Anyone who knows anything about the history of religious doubt knows Thomas Paine is a humanist hero.
But President Teddy Roosevelt called Paine a ‘Filthy Little Atheist,’ 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 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. 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 he wrote voluminously, collected now into a shelf of volumes. 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 published defenses of the book. Here is a 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 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 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 ‘revelation’ and says a revelation that’s given to one person is thereafter ‘hearsay’ to all others and not bound to convince anyone of its veracity. He chides the notion of a ‘revealed holy book’ by saying the ‘words of God’ cannot be accurately conveyed in a book to humans who use 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 biblical books because God was depicted as a brutal, vindictive monarch. Paine could see that the gospels were not written by eye witnesses. He exposed the artificial use of Old Testament ‘prophecies’ in the story of Jesus. He suspected Paul was not the author of many letters attributed to him. And much more. He could identify contradictions in the bible. All this had a jarring effect on his Christian readers.With a scoffing tone, Paine also itemized and deconstructed 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, as the supposed atoning death of an innocent man, and God’s purported need for blood to satisfy God’s injured sense of justice.
In ‘The Age of Reason,’ 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. ‘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. Booksellers, publishers, printers, pressmen, even shop girls, were sent to prison in England for years because they produced ‘The Age of Reason.’
Teddy Roosevelt received letters from around the world asking him to retract his ‘Filthy Little Atheist’ remark. Roosevelt wouldn’t do it. But why would Roosevelt, who lived more than a hundred years after Paine, even venture an opinion on Thomas Paine? Here’s why: Paine’s book 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 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. Get a President to refuse to retract three big inaccuracies in three small words: Filthy Little Atheist.
Featured image ‘Common Sense – Thomas Paine’ by clemsonunivlibrary via Flickr