Category Archives: atheism

Thomas Paine: The Age of Reason

The period of European history known as The Enlightenment was the period in which many of the hallowed values that define classical liberalism were canonized. Among these values were constitutionalism, freedom of speech, and most importantly, separation of church and state. Thomas Paine remains one of the most celebrated exponents of liberal thought. Capping off a trifecta of canonical liberal texts which included Common Sense and Rights of Man, The Age of Reason represents Paine’s defense of freedom of conscience in matters of faith. More specifically, this book is a rejection of religious institutions and an attack on the historicity of the Bible, divine revelation and miracles. Paine is explicit about his belief in God and is affirming deism, but the arguments he sets forth are scarcely different from those we hear from contemporary religious skeptics. It is, in effect, a work of proto-atheism. It’s a very short hop from Paine’s presumed skepticism and mind numbing pedantry to Dawkins and Hitchens. 

Published in three parts in 1794, 1795 and 1807, The Age of Reason rattled a few cages due to the perceived proximity to French Jacobinism. Like Voltaire, Paine’s writing was a sort of intellectual punk rock of its day. Despite this reputation for being a work of heresy, it is an exceedingly tedious and tendentious treatise. The Age of Reason, both the book and the broader Enlightenment consensus are perhaps slightly overrated. Common Sense might have helped build a consensus for the American Revolution, but Paine wasn’t necessarily held in high esteem by some of the Founders. This book opens a window of insight on why this might be so. The elevation of reason as the principle method by which we obtain knowledge and derive universal principles has arguably laid a foundation for moral relativism and a purely materialistic view of the world.

I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity as you do, and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Buonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Thomas Paine. There can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine. – John Adams on Thomas Paine

Perhaps more significantly, it also appears to be a stepping stone on the pathway to scientism. He openly asserts that the study of natural philosophy, mathematics and mechanical science is the “true theology”. This conflation of moral virtue with the pursuit of scientific discovery is essentially an article of faith for progressives and atheists alike. The laws of the natural world are discovered. How the human mind chooses to apply these discoveries is up for grabs. This pursuit may be moral and ethical, but it may be completely malevolent. The methods by which data is gathered may be ethical or they may be cherry picked in order to confirm a bias or a preconceived conclusion. Whether it’s the first time such criticisms and claims have been committed to print I cannot say, but The Age of Reason cements a perception of antagonism between science and faith that persists to this day.

The first section is essentially the entire blueprint for modern atheism with one key difference: Paine actually believes in God. This difference is crucial, but every criticism he levels at Christian belief can be found in the rhetorical bedrock of every modern atheist and agnostic from Harris to Tyson. His contention is that the biblical teachings of belief in miracles, resurrection, the Holy Trinity and young earth creationism have engendered an antipathy towards science and paved a path for superstition over reason. He claims that this proliferation of superstitious belief has bred an open hostility to scientific advancement; a claim which is not borne out by recent polling of the scientific community. The absence of any specific examples does not lend credibility to the claim, but this omission didn’t seem to prevent the perception from spreading.

But this, the supporters or partizans of the Christian system, as if dreading the result, incessantly opposed, and not only rejected the sciences, but persecuted the professors. 

In the subsequent section, Paine proceeds to dissect the first six books of the Old Testament in painstaking detail. He lays out a trove of information which he claims falsifies the historicity of the books. It’s rather tedious stuff. When he finally gets to discussing his fondness for the Book of Job, it becomes apparent that perhaps his interpretation of the remaining texts is uncharitable and narrow. He explains why it is a text he holds in high esteem because of the lessons it imparts on human suffering and the striving towards contentment. More importantly, he is perhaps missing the fact that the Bible is not necessarily designed to impart historical knowledge, but that it represents hundreds of years of mankind striving to rise above its animal nature and reach for some ideal of divine perfection.

The one argument that sets this book apart from atheist orthodoxy is Paine’s unequivocal belief in the connection between deistic faith and the objective existence of moral truth. This also appears to be a point of agreement between Kant and Paine since Kant argued that you needed an a priori cognitive structure through which to process sense data. 

