"Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my own part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel."
* One of the greatest deconstructions of theistic religion that I've seen
* When discussing religion, uses very sound reasoning, as the book title suggests
* Very detailed critique of the Bible without ever using extra Biblical evidence
* Shows countless inconsistencies and contradictions that renders the belief that the Bible is perfect untenable
* It is actually quite humorous at times
* Very good insight into the beliefs of one of the most important people in American history
* Lots of historical information and value
* When discussing his own supernatural beliefs, his skeptical eye that he uses towards other people's religion ceases to exist
* There is a slight bit of hypocrisy here
* Unfortunately not even the great Thomas Paine is able to completely renounce all superstition
"People in general know not what wickedness there is in this pretended word of God. Brought up in habits of superstition, they take it for granted that the Bible is true, and that it is good; they permit themselves not to doubt of it."
This classic work by one of America's 'Founding Fathers' and the man whose pamphlet 'Common Sense' inspired the Declaration of Independence gave me very mixed feelings. On one hand, his views on the fatuousness of theistic religion are eloquent and concise, and extremely surprising for a man who lived in the 1700s. I will provide a small sample of his criticism of religion, first, his thoughts on religion being a product of how you are raised rather than truth, "That many good men have believed this strange fable, and lived very good lives under that belief (for credulity is not a crime) is what I have no doubt of. In the first place, they were educated to believe it, and they would have believed anything else in the same manner. There are also many who have been so enthusiastically enraptured by what they conceived to be the infinite love of God to man, in making a sacrifice of himself, that the vehemence of the idea has forbidden and deterred them from examining into the absurdity and profaneness of the story." On the trustworthiness of the miraculous claims of the Gospels, "As to the ancient historians, from Herodotus to Tacitus, we credit them as far as they relate things probable and credible, and no further: for if we do, we must believe the two miracles which Tacitus relates were performed by Vespasian, that of curing a lame man, and a blind man, in just the same manner as the same things are told of Jesus Christ by his historians. We must also believe the miracles cited by Josephus, that of the sea of Pamphilia opening to let Alexander and his army pass, as is related of the Red Sea in Exodus. These miracles are quite as well authenticated as the Bible miracles, and yet we do not believe them." On Christian belief being a matter of chance rather than truth, "Be this as it may, they decided by vote which of the books out of the collection they had made, should be the WORD OF GOD, and which should not. They rejected several; they voted others to be doubtful, such as the books called the Apocrypha; and those books which had a majority of votes, were voted to be the word of God. Had they voted otherwise, all the people since calling themselves Christians had believed otherwise; for the belief of the one comes from the vote of the other." On the other hand, the superstitions of his time had taken too much of a hold on his mind for him to overcome them completely, which I will come to later in the review.
'The Age of Reason' is a two part book, the first being written when Paine was in France and when he thought that he only had a short time before he would be executed. For this part, Paine did not have a Bible so everything he said was by his excellent memory alone. Perhaps surprisingly, the majority of the first part seems to be a justification of Paine's deism rather than a polemic on religion. This work could easily be titled 'The Bible of Deism' rather than 'The Age of Reason'. Paine's main gripe with religion is not that it stifles intellectual development or that it inspires cruelty and hate, but that it shields us from the "true" religion of deism. This is where some of Paine's unconscious hypocrisy shows through. He criticizes others for their ridiculous claims of having the one true religion, while he himself makes this exact claim that he criticizes in others. Paine, raised a Quaker, even goes so far as to say that the Quakers are not only the ones closest to the truth of deism, but he actually says that the Quakers practically *are* deists. He says, "The religion that approaches the nearest of all others to true Deism, in the moral and benign part thereof, is that professed by the quakers:" Also this, "The only sect that has not persecuted are the Quakers; and... they are rather Deists than Christians." Are we meant to believe that Paine just happened to be born into the only true religion? This is the exact line of thought that he criticizes!
Paine goes on to describe what he thinks are proof of the deistic position, which amount to nothing more than a priori inductive arguments and god of the gaps arguments that we've heard a thousand times. He says that nothing can cause itself to exist; that humans can't cause themselves to exist, that trees can't cause themselves to exist, that the Earth couldn't have caused itself to exist, etc. He says that we have no explanation for the existence of these things, therefore it must be magic, which he calls "God". Would Paine have still been a deist if he lived two centuries later after the nebular hypothesis and evolution? It is impossible to know, and most people forgive Paine's deism simply due to the ignorance of when he lived. What is unforgivable is that Paine shouldn't have been so ready to blame the supernatural just because we didn't know the cause of something in his time; we have had people like this before, such as Democritus, Lucretius, Epicurus, Baron d'Holbach, Jean Meslier, Denis Diderot, etc. Unfortunately, Paine makes this mistake of thinking humanity won't gain more knowledge multiple times, mostly due to his erroneous deistic beliefs. He actually makes the argument that, because during his time, we didn't understand how acorns and seeds grow, that our "Creator" didn't want us to have this knowledge, and that our "Creator" only gave us the knowledge that we needed to function. He says, "Our own existence is a mystery: the whole vegetable world is a mystery. We cannot account how it is that an acorn, when put into the ground, is made to develop itself and become an oak. We know not how it is that the seed we sow unfolds... We know, therefore, as much as is necessary for us to know; and that part of the operation that we do not know... the Creator takes upon himself and performs it for us." In other words, if we can't explain it, it is magic and we aren't meant to know it. I hope it is obvious to see why this line of thought is not conducive to scientific discovery. He also makes numerous claims about the nature of this "Creator", such as what it can and can't do and what is easy and hard for it to do, while also making the claims that this "Creator" is incomprehensible to our minds. Here is one of countless examples, "To an almighty power it is no more difficult to make the one than the other, and no more difficult to make a million of worlds than to make one." Apparently only Thomas Paine is immune to this supposed incomprehensibility. Not only was the universe "Created", but it was created *for* mankind! He says, "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." Another example of his god of the gaps argumentation is this, "We cannot conceive how we came here ourselves, and yet we know for a fact that we are here."
