Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Age of Reason [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Thomas Paine, ed Moncure Daniel Conway.
Thomas Paine was a leading public intellectual of the 18th-century American Revolution, with his pamphlets Common Sense and The American Crisis as chief texts of the “spirit of 1776.” He followed these publications with his Rights of Man to defend the French and American revolutionary efforts against reactionary political sentiment in England. His final major work The Age of Reason was written as an expatriate in France. The first and shorter part he composed under the shadow of imminent arrest and possible execution, without recourse to a copy of the Bible that it criticizes. The second part includes a more detailed evaluation of Christian scripture, on grounds of both its provenance and internal features.
“Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself than this thing called Christianity” (189-90). Raised by Quakers, Paine was an exemplary Deist of his period and staunchly anti-Christian. His distaste for Christianity is entirely consistent with and often justified by his Deist piety, refusing to attribute to the godhead sentiments and behaviors offensive to human conscience.
Paine’s dismantling of claims that the Bible should be regarded as the “Word of God” remain effective today, performed entirely around the evident sense of the texts themselves, without recourse to the “higher criticism” already being developed in Paine’s time, which was to prove so damning to the historical pretenses of Bible reception. He does verge on source criticism at a couple of points in discussing the evident “Gentile” origins of certain component texts of the Bible, but simply refers to the judgments of Jewish authorities (Abenezra and Spinoza) and the texts’ inconsistency with ancient Hebrew culture and religious sentiment (124-5), rather than any putative source texts. Paine’s attacks on the moral features of the supposed heroes of the Bible have not lost any of their force or relevance.
While Aleister Crowley was later to take up as a rallying cry Paine’s maxim that “Mystery is the antagonist of truth” (76), I would not say the Beast intended it in just the same unsubtle sense as the venerable Revolutionary, although mystery’s envelopment of truth in Paine’s argument foreshadows Crowley’s incantation. Paine classes mystery with miracle and prophecy as the three invidious organs of revealed or “fabulous religion” (75, 80-2), which he opposes to the “true religion” grounded in scientific admiration for nature and individual conformity to reasoned ethics.
Miracle is faulty for “degrading the Almighty into the character of a show-man, playing tricks to amuse and make the people stare and wonder” (79). The enlightened man of reason (dare I say “magician”) will stare and wonder at unadorned reality, of course. As regards prophecy, Paine makes an important distinction between the archaic sense that he finds for the word in the Hebrew Bible, where it evidently means musical performance and/or poetry (35-7), and the “modern” sense in which “prophet” takes the place of “seer” indicating a claimant to divinely-guided psychic foreknowledge (81-2, 111 citing 1 Samuel 9:9). “Prophet” thus ultimately descends to a mere synonym for “liar,” particularly in such cases as Isaiah, whose prognostication was contradicted by the subsequent course of events (133-4).
A full chapter of the first part of The Age of Reason is dedicated to “The Effects of Christianism on Education,” sadly relevant to the US of the 21st century. The Christian institutions of education substitute indoctrination for learning, in order to profit by the resulting ignorance and cognitive dissonance. Today, we can see the further turn of the wheel in which Christians accuse sincere secular efforts to foster learning with the psychologically projected charge of “indoctrination,” since that is the only function they can see in schooling. Current attacks on public libraries and new laws to put schoolteachers in ideological straight-jackets manifest such perspectives in policy, although the recurring phenomenon is as old as the US nation-state, a polity distinctive for its historical adoption of anti-literacy laws.
My Dover paperback copy of The Age of Reason reproduces the 1896 Putnam’s edition by Moncure Daniel Conway, which reconciled the first-published French text with the later unauthorized English edition, noting the variances in footnotes. Conway also appended some correspondence by Paine regarding the work: one letter to “a friend” clarifying the book’s thesis, and another in response to his Revolutionary comrade Sam Adams. The latter clearly shows the Deist anti-Christian Paine to have a greater magnanimity of spirit than his Puritan interlocutor Adams.