In the final section, he takes a sledgehammer to the New Testament by claiming that “Christianity only produces atheists and fanatics”, but history has proven this contention false. Worst of all, his view of the French Revolution seems deeply ahistorical. He contends that the intolerance of the Church had transferred into the realm of politics which is the exact opposite of reality. It was, in fact, secular fanaticism which culminated in the establishment of a violent, state sponsored secular religion known as the Cult of Reason. The magnitude of Jacobin violence meted out to the Church and the Christian faith during The Reign of Terror is staggering.

Paine’s criticisms sound scarcely different from the generic attacks on “religion” that one would find on an atheist meme or a Bill Maher rant. Ironically, Paine considers the New Testament itself as a work of atheism. I’m not sure how much value the Bible has for the individual reading it in order to find historical or chronological error and contradiction. The Bible was apparently written over a span of approximately 1500 years. The individuals who wrote the scriptures and the process of collecting these works is indeed a subject worthy of scrutiny. However, I suggest that these concerns are secondary to the larger significance to human moral psychology. If one were to take a charitable view, the Bible could be viewed as a collection of works which reveals man striving for metaphysical transcendence. They are designed to reveal man struggling to articulate things beyond what his mind can know or obtain solely through the accumulation of sense data. It is meant to form the bedrock through which knowledge is assimilated so that the works of man would express the divine ideal. Paine’s exercise feels like a wrong turn.

While I can certainly appreciate that this work was transgressive in its day and probably helped pave the way for a multiplicity of views on faith both benign and malevolent, I’m strongly inclined to think that perhaps it planted the seed of destruction for Reason itself. The human capacity for reason and the discipline of logic are high level functions of the human mind. These abilities are cultivated and are certainly not evenly distributed throughout the population. The human capacity for morality, which is itself a form of faith, supersedes any concern for logic or reason. When it comes to perceptions of moral imperatives, reason is often utterly ineffectual as a mode of persuasion. The compulsion to confirm existing biases and affirm tribal alliances nullifies the possibility of reasoned debate or analysis. Moreover, the progressive Left has essentially hijacked scientific reasoning and used it as a substitute for ideological moralizing in a manner similar to Paine, but less explicit. Humanity is clearly wired for faith of some kind.  If this capacity isn’t funneled into some kind of theism or, at minimum, belief in transcendent moral absolutes, it tends to be transferred to the secular equivalent of Ultimate Authority: the State. To what extent does the capacity for reason even enter the dialogue when morality has been ceded to the secular priesthood? As current events attest, not much, if at all. 

The Age of Reason offers very little that’s meaningful or relevant to the world today. The distinctions between science and morality have been steamrolled and the floodgates of atheism have been opened since its publication. I’d argue there’s nothing in the Christian faith or the Bible that hasn’t been picked apart a thousand times. The Christian faith has already endured every criticism that can be made, and it still ended up producing the freest and most prosperous societies on earth. So free in fact, that the tools of Reason have been deployed to undermine the theological foundations of the West just as Nietzsche feared. The battle for Western civilization in which we’re currently engaged has precipitated a reappraisal and reaffirmation of the ideas at its core. Paine was correct to assert the existence of moral truth, but his dismissal of the broader metaphysical significance of scripture was perhaps a bit cavalier and hubristic. If any faith could use some more of Thomas Paine’s questioning spirit in 2017, it’s Islam.

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Atheism Versus Moral Realism

Though I consider myself an atheist, I get a little tired of the atheist contempt heaped on Christianity. There’s certainly no shortage of fundamentalist nutbags or clips of Pat Robertson spewing nonsense on which to pile scorn and ridicule. Hating on Christians and Christianity has become a bit of a tired cliché among atheists and progressives alike[1]. It’s especially galling when atheists will champion Christian values when they’re being upheld by a Democrat politician.  Christian values become instantly legitimate when a Christian religious leader validates their bias towards the moral righteousness of a particular policy agenda. On the other hand, Islam is rightfully receiving a vigorous critique from some corners of the atheist community on the grounds that it is barbaric, backwards and counter to basic liberal principles. Each of these phenomena raises an important point often derided and dismissed by atheists: the importance of moral realism. 