Paine makes the case that the claim of theistic religions that they have the "word of God" is blasphemy to the *real* "Almighty", which of course is the one he happens to believe in. Not once does he condemn blasphemy as an imaginary crime and a pathetic attempt to thwart freedom of speech. He says that the *true* "word of God" is not written in any book, but is written for all eyes in the "Creation" of the "Creator". Again, would Paine hold this position if he knew that these items in nature formed natural and weren't created supernaturally? I doubt it, but we cannot know for sure. He says that we can learn about our "Creator" by studying the "Creation". In this case, what a monstrous "Creator" indeed! What would we think of a man who created parasites that feed on the living brains of innocent children? Of wasps that lay their eggs inside the innards of other living beings, only for them to hatch and have them eat their way out? Of horrible diseases such as the plague and smallpox? Of the illimitable genetic defects that plague animalkind? I could go on, but I think my point is made. Only a fiend would introduce such horrors into the world, yet Paine thinks this "Creator" is a moral one! How could the same man that so effortlessly refuted the claims of religion by memory alone come to such a baseless conclusion?! He knows the "Creator" is moral, he says, by the abundance that the "Creator" has given us. Even in the 21st century, with all our technology and wealth, almost a billion people are either starving or malnourished. Where is their "abundance"? The last error Paine makes is this statement, "It is certain that, in one point, all nations of the earth and all religions agree. All believe in a God." This is completely untrue; in fact, most societies believed in *gods*, not "a God", but there are also societies that believed in no gods whatsoever. Thomas Henry Huxley writes about his anthropological studies in the field, "There are savages without God in any proper sense of the word, but none without ghosts." He does have a statement about prayer which I like, "For what is the amount of all his prayers, but an attempt to make the Almighty change his mind, and act otherwise than he does? It is as if he were to say — thou knowest not so well as I."
This leads us to part 2 of 'The Age of Reason', which is more about debunking religion than praising deism. Paine, now equipped with a Bible, completely dissects the illimitable errors, saying, "I have furnished myself with a Bible and Testament; and I can say also that I have found them to be much worse books than I had conceived. If I have erred in any thing, in the former part of the Age of Reason, it has been by speaking better of some parts than they deserved." One of my favorite lines, "It has been the practice of all Christian commentators on the Bible, and of all Christian priests and preachers, to impose the Bible on the world as a mass of truth, and as the word of God; they have disputed and wrangled, and have anathematized each other about the supposeable meaning of particular parts and passages therein; one has said and insisted that such a passage meant such a thing, another that it meant directly the contrary, and a third, that it meant neither one nor the other, but something different from both; and this they have called understanding the Bible. It has happened, that all the answers that I have seen to the former part of 'The Age of Reason' have been written by priests: and these pious men, like their predecessors, contend and wrangle, and understand the Bible; each understands it differently, but each understands it best; and they have agreed in nothing but in telling their readers that Thomas Paine understands it not." Paine then systematically goes through every book of the Old Testament until he amasses a pile of errors that could reach the Sun. When he is done with the Old, he moves to the New, and after examining the evidence as to its truthfulness he has this to say, "If the writers of these four books had gone into a court of justice to prove an alibi... and had they given their evidence in the same contradictory manner as it is here given, they would have been in danger of... perjury, and would have justly deserved it. Yet this is the evidence, and these are the books, that have been imposed upon the world as being given by divine inspiration, and as the unchangeable word of God." And finally, he concludes the New Testament with, "I have now gone through the examination of the four books ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John;... it is, I believe, impossible to find in any story upon record so many and such glaring absurdities, contradictions, and falsehoods, as are in those books. They are more numerous and striking than I had any expectation of finding, when I began this examination, and far more so than I had any idea of when I wrote the former part of 'The Age of Reason.'" His summary, "What is it the Bible teaches us? — repine, cruelty, and murder. What is it the Testament teaches us? — to believe that the Almighty committed debauchery with a woman engaged to be married; and the belief of this debauchery is called faith. As to the fragments of morality that are irregularly and thinly scattered in those books, they make no part of this pretended thing, revealed religion. They are the natural dictates of conscience, and the bonds by which society is held together, and without which it cannot exist; and are nearly the same in all religions, and in all societies." For a summary of his views on Christianity, "Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid, or produces only atheists and fanatics. As an engine of power, it serves the purpose of despotism; and as a means of wealth, the avarice of priests; but so far as respects the good of man in general, it leads to nothing here or hereafter." And finally, his thoughts on theology, "The study of theology as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and admits of no conclusion. Not any thing can be studied as a science without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is not the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing."
"There now remain only a few books, which they call books of the lesser prophets; and as I have already shown that the greater are impostors, it would be cowardice to disturb the repose of the little ones. Let them sleep, then, in the arms of their nurses, the priests, and both be forgotten together. I have now gone through the Bible, as a man would go through a wood with an axe on his shoulder, and fell trees. Here they lie; and the priests, if they can, may replant them. They may, perhaps, stick them in the ground, but they will never make them grow."