Revisiting the Age of Reason 31


In 1795, just before being tossed into a French prison for not supporting the execution of Louis the XVI, Thomas Paine wrote the book that would be his downfall.

The Age of Reason was a critical look at The Bible and The Church, chronicling the contradictions inherent in both over many a thee and thou.  This was so controversial at the time that Paine’s reputation would never recover from its publication.  That he was also critical of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other revolutionary icons for their failure to abolish slavery made sure that Paine’s role in our nation’s founding was all but erased from the history books.

The man who wrote Common Sense to spark the Revolution and The Crisis series to keep it alive was persona non grata in his own time.

Paine’s position was that Creation is the only immutable Word of God and no book could ever fill that function put the final nail in his coffin.  His many critics have called Paine an atheist, but he had a deep and abiding belief in God.  It was his utter disdain for religion, an encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture and a demanding way with words that would be his ultimate fall from grace in the eyes of the revolutionary generation.  A man who was raised a Quaker and reared as a Revolutionary would be scorned as a Heretic and Traitor.

Thomas Paine should be our most celebrated author and philosopher, yet he died a penniless pauper on June 8, 1809 at the age of 72 in New York City, abandonded by both friends and country.

I find it sadly ironic that we debate his very sensible ideas even today.  Religion remains the one ignoble trait that man can’t seem to shake.  Like government.  That’s not to say that spirituality isn’t worthwhile.  Or government for that matter.  We simply pursue those very sensible ideas using questionable means for ill-defined ends.  We enter the world with an innate ability to recognize the divine in each other and in society yet invest that supreme obligation in the first person who sounds as if they have it all figured out, no matter how crazy their stories may be at first glance.

I don’t pretend to understand what it means to be born again, either spiritually or politically, but I think it is far past time many Americans better understood the term for its essential meaning and voted accordingly.

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31 thoughts on “Revisiting the Age of Reason

  • clearthinker

    Paine was indeed one of the clearest of thinkers and no trouble seeing that belief in deity was not the same as belief in religion.

    Most humans are quite like children, however, and they need their big spiritual mommy and daddy to have a sense of security.

    That’s where religion comes in.

    And there are those that recognize that the fear can be exploited to subjugate populations.

    To paraphrase:

    Religion is a mere continuation of politics by other means.

    Great post, Jason.

    • Jason Everett Miller

      Religion has long been practiced politics clothed in spiritual dogma. Modern Christianity was founded as a result of political machinations and compromise.

      Anything to stop getting tossed to lions or nailed to crosses.

      I would encourage Chrisians getting more involved in politics, but only if they can recapture its foundational essence of looking out for the weak rather than encouraging social condemnation.

      A sense of namaste seems key to our most pressing problems but religion stands in the way most days.

  • dickday

    Oh I experience rebirth from time to time. I even experience this phenomena when I read you sometimes:

    The Age of Reason was a critical look at The Bible and The Church, chronicling the contradictions inherent in both over many a thee and thou.

    What a beautiful line. I hereby render unto you the Dayly Line of the Day for this here TPMCafe Site, given to all of you from all of me.

    This is just wonderful Jason. I mean the entire blog.

    • Jason Everett Miller

      Thanks, Double D. I am still trying to figure out what my own transformation was all about. Glad you liked the blog!

  • Libertine

    Rational people in the following generations view Paine and his Age of Reason as his tour d’force. Common Sense? That got us half way there. Common sense and reason need to walk hand in hand. And all organized religion does is prevent this from happening.

    Jefferson, as wise a man as he was, deserved to be criticized, along with all the other founders who did also, for compromising on slavery. But for this failing Jefferson is still a hero. The spirits of Paine, Franklin and Jefferson live on in the progressive movement…because they were able to see truth when others closed their eyes to it, they knew.

      • Jason Everett Miller

        Something got screwed up there. Shocking. The linked material was something Jefferson wrote more than two years before the Declaration of Independence and well before Common Sense.

        • Libertine

          Don’t get too caught up in the details jason. Jefferson, Franklin, Paine et al were part of the same intellectual circle. In fact Franklin was the one who invited/asked Paine to come to America from England. They were like minded brave, wise and brilliant men. Ones who pushed the edge of the envelope questioning how we thought and lived at the time.

          In fact, in America, it can be traced back to Thomas Hooker, a clergyman and founder of Connecticut in the first half of the 17th century. He helped write the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which were adopted in 1639. The Fundamental Orders are considered one of the first written constitutions in the Western world. Nobody seems to give Hooker his due.

          • diachronic

            Thanks for correcting the link.