How can you claim moral retrogression in human behavior or in any ideology if you don’t claim that there is objective moral truth in the first place? Indeed, how can one formulate any theory of ethics, justice, or rights without some basic, universal, objective standard upon which to judge right and wrong?

Atheists argue that the belief in God is irrational because there’s no empirical proof of his existence. Atheists also tend to claim a mantle of moral superiority, myself included, since we view the world through the cold lens of hard reason, rationalism and empiricism. This belief in the power of reason reaches back to the Enlightenment and that the exercise of this capacity alone will guide us to a secular moral truth. Since God is a delusion, how can one uphold religious morality as a standard by which to guide our own actions let alone judge others? Surely, only a sad and limited consciousness would embrace the antiquated notion of a Supreme Being. Isn’t this belief in a Supreme Being, in fact, the very reason that people commit such horrible atrocities in God’s name, reject science and hold bigoted and exclusionary beliefs to this day? MUH CRUSADES, CLIMATE CHANGE DENIAL, HOMOPHOBIC BAKERS, AND ABORTION DOCTOR MURDERERS, AMIRITE?! Though it is a debate that been waged for centuries, conservative theist YouTuber, The Distributist, argued very persuasively that even if you are an atheist, you cannot disregard or take lightly the theist argument for the existence of God on the basis of morality. 

In the video, The Distributist responds to Vernaculis’ snide, condescending response Dr. Peter Kreeft’s moral case for the existence of God. In Kreeft’s video, he lays out all of the classic secular arguments for morality and why morality cannot be regarded as a set of preferences.  These arguments include:

  • Evolution
  • Reason
  • Conscience
  • Human Nature
  • Utilitarianism
  • In each case, both Kreeft and The Distributist argue that from these premises, morality will devolve in a few predictable ways. It will be subjectively constructed and enforced. It will potentially regress backwards or will arise from an a posteriori analysis which may or may not serve as a useful moral foundation for an evolving society. The latter case assumes of course that civilization has weathered the vagaries of a society based on a relativistic morality in the first place. Since mankind is subject to flaws, has the ability to make choices, and the establishment of moral normativity and ethics is necessary if one hopes to have a shot at actual civilization, it follows that one can only appeal to an external, immutable moral absolute which is both universally accessible and exists outside man and nature.  The Distributist and Kreeft both conclude that if there is absolute moral law, there must be an absolute lawgiver. Ergo, God exists.  

    Not bad.

    Setting aside whether one accepts the argument at all, why would a world of moral absolutes be preferable to moral relativism? Wouldn’t that lead to a RELIGIOUS TYRANNY??

    No.  

    For example, if murder is objectively wrong, it it was wrong in the past and remains wrong today. The fact that those vested with moral authority commit murder (e.g. priests, politicians, monarchs) doesn’t invalidate the moral law. Rather, it only proves that the person in question failed to live up to the law in his life choices.  Just as the unchanging laws of nature have allowed for vast scientific and technological discovery, an unchanging moral law provides an equally sound basis from which to make moral choices.

    Using any of the other bases for formulating morality, one could arrive at a valid moral rationale for murder, and history has borne this out.  Stalin was an atheist and saw no moral transgression in murdering millions of his citizens. He was the leader of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat who was merely facilitating the historical inevitability of a socialist worker’s paradise. It was justified on both evolutionary and utilitarian grounds. Checkmate, moral realism!

