Happy Paine Day

01/27/2017 12:48 pm ET
Engraving by George Romney, 1793. Image courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

“It is not because right principles have been violated that they are to be abandoned.” – Thomas Paine

January 29 is Thomas Paine’s birthday. Paine is most famous in history classrooms today as the author of Common Sense and other stirringly short works promoting the American Revolution. This was true in his own day, too, until he published a two-part attack on the Bible and Christianity in the 1790s. In an overwhelmingly Christian country, Paine’s reputation took a predictable hit at that point. In the nineteenth century, though, an always-marginal number of American religious dissenters – atheists, agnostics, freethinkers – marked Paine’s birthday as a holiday. Though his religious critics didn’t get it, Paine saw his unpopular opposition to oppressive religion as part and parcel of his celebrated opposition to oppressive government. Paine Day 2017 comes as the American democracy Paine helped write into being is newly threatened by a religiously-inflected political regime. For that reason, it deserves some celebrating.

Paine wrote the first part of his reputation-damaging diatribe, The Age of Reason, while waiting to die. A serial revolutionary, he joined the French Revolution after the American, and during the Reign of Terror fell afoul of those he’d supported. He’d always planned, he explained, to write something about religion, but being a prudent man thought he would wait until late in life. Worried that he was in line for the guillotine, Paine got to work, and handed off a manuscript before being taken to jail. As it happened, he was held for ten months and then released, left to live with what were to have been his parting words. Freed, he acknowledged the hurried composition of Part I of The Age of Reason when he settled in to really give revealed religion a working over in Part II.

Paine was not, it is important to note, an atheist. He was an old-school deist – he believed in a single God who created the universe. Deists further believed, though, that this God made himself manifest to human beings only through that creation, rejecting the other forms of revelation that most religions revere: no prophecy, no scripture, no incarnations of God. Paine’s core objection to revealed religions – those that rely on what he identified as the triple-threat of “Mystery, Miracle, and Prophecy” – is that they impose upon human reason. They demand and cultivate credulity, the belief in things without proof. The Age of Reason is a paean to the sciences, to the Enlightenment understanding of humankind’s capacity to observe the natural world and to make provable, testable, meaningful conclusions about it.

Paine’s type of confidence in human reason has long been out of favor among academics, and with cause – such confidence ignores the potentially infinite factors, named and unnamed, that inflect the workings of rational thought. To behave as if our minds work without position and without context requires its own sort of credulity. In the era of “alternative facts,” though, Paine’s warning about the real danger of credulity bears repeating. “Credulity, however, is not a crime,” he wrote. “It becomes criminal by resisting conviction. It is strangling in the womb of the conscience the efforts it makes to ascertain truth.” To demand credulity on behalf of lies, to present alternative facts, is not to qualify and refine the processes of thought, post-modern style. It is to abandon them altogether.

Paine laid this sin at the feet of both revealed religion and mendacious political authority: both short-circuit the workings of reason by compelling acquiescence without – or despite – evidence. “The systems of the one are as false as those of the other,” he wrote, “and are calculated for mutual support.” To be sure, in his stridency Paine did not give religious institutions or their members enough credit. Many people of faith would distinguish theirs from “blind faith,” and it is unfair not to recognize the potential for religion to legitimize and cultivate truth. It is possible to acknowledge these distinctions, though, and recognize when we see it the sort of abuse of reason Paine had in mind. The demand for religious and political credulity are the hallmarks of our current moment. Sometimes the connection between them is made explicit: Trump has promised both that he, personally, will “give [us] everything” and that we will be “protected by God.” More than that, though, the new administration operates with the tools of revealed religion, firmly in the realm of Paine’s hated triumvirate of mystery, miracle, and prophecy: the mystery of millions of non-existent illegal votes; the miracle of stifling trade while growing the economy; the prophecy that America will “start winning again.”

On this Paine Day, we should remember Paine’s injunction to never give up our reason, to demand evidence, to refuse demands for credulity. The most important thing we can take from The Age of Reason today is the reminder that, while many things are beyond our control right now, these things are not. Only we can force ourselves to believe things that aren’t true; only we can choose to give up our reason to credulity. And as Paine wrote: “We should never force belief upon ourselves in any thing.”

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