            Hooker himself went to CT to escape the theocracy of Massachusetts, of course. Our history is a constant struggle between fanaticism and enlightenment.
            Another important document in this struggle, relatively little known, is the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657, in which the Dutch inhabitants of what is now Queens defied Peter Stuyvesant, the last, and legendarily bad-tempered, governor of New Amsterdam, who had decided that nothing should be tolerated in his domain except his own Dutch reformed Church, in spite of the Dutch West India Company’s charter, which had established Flushing in 1645, on principles of religious freedom.
            http://www.america.gov/st/diversity-english/2008/July/20080728133100xlrennef0.9696466.html

            Holland was arguably the epicenter of the Enlightenment, and no doubt its geographic position as the crossroads of conflicting faiths, helped make it so. Crusaders for various faiths used Holland as its battleground, so the Dutch had the advantage of knowing how destructive religion could be when wielded in the service of the State. In contrast, we fight our crusades with mercenaries in places most Americans can’t find on a map. This makes fanaticism altogether too easy for us- Empire is killing our Enlightenment.

          • Libertine

            Absolutely diachronic, the Flushing Remonstrance was another example of people living in 17th century colonial America sowing the seeds for the Age of Enlightenment. Philosophers theorized about freedom and self determination while early Americans put it into practice…often in quite radical forms for the day.

            And these enlightened leaders wanted to see a country where the governing was free from interference, official and otherwise, from any religious sect. But the Christian Nationists never gave up their battle and even though they never technically prevailed they might have still won the war…with many of our politicians invoking God, saying America is in fact a “Christian Nation” and interjecting their religious beliefs into the public sphere. It is actually a philosophical war which is still being fought today.

        • Libertine

          To correct the second link.

          BTW…we used to celebrate “Hooker Day” up here every year with a parade as a rock radio station stunt. It was replete with transvetites, hookers and all kinds of ne’er do-wells. And I like to think that Hooker would have smiled to see the freedom he helped make possible.

  • thepeoplechoose

    I think that for a great many Americans that essential meaning is simply phrased as wake the hell up.

    The notion we are individuals, and to a degree control our own lives, has grown to be embarrassingly offset by those things we don’t control. It is these things, absent our particpation in the political process and which are thus left to chance, which have the greater influence on our lives than anything we can do ourselves. This balance of control used to favor individuals but that just isn’t true any more.

    Where this creates a real dilemma is if you play by the rules and are an honorable person you are at a great disadvantage. The entire socio-political and socio-economic landscape has tilted disastrously in favor of the unethical and dishonest.

    In teaching there is a technique called the demonstration performance method. We’ve had demonstrated to us unethical and dishonest conduct over and over. It’s a good bet the general public will now perform in a like fashion.

    And if you want irony I’ll give you irony. This nation is highly critical of the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan and the corruption which exists in those countries. We similarly condemn many other states for that same reason. Don’t look now but we are well on our way to perfecting a theme of national corruption that handily one ups every other nation state on the planet.

    I have to so laugh at this. The American values people are so screwed. But that’s OK. They were clueless anyway and in the spirit of our failed ethics they’ll get what they deserve.

    This brings to mind Jim DeMint commenting the other day on the care Rush Limbaugh got from the greatest haealthcare system in the world. The statement being factually false has absolutely no meaning. The purity of the corruption is indeed something to behold.

    Are we a great nation or what?

    • Jason Everett Miller

      We are the best at everything, so why not the best as being twisted and corrupt up as well? We are irony challenged in this country for sure.

      I still think good people can get ahead, sometimes even to highest levels of government and business, but they rarely stay that way for long or die in some mysterious accident along the way.

      There is a murky underbelly to reality – even at the most rarefied levels – that most people think exists only in the mind of conspiracy theorist or fiction writers.

      If only that were true.

      • thepeoplechoose

        Sounds about right. Truth and reality are good buds. Except when their not. It gets mixed up figuring out whose truth and whose reality you’re talking about. This is where dazed and confused enter the picture.

  • acamus

    This is a very good post in that it provides a concise and thought-provoking look at politics and religion in America that pushes the discourse forward. The opposite is usually the case when people attempt to tackle these issue in one breath.

    In the portrait of Paine that you create, I see in his efforts something along the lines of the warning from Buddha as related by Thich Nhat Hahn: “All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the pointer will never see beyond. Even let him catch sight of the moon, and still he cannot see its beauty.”

    I would say that so many in this country (and in the rest of the world)are obessed with the finger.

    • Jason Everett Miller

      While the finger always points at someone other than themselves, therein lies our essential spiritual dilemma as humans. We are unable to allow for competing existential truths.

