Thomas Paine On The Problem Of Religion And Knowledge, The Nature Of Thought, and The Age Of Reason

The names most commonly associated with the enlightenment — the beginning of the age of reason, secularism, enlightened values, the recognition of the power of the intellect — are Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Adam Smith, Descartes, and Francis Bacon. One rarely hears the name Thomas Paine. Perhaps it’s because he came after the groundwork had been laid; perhaps it’s because he wrote less prolifically; perhaps he was unfortunate to live at the same time as Franklin, Jefferson and co; perhaps he was just too controversial.

The latter could well be the primary reason so few people know about Thomas Paine; even putting aside the enlightenment for a moment, the founding of America, which some say Paine made possible, is more often credited to Jefferson, Franklin, Washington and Adams.

Thomas Paine’s book, Common Sense, in my opinion and in that of many a historian and philosopher, made American independence an inevitability. Surely then, he should be cited as often as those above? Well, if he didn’t go on to write The Age Of Reason and The Rights Of Man, he almost certainly would have. The reason for which is these books contain scathing attacks on religion — or rather, on ideology and archaic scripture. Contrary to the opinion of Roosevelt, who once called him a ‘dirty little atheist’, Paine was a believer in God.

He was not, however, a fan of the ideas, teachings and practices of conventional religion: the financial exploitation of the people and the state by the church, confessions, living by the Bible as if it contains the word of the creator of the universe, mass, and so forth. God only knows what his opinions would have been on paedophillic priests and child-rapist clergymen. But in his lifetime these views harmed his reputation quite profoundly; and, with the help of Roosevelt and few ignorant others, sadly it has suffered since.

In the prelude of The Age of Reason he makes his stance crystal clear:

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavouring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

But, lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.

As concise, prosaic and perfectly reasonable as these words are to the enlightened reader, they turn clockwise the dials of rage and chagrin  in devout churchgoers and religious leaders. Even non-pious followers of religion turn will suffer from temporary restless leg syndrome whilst reading anything that opposes religion. It is therefore not hard imagine how much controversy arose from this view, in an age where so many individuals were hardcore believers in the God of their sacred scriptures.

In a delightful passage about the nature of thought, Paine speaks of the difference between the epiphanic and intuitive, and the conscious contemplative and analytical:

Any person, who has made observations on the state and progress of the human mind, by observing his own, cannot but have observed, that there are two distinct classes of what are called Thoughts; those that we produce in ourselves by reflection and the act of thinking, and those that bolt into the mind of their own accord. I have always made it a rule to treat those voluntary visitors with civility, taking care to examine, as well as I was able, if they were worth entertaining; and it is from them I have acquired almost all the knowledge that I have.

Paine is remembered as a man of remarkable erudition, as an autodidact, and a polymath. In a touching memoir about the philosophy and grave misunderstandings of Paine, the great Thomas Edison had this to say:

‘I was always interested in Paine the inventor. He conceived and designed the iron bridge and the hollow candle; the principle of the modern central draught burner. The man had a sort of universal genius. He was interested in a diversity of things; but his special creed, his first thought, was liberty.’

Paine himself alludes to words later spoken by asian cultural hero Bruce Lee, when he said that ‘all learning is self-learning’. It is infinitely easier to act our way into a new way of thinking than it is to think our way into a new way of acting; but to do this consciously, we first must conceive of a thought, however small. This, according to Paine, was the role of a school education:

As to the learning that any person gains from school education, it serves only, like a small capital, to put him in the way of beginning learning for himself afterwards. Every person of learning is finally his own teacher; the reason of which is, that principles, being of a distinct quality to circumstances, cannot be impressed upon the memory; their place of mental residence is the understanding, and they are never so lasting as when they begin by conception. Thus much for the introductory part.

Thomas Paine walked the talk; he had skin in the game; he devoted his entire life to breaking America free of the penetrating chains of the British rule, spreading the enlightened values of reason and truth, and dispelling bad ideas. In the following extract from a piece about morality, Paine encourages virtuous civility, whilst warning against the socially irresponsible life of solitude:

[The practice of moral truth] is no other than our acting towards each other as [God] acts benignly towards all. We cannot serve God in the manner we serve those who cannot do without such service; and, therefore, the only idea we can have of serving God, is that of contributing to the happiness of the living creation that God has made. This cannot be done by retiring ourselves from the society of the world, and spending a recluse life in selfish devotion.

I would have to be clubbed over the head with a driver1 to be convinced that he was a clairvoyant — and hit twice that he believed in clairvoyance — but in a prescient remark about moral intuitions, Paine had this to say:

As for morality, the knowledge of it exists in every man’s conscience.

Today, evolutionary studies tell us this is true: morality is less of social construct that it is our part of our nature; it’s biological.

Paine closes the book with a sublime passage that speaks, directly to the heart, for itself:

Could a man be placed in a situation, and endowed with power of vision to behold at one view, and to contemplate deliberately, the structure of the universe, to mark the movements of the several planets, the cause of their varying appearances, the unerring order in which they revolve, even to the remotest comet, their connection and dependence on each other, and to know the system of laws established by the Creator, that governs and regulates the whole; he would then conceive, far beyond what any church theology can teach him, the power, the wisdom, the vastness, the munificence of the Creator. He would then see that all the knowledge man has of science, and that all the mechanical arts by which he renders his situation comfortable here, are derived from that source: his mind, exalted by the scene, and convinced by the fact, would increase in gratitude as it increased in knowledge: his religion or his worship would become united with his improvement as a man: any employment he followed that had connection with the principles of the creation, —as everything of agriculture, of science, and of the mechanical arts, has,—would teach him more of God, and of the gratitude he owes towards him, than any theological Christian sermon he now hears. Great objects inspire great thoughts; great munificence excites great gratitude; but the grovelling tales and doctrines of the Bible and the Testament are fit only to excite contempt.

Today, people like Sam Harris, Stephen Fry, and the late Christopher Hitchens carry on Paine’s legacy — indirectly, in the manner they’ve conducted their lives; and directly, with occasional references to his unparalleled works. If the subjects of reason, rationality, facts, science, history, beliefs, cognition, writing or philosophy are of interest, put this book on your nightstand. You won’t regret it.

When I wrote this you could grab the all essential writings of Paine in digital format for free on amazon.

  1. An indirect reference to drunker golfers.

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