Thomas Paine Nailed Christianity on the Cross, Why is it Still Alive and Kicking?

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD

Thomas Paine (January 29, 1737 – June 8, 1809) was an English-American political activist, author, political theorist and revolutionary. As the author of two highly influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution, he became one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.[2] His ideas reflected Enlightenment era rhetoric of transnational human rights.[3] He has been called “a corsetmaker by trade, a journalist by profession, and a propagandist by inclination.”[4]  Born in Thetford, England, in the county of Norfolk, Paine emigrated to the British American colonies in 1774 in time to participate in the American Revolution. His principal contributions were the powerful, widely read pamphlet Common Sense (1776), the all-time best-selling American book that advocated colonial America’s independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain, and The American Crisis (1776–83), a pro-revolutionary pamphlet series. Common Sense was so influential that John Adams said, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”[5]  Paine lived in France for most of the 1790s, becoming deeply involved in the French Revolution. He wrote the Rights of Man (1791), in part a defense of the French Revolution against its critics. His attacks on British writer Edmund Burke led to a trial and conviction in absentia in 1792 for the crime of seditious libel. In 1792, despite not speaking French, he was elected to the French National Convention. The Girondists regarded him as an ally. Consequently, the Montagnards, especially Robespierre, regarded him as an enemy. In December 1793, he was arrested and imprisoned in Paris, then released in 1794. He became notorious because of the Age of Reason (1793–94), his book that advocates Deism, promotes reason and freethinking, and argues against institutionalized religion in general and Christian doctrine in particular. He also wrote the pamphlet Agrarian Justice (1795), discussing the origins of property, and introduced the concept of a guaranteed minimum income.  In 1802, he returned to America where he died on June 8, 1809. Only six people attended his funeral as he had been ostracized for his ridicule of Christianity.[6]

Thomas Paine’s famous book the Age of reason was published in three parts in 1794, 1795, and 1807, it was a bestseller in the United States, where it caused a short-lived deistic revival.  It put the Christian dogma on the cross and at first blush it would seem to an objective reader, not indoctrinated in Christianity, that it would have knocked down Christianity, by the powerful blows of reason and logic.  The book is indeed very moving  and powerful.  Mark Twain,  the famous American author and humorist  of early last century, said about the book the Age of reason:

It took a brave man before the Civil War to confess he had read the Age of Reason … I read it first when I was a cub pilot, read it with fear and hesitation, but marveling at its fearlessness and wonderful power.

In October 1805,  the second president of the United States, John Adams wrote to his friend Benjamin Waterhouse, an American physician and scientist, talking about the influence of Thomas Paine:

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 [sic], Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from 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 Tom Paine. There can be no severer satyr [sic] 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.[1]

In other words, we cannot underestimate the short term influence of Paine’s work both in politics and religion.  He, in my opinion, solved the mystery of Christianity in a few paragraphs with a whole big book yet to spare. Firstly, he gave us a perfect criterion to judge our affairs, almost a one-liner:

The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

If ‘reason’ is made the criterion of human affairs then Christianity cannot survive.  This is not only noted by non-Christians, but, also by thoughtful Christian apologists, like Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (5 May 1813 – 11 November 1855).  He was a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic, and religious author. He wrote critical texts on organized religion, Christendom, morality, ethics, psychology and philosophy of religion, displaying a fondness for metaphor, irony and parables. He is widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher.[4]  He confessed, the quagmire between Christianity and rationality, in no uncertain terms:

It is not the business of any Christian writer or preacher to dilute Christianity to suit the general educated public. The doctrine of the incarnation was to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, and so will it always be, for the doctrine not only transcends reason; it the paradox par excellence; and it can be affirmed only by faith, with passionate inwardness and interest. The substitution of reason for faith means the death of Christianity.

