a recurring tendency to seek the establishment of religious principle through the exercise of state power-a tendency that a liberal regime ignores at its own peril.

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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 24, 2001

    A Great Perspective on Religion and Morality

    Thomas Paine did a terrific job on letting people know the truth about God. Christianity and organized religions are nothing but concoctions and systems that draw from cults and pagan religions that went on at the time. Paine offers irrefutable arguments against the veracity of the Bible on ethical, chronological, and historical premises. This is the ultimate test any Christian should take to challenge their faith: read this book. It's not just about dismantling obsolete and flawed theology--it's about becoming more ethical and evolved. I wholeheartedly recommend and endorse this book.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2003

    A brilliant book far ahead of its time

    The harmful effects organized religion has had on the world may be obvious to us in hindsight, but Paine was able to point them out at a time when the churches still had absoulute power over the world, and for this the world owes him an enormous debt of gratitude.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 7, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Can't go wrong with this one.

    If your pious, read it. Don't worry nothing can shake the need to believe. If your not pious, its a treat to read! Such a great book for the time period. Regardless of your belief system, I highly recommend it.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2003

    Thomas Paine

    I haven't read the whole book yet but it has brought up very good arguments so far. I also have researched Thomas Paine and the reason i wanted to read this is because he spent the remainder of his life (falloween the publishing) in poverty becuase of the arguments in this book. No one would excepted them so he was outcast. This book is definetly revolutional.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2000

    Deism - an alternative to both atheism & 'revelations'

    In this outstanding book, Thomas Paine lets the reader know that you do not have to limit yourself to either Christianity and the other various 'revealed' religions or to atheism. You become aware that a great alternative to both is the natural religion/spiritual philosophy of Deism! Paine exposes the Bible for what it is - the ranting and ravings of superstitious fanatics. He shows how the Bible portrays God as a jealous, violent idiot! It's very shocking at first. Then you realize what you've been fed all these years! Reading THE AGE OF REASON is very spiritually liberating. It's not for the religious, but it is for the spiritual! I'm proud to say that I'm a Deist and belong to the World Union of Deists, thanks to Mr. Paine's great book! Robert L. Johnson

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