    Regardless of whether one accepts that moral objectivity proves the existence of God, it raises a deep challenge for the atheist who isn’t a moral relativist.  It requires that the atheist instantiate a metaphysical construct of Good and Evil which isn’t tied to any supernatural being or phenomenon.  It’s certainly possible to impart morality and ethics without religious beliefs, but religion is meant to express some kind of eternal moral truth in the universe.  Needless to say, this raises all kinds of questions around whether a religious text that commands you to stone your wife, condemn homosexuality or refrain from eating bacon can really be regarded as some kind of eternal moral truth. The point is there is indeed a necessity for objective morality as a foundational proposition from which one exercises free will. 

    Notable atheists, Sam Harris and Stefan Molyneux in particular, have attempted to proffer theories of morality that are grounded in science and logic. However, I propose that this is a fundamental epistemological error and the consignment of morality to the realm of science or logic negates and nullifies that which makes us human. Humans are driven by many factors, but by and large, we aspire to express love, be of service to others and do the Right Thing by our fellow humans. Even if you have no religious belief, humans aspire to reach the ineffable and the infinite through earthly works and human relationships. We extol examples of heroism, charity, goodwill and kindness and condemn acts of predation, cruelty, indifference and violence. We champion art which affirms our deepest yearnings for love, connectedness, companionship and eternal beauty.  We want to be reminded that our lives have meaning, that doing the Right Thing actually matters. We want to know that it is possible to affect change for the better. By inserting morality into the realm of science or logic, we’re subsuming these aspects of ourselves which cannot be quantified or proven through a logical proposition and building a world of mechanistic determinism. 

    Sadly, atheism has long been the province of the socialist Left throughout the world. While there are certainly atheist libertarians, the overwhelming majority of atheists have built a new global church of atheism in the government which has replaced moral realism with an endless array of moral wrongs to be punished and rights to be conferred. This cult of moral relativism has reached its apotheosis in the agenda of the modern day social justice warrior. Feminism, multiculturalism, and scientism all converge within the progressive agenda to form a set of moral precepts which are easily sold by ideologues, academic hacks, would-be intellectuals and politicians. Rape statistics are used by feminists not because they actually care about rape victims, but because they wish to inculcate shame and guilt in men for having the Original Sin of an XY chromosomal pair. Environmentalist doomsayers who inveigh against consumption, fossil fuels and “climate science deniers” are no different from your garden variety Baptist preacher invoking the fires of Eternal Damnation.  #Blacklivesmatter activists are far more concerned with policing what people say and think than attending to the needs of the black community. The higher priority is to have white people atone for White Privilege by implementing an agenda of “economic justice”. What do all these agendas have in common?  They all lead down the road towards the new and improved globalist serfdom.  

    Moral relativism is little more than a recipe for a recursive loop of existential ennui, angst, cynicism, anxiety, and nihilism. It also provides a readymade validation of Marxist alienation. The cult of scientism is pushing us into a society that’s increasingly automated, mechanized, deterministic and disconnected from ourselves and one another. The identity politics of guilt and shame are creating more division and enshrining a culture of victimhood and censorship. As the problems wrought by the relativists proliferate, the atheist priesthood doubles down and agitates for an ever expanding sphere of government sanctions, dispensations, accommodations and privileges.

    The advancement of human liberty and the market economy has afforded modern society the luxury of rejecting religious belief. Christianity remains a punching bag for atheists, but at this point, it appears to be little more than a license to hate conservatives. We live in a world where burning a Bible scarcely raises an eyebrow, but a drawing of Muhammad is a potential death sentence. Clearly, not all religions are equal, but the obvious moral depravity of Islam is continually overlooked by the progressive wing of the atheist community because it’s apparently a far worse sin to appear “bigoted” towards Muslims.  As far as “scientific” moralism goes,  Sam Harris’ handwaving away of Hillary Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War and career of corruption should tell you everything you need to know about how reliable this theory of morality is. The verdict is in on moral relativism and it is a recipe for self destruction.

    Classical liberalism has given us the freedom to pursue life on our own terms even if it involves no religious belief.  But atheists aren’t adding to human progress by embracing moral relativism. 

    [1] Most atheists also self-identify as progressive.