Secondly, Paine wrote about vicarious atonement, knocking it out in a single paragraph:

From the time I was capable of conceiving an idea, and acting upon it by reflection, I either doubted the truth of the Christian system, or thought it to be a strange affair; I scarcely knew which it was: but I well remember, when about seven or eight years of age, hearing a sermon read by a relation of mine, who was a great devotee of the church, upon the subject of what is called Redemption by the death of the Son of God. After the sermon was ended, I went into the garden, and as I was going down the garden steps (for I perfectly recollect the spot) I revolted at the recollection of what I had heard, and thought to myself that it was making God Almighty act like a passionate man, that killed his son, when he could not revenge himself any other way; and as I was sure a man would be hanged that did such a thing, I could not see for what purpose they preached such sermons. This was not one of those kind of thoughts that had anything in it of childish levity; it was to me a serious reflection, arising from the idea I had that God was too good to do such an action, and also too almighty to be under any necessity of doing it. I believe in the same manner to this moment; and I moreover believe, that any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be a true system.

Thirdly, he describes the alleged Fall of man in the following words, exposing the irrationality of the idea:
The Christian Mythologists, after having confined Satan in a pit, were obliged to let him out again to bring on the sequel of the fable. He is then introduced into the Garden of Eden, in the shape of a snake or a serpent, and in that shape he enters into familiar conversation with Eve, who is no way surprised to hear a snake talk; and the issue of this tête-à-tête is that he persuades her to eat an apple, and the eating of that apple damns all mankind. After giving Satan this triumph over the whole creation, one would have supposed that the Church Mythologists would have been kind enough to send him back again to the pit: or, if they had not done this, that they would have put a mountain upon him (for they say that their faith can remove a mountain), or have put him under a mountain, as the former mythologists had done, to prevent his getting again among the women and doing more mischief. But instead of this they leave him at large, without even obliging him to give his parole—the secret of which is that they could not do without him; and after being at the trouble of making him, they bribed him to stay. They promised him ALL the Jews, ALL the Turks by anticipation, nine-tenths of the world beside, and Mahomet into the bargain. After this, who can doubt the bountifulness of the Christian Mythology? Having thus made an insurrection and a battle in heaven, in which none of the combatants could be either killed or wounded—put Satan into the pit—let him out again—gave him a triumph over the whole creation—damned all mankind by the eating of an apple, these Christian Mythologists bring the two ends of their fable together. They represent this virtuous and amiable man, Jesus Christ, to be at once both God and Man, and also the Son of God, celestially begotten, on purpose to be sacrificed, because they say that Eve in her longing had eaten an apple.

A woman, who was not even the first woman, ate an apple and the whole of mankind is condemned for millennia, yet the God of Christianity is allegedly more loving than that of Islam or Judaism? The developments in biology since Paine, especially in the fields of genetics and evolution have further shown the futility of the idea of Original Sin or the Fall; to expand on this issue go to: Darwinian Evolution: Islam or Christianity?  Nevertheless, more than two centuries after the publication of the Age of Reason, Christianity continues to hold sway on both sides of the Atlantic pond, with almost two billion followers in the world!  Why is that?  The short answer is that the belief in Theism is written in stone in the human psyche and this indelible writing cannot be erased from human conscious and unconscious mind and the whole of human history is a testament to this reality.  In other words any Theism cannot be easily replaced by Deism or atheism as the last two centuries of American history has shown us.  The Holy Quran has captured this basic reality of human psyche in the following words, “And when thy Lord brings forth from Adam’s children — out of their loins — their offspring and makes them witnesses against their own selves by saying: ‘Am I not your Lord?’ They say, ‘Yea, we do bear witness.’ This He does lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection, ‘We were surely unaware of this.’” (Al Quran 7:173) Humans cannot go against this programing of Theism in the very BIOS or the most fundamental part of their neuronal computer.  No atheist can reprogram this, for the masses, as access to this inner most human psyche is denied.  Theism can only be replaced or defeated by better Theism!  Not by Deism, agnosticism or atheism! Unless, Islam is given open and free access to human minds in the West, the Christian dogma and superstitions will stay with us for decades and centuries.  Now, I will review a few reasons, why Christianity is still alive and kicking.  Paine argues that the Church and the State are a single corrupt institution which does not act in the best interests of the people—both must be radically altered:

