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 ideals. 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.