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A defense of deism and a polemic against theism
on May 16, 2004
Thomas Paine, like others among our nation's founders (Ethan Allen, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Joel Barlow), considered himself a deist, a term that encompasses a wide range of beliefs but is principally based on "religious rationalism": that, initially created by a benevolent God, the universe operates on rational rather than supernatural principles. Paine (and Allen), however, departed from the cautiously nuanced approach to religious issues adopted by his peers and vociferously rejected Judeo-Christian tenets and scriptures. In "The Age of Reason," Paine outlines his objections to theism and his belief in deism, and he dissects the inconsistencies in both the Old and New Testaments.
Paine published the book in two parts: the first he hurriedly finished in January 1794 when he realized he would be arrested during the French Revolution (passages were in fact written from the Luxembourg Palace in Paris, where he was imprisoned). The second part was written the following year, and he responds to the critics of the first part with a no-holds-barred attack on the veracity of the Bible.
Paine presents his basic belief that "it is only in the creation that all our ideas and conceptions of a word of God can unite," and later in the book he says that "the creation is the bible of the deist." To Paine, the Bible is the word of man, not the Word of God, and he confronts many of the literalist beliefs proffered by the clergy and worshippers in his day. Many of his arguments, once shocking and blasphemous, are now taken for granted. For instance, he analyzes internal evidence in the books allegedly written by Moses, Joshua, and Samuel to show that it's impossible for Moses, Joshua, and Samuel to have written them--a view that most Christians and nearly all biblical scholars acknowledge today. In other ways, he is way ahead of his time, pondering the minuteness of our world in the immensity of the universe, speculating that other planets around other stars may well hold other intelligent species, and mocking the resulting conclusion that "the Son of God . . . would have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of death."
Paine believes that God made a complex multi-world universe (rather than a single world) so that it would serve as a textbook for humankind: "As therefore the Creator made nothing in vain, so also must it be believed that he organized the structure of the universe in the most advantageous manner for the benefit of man." It is through this "revelation" of nature that believers can know God: "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."
Even if one disagrees with Paine (and many obviously do),"The Age of Reason" is an essential book both historically and philosophically. It should be read whether you hope to provide support for your own beliefs or to discover what non-Christians thought two centuries ago. It's inevitable that every reader will approach this book with an agenda, but even Christians should wrestle with Paine's arguments--since many of them are still heard today.