Soon after I had published the pamphlet “Common Sense,” in America, I saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion. The adulterous connection of Church and State, wherever it has taken place . . . has so effectually prohibited by pains and penalties every discussion upon established creeds, and upon first principles of religion, that until the system of government should be changed, those subjects could not be brought fairly and openly before the world; but that whenever this should be done, a revolution in the system of religion would follow. Human inventions and priestcraft would be detected; and man would return to the pure, unmixed and unadulterated belief of one God, and no more.[28]

So, it is easy to understand, why Christian dogma survived when freedom of speech against limitations of Christianity did not exist.  But, how could false doctrines continue to prosper even in face of freedom of speech and open criticism?  I bring out a few important reasons and it is by no means an exhaustive list:

1. There ought to be a Creator of this universe

More than a century and a half after the publication of On the Origin of Species, by Sir Charles Darwin almost 45% of the population in USA still believes in young earth.  It is not that they do not understand some of the reasons put forward by him, but, they cannot give up the fundamental thought that there ought to be a Creator of this universe and our life.  The most revealing demographic information for Americans, may be, a recent Gallup poll:
Forty-five percent of Americans believe that ‘God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.’  Forty percent believe that ‘man developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life but God guided the process.’ Ten percent believe that God had no part in the process.[2][3]

When any honest scientist studies nature, he feels, like Albert Einstein, the presence of superior reasoning power, revealed in the incomprehensible universe. However, as the novelty of any new discovery in nature wears off, we begin to take the beauty, complexity, organization and co-ordination that we see every day around us for granted and many among us become vulnerable to think that it may have come into existence purely by chance. However, when we come across the newly discovered organization in nature our prior inferences are challenged. We are flabbergasted and astounded for a brief period of time and truly applause the beauty of the creation of God for a little while, until we are duped by the secular propaganda of neo-Darwinism again and begin to take things for granted. Anesthesia of familiarity takes over! The article linked below examines the splendid interior decorations arranged by the bower birds and a lot more.  First some arguments from authority, from the Quran, Albert Einstein and Immanuel Kant:

He is Allah, the Creator, the Maker, the Fashioner. His are the most beautiful names. All that is in the heavens and the earth glorifies Him, and He is the Mighty, the Wise. (Al Quran 59:25)

The seven heavens and the earth and those that are therein extol His glory; and there is not a thing but glorifies Him with His praise; but you understand not their glorification. Indeed, He is Forbearing, Most Merciful. (Al Quran 17:45)

Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious. Albert Einstein

Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. Immanuel Kant

Read a popular article, The anesthesia of familiarity: There should be a Creator for this universe, for additional details.  So, if there has to be a Creator, any Theism, however irrational, will trump any sophisticated atheism and agnosticism, over time in large populations.

2. Longing for consolation a very basic human need

There are no atheists in foxholes and when a plane hits turbulence, many if not all agnostics and atheists, begin to pray! Man is in constant need of consolation. Even if it does not prove existence of God it certainly creates a strong need for it. This may perhaps be the reason that whereas Prof. Richard Dawkins has had only one good convert to his way of atheism, in his life time, many theists have had thousands if not millions.

Professor Richard Dawkins in the last chapter of his book, the God Delusion, summarizes the four roles of religion, namely, explanation, exhortation, consolation and inspiration. In this chapter he is trying to refute the consolation and inspiration purpose of religion. This short essay is meant to be a practical rebuttal of Dawkins’ views pertaining to the consolation needs of humanity. The reality of human experience and psyche is such that it cannot find any real consolation or comfort in blind science or the so called ‘survival of the fittest.’ As Carl Sagan noted, “It does not make any sense to pray to the law of gravity;” “Nor,” as Kenneth Miller adds, “does it make any sense to pray to the second law of thermodynamics, which has never given me a break, and probably never will.”

