Thomas Paine Was No ‘Filthy Little Atheist’

Thomas Paine Was No ‘Filthy Little Atheist’ July 4, 2017

In the first decade of the twentieth century, President Teddy Roosevelt called eighteenth-century Thomas Paine a ‘filthy little theist,’ a phrase with as many errors in it as words, since Paine was fastidiously clean, stood taller than most of his contemporaries at five feet ten inches, and was a professed believer in God.

Paine was often called an atheist by Christians.  Why?

Let’s back up and remember who Thomas Paine was. Born in England, he was sent to America to make his fortunes by none other than Benjamin Franklin. In America, Paine became sympathetic to the American urge for independence from England and he wrote highly persuasive pamphlets encouraging revolution.

John Adams said that without Thomas Paine’s pen George Washington’s sword would never have defeated the Brits. It was Paine who suggested the name ‘United States of America’ and ‘USA’ for the fledgling nation. It was Paine who suggested that the new country have a written Constitution. Paine was one of the fathers of America and he personally knew all the other fathers. He went on to assist in the French revolution too.

Along the way, Paine wrote voluminously and his collected works will fill a shelf. One book alone brought Christian fury to Paine’s doorstep: ‘The Age of Reason.’ Why the fury? Because no other book dislodged so many thousands from the ranks of Christianity.

Anyone interested in the history of modern religious skepticism must read this book as well as Paine’s subsequent published defenses of the book. Here is a very, very brief summary of ‘The Age of Reason:’

  • Paine states almost immediately in the book that he believes in one God, as evident to him in the majesty of the physical universe. Paine advocated a simple ‘Deism,’ a non-dogmatic belief in a Creator God who deserves our private worship and expects us to be decent to one another.
  • Paine does not believe in any of the existing churches (by which he means all religions). As each existing church accuses all the others of unbelief, Paine says he disbelieves them all. ‘My mind is my own church,’ he says.
  • Paine challenges the idea of any religion claiming a special message from God offered in a revealed holy book. The only revelation from God, and the only script from God, is nature itself. Paine critiques the concept of ‘revelation’ and says a revelation that’s given to one person is thereafter mere ‘hearsay’ to all others and not bound to convince anyone of its veracity. He criticizes the notion of a ‘revealed holy book’ by saying ‘words of God’ cannot be accurately conveyed in a book to a humanity with many thousands of languages and dialects. God communicates only with the universal language of nature.
  • A large part of ‘The Age of Reason’ is given to meticulously close readings of biblical books, producing conclusions remarkably similar to what university biblical scholars would come up with a hundred years after Paine. Paine could see anachronisms and varying writing styles that proved Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch was impossible. He could see that the purported dates of biblical authorship were all wrong. He could see that the entire cannon of the bible was not arranged in chronological order. Paine felt that God was defamed in Old Testament biblical books because God was depicted as a brutal, vindictive monarch.
  • Paine can detect that the gospels were not written by eye witnesses. He exposes the artificial use of Old Testament ‘prophecies’ in the story of Jesus. He suspects that Paul was not the author of some of the letters attributed to Paul. He  identifies contradictions in the bible. And much more. All this had a jarring effect on his Christian readers.
  • Paine also itemizes and deconstructs every single Christian belief, calling each an impossible fiction and attaching the name ‘mythologists’ to Christian theologians. Some Christian ideas were outright immoral to Paine, like the atoning death of an innocent man, and God’s purported need for blood to satisfy God’s injured sense of justice.
  • Finally, Paine rejected the need for religion at all. ‘To do good is my religion,’ says Paine

But mere goodness was not enough and Christians could not imagine belief in God without the Christian apparatus for that belief. And so they utterly denied that Paine was a theist, against Paine’s own words. Paine suffered for his ‘atheism’ in his lifetime, and he indirectly made others suffer for it too decades after he died, during a penal era of malicious blasphemy prosecutions: booksellers, publishers, printers, typesetters, pressmen, even print shop girls, were sent to prison, some for years, because they aided in producing ‘The Age of Reason.’

Teddy Roosevelt received letters from the over the world asking (and demanding) that he retract the ‘filthy little atheist’ remark. Roosevelt wouldn’t  do it. Why would Roosevelt, living more than a hundred years after Paine, venture a negative opinion of Thomas Paine, who had performed invaluable service to an infant America? Accusing Paine of atheism suggests Teddy Roosevelt had never even read ‘The Age of Reason.’ So what was Roosevelt up to?

Here’s why Roosevelt did it:  ‘The Age of Reason’ was in a new loop of fame in the early twentieth century and the vice league lawyers could no longer suppress the book: booksellers and printers and type-setters and pressmen and print shop girls could not be jailed any more. How then to muffle the influence of the most damaging book Christianity ever faced?  Simple. Get a United States President to slander the author with a word that was then an epithet of abuse: ‘atheist.’  Get a President to refuse to retract three big inaccuracies in three small words: filthy little atheist.


Featured image ‘Thomas Paine’ by Bruce Porteous, via Flickr

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