It has been well documented that 96% of patients undergoing cardiac surgery used prayer as a coping mechanism to deal with their stress. Dawkins himself tells us that 95% of US population believes in afterlife. It seems it is very hard for humanity to face his or her mortality. Once again, it cannot be repeated enough, ‘There are no atheists in foxholes.’ The present day metaphor is that when a plane hits turbulence all agnostics and atheists begin to pray!

Read an article, Longing for consolation: A Dilemma for Dawkins, for additional details.  Unless Deism, a belief that there is a Creator, but, He has nothing to do with us humans anymore, can take care of this basic human need, it will be always trumped by the weakest Theism, even Trinitarian Christianity, which may have trouble counting at times.

3. If you ask the wrong questions, answers will not matter

Christian apologists have employed an easy trick to keep Islam at bay, by creating a false paradigm, where by if a Christian or a Jew goes to war or resorts to violence, it is for political reasons, but, if a Muslim goes to violence or war, even if in self defense, it is to spread religion by sword or terrorism and of course, it is due to religious reasons, never political ones.  Muslims are not to be allowed the flexibility that goes with political domain, where most politicians have the license to lie, cheat and make false promises.  But, mind you, I am certainly not arguing for terrorism, far from it.  Additionally, I grant that many Muslims, in recent times, resort to belligerence in face of their weakness, just reflecting their lack of wisdom, but, lack of wisdom of some Muslims in recent history is no way to compare religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism.   We will need to examine all of history, hosts of issues and more specifically their respective scriptures.
If we focus on the core issues of God and salvation then the discussion goes to Trinity and vicarious atonement and unlike Jesus, who was resuscitated after being put on the cross, Christianity cannot be resuscitated!

Epilogue

The list of reasons, why Thomas Paine’s book the Age of Reason has not enjoyed a large scale success, as it should have, will be built over time and may be the readers, in the comment section, will add to the list.  But, the bottom line is that for human progress all societies need to give all forms of Theism, a fair chance at success, to ensure the survival of the fittest, rather than a weak link!

References

1. Hawke, David Freeman. Paine. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. ISBN 0-06-011784-2.  Page 7.
2. Ian G Barbour. When science meets religion. Haper Collins Publisher, 2000. Page 1.
3. US data from Gallup poll, Nov, 1991, see US News and World Report, 23 Dec, 1991, p 59.

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3 replies

  1. Strange enough I have a relative of Mr. Paine in my house at this moment. The lady is probably a grand grand grand niece or something like that. Her British family (forefather) changed her family name from PAINE TO PAYNE in order not to be mistaken with him!

  2. I’m quite confused by this. I am not a student of the work of Thomas Paine but I know enough to understand that he did not have time for any organised religion, not simply Christianity. Islam, I’m sure would fall into this category. Religious texts have been written many years after the events and figures they depict. All are someone’s account of what happened. The story they are telling is obviously intended to convey a message or teaching. If you are not there to witnessevents yursorelf tthen, as a reasonable person, you should question the account. This applies to everything as far as I am concerned. Religions ask you abandon questions and simply have ‘faith’ in what you are being told.
    This is the basis of Thomas Paine’s work and your article appears to have forgotten this. It’s not a game of “let’s take turns “. Swapping one religion for another really isn’t the point. Why must anyone subscribe to any particular set of rules of ideas handed down through the years. I believe that humanity has it’s own inate “goodness”, for want of a better word. I am not a religious person but I believe I am a good person. That was a gift that was taught to me by those around me as I was growing up. Not by any religious influence. Simply, be kind to others.
    This was Probably the original core message of all religious teachings. The message has been over complicated for whatever reason and competition between religions has emerged. I believe this is apparent in your writing. Christianity, not good. Islam, good. Not the message of Thomas Paine at all. I am not trying to offend anyone’s beliefs, you have the right to believe whatever you wish, just as I have the right to believe I don’t have to believe to be a decent human being.

  3. I am just saying every rational person should give different religions an equal and genuine chance to answer the ultimate questions about our purpose of life and do we survive our mortality on earth.

    If agnostics and atheists keep some of their biases against Islam than they are not honestly studying religions, just reconfirming their prejudices.

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