      • acamus

        When we look over the course of human history, the amount of time we have collectively been even attempting to live in peace with competing spiritual/religious paradigms has been relatively short. Most of human history has been those of the dominant paradigm at best tolerating those who have the less dominant views (and usually not even that). There is a huge difference between tolerance of another view and acceptance of that view as a legitimate and worthy of respect. As this country has shown, this is no easy task even when one identifies oneself as belonging to same country/nation.

        So given that we have just recently been giving lip service to embracing diversity, with some opening advocating the opposite, I think the book is still open on whether this experiment will work.

  • JadeZ

    seems a bit to late to expect any sense be made of people who need religion.

    ironic that if we did have people who lived their lives as virtuous as any religion pretends men should, their integrity would preclude they ever be welcomed in business or government.

    religion has been a complete failure and i dont trust anyone who has the need or desire to ever tell someone else that they believe in god.

    • Jason Everett Miller

      Well, given the totality of that belief on Earth, I guess it serves as a great ice-breaker if nothing else.

      Except, of course, that nasty business of who has the real God. That pretty much ends the discussion at word one unless one shares beliefs structures.

      I think religion can and has played a positive role in our development as a species. It’s just been a while.

  • San Fernando Curt

    God is a commodity. We own him, not the other way around. Since we own God, he’s our earthly certifier. With this trademark, we can impose our will on others, abuse and mistreat them, set off bombs to kill innocents, throw people off their ancestral lands, make war and slaughter children. None of this is sinful if my God told me to do it.

    Excellent post, Jason.

    • Jason Everett Miller

      Great point, Curt. Religion as sublimation rather than sublime. “My God can kick your God’s ass because He is right!” Just about any negative action can be justified under that rubric.

  • JEP07

    Religion is a subset of faith, not the other way around…

    But too many greedy, covetous religious leaders can’t capitalize on faith, so they have made religion the false essence and spirituality it’s red-headed stepchild.

    Too many widow’s mites’ have gone to make televangelists throughout time wealthy and important.

    Through history, they called them Pharisees, Popes, and Preachers, they have many names but one selfish agenda; use fear for salvation to milk the faithful for every penny they can suck from them, build up the physical church but ignore the spiritual church, and rake in as much personal wealth as possible before you get caught in the wine-closet with the wife of one of your deacons.

    Or something like that…

    Here’s what the old and new testament says about them, with Jesus quoting Isaiah in Matthew;

    7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
    8 ‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
    9 They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are but rules taught by men.’

    Especially that rule about “tithing.”

    • Jason Everett Miller

      This seems to be the fate of most religions – to become a tone-deaf pitch to a bunch of people who can’t hear the hypocrisy, much less see the irony of placing a man between them and God.

      I have little faith beyond the idea that there must be a bigger picture none of us are seeing clearly. Nothing else makes any sense if one takes half a second to think about Everything.

      What I like about Paine is that he really gets back to basics with regards to religion and the part it should play in a reasonable person’s life on a day-to-day basis.

      Like most things America does, there are no half-measures and we started our little experiment in the New World with burning witches as the status quo.

      No where to go but up from there, so I suppose we could say we have advanced in the last 300 years.

  • rmrd0000

    There is a difference between theocracy and religion. Christianists want a “Christianity” based government as long as Christianists set the terms for the guiding religious rules. Killing Muslims is OK since Muslims are heathens

    Islamists want an Is;amic state with the Mullahs deciding the rules of social interaction, Christians and Jews can be killed because they are heathens.

    Zionists want a Jewish based state with strict rules of conduct.Muslims can be killed because they are heathens.

    In the Christianist city-states of the Old South, Blacks were cursed by Ham and therefore could be treated worse than animals. Lynchings were a part of life. Zionists have no problem using apartheid against Muslims. Islamists can behead Christians or Jews who anger tthm.

    Martin Luther King Jr was a true Christian who inspired others to fight the Christianists. Malcolm X wasa Muslim who spoke truth to power in the United States. Malcolm was transformed by his religion from hating Whites to understanding that Whites wre deserving of humane treatment. Both Malcolm and Martin realized that there combined religious fervor could transform the country.

    No one wants to live under a Christianist, Islamist, or Zionist society, unless you are in the hierarchy. The United States could use more of the religious fervor of Martin and Malcolm.

    • Jason Everett Miller

      I think a small segment of Christians (or more likely their chosen leaders) think a theocracy would be a good idea.

      In my own experience, even self-professed Evangelicals tend to be more King and less Kong while their “leaders” are closer to pimps than prophets.

      That being said, I agree that Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination was a huge set-back in reclaiming spirituality in the face of the commercialization of belief in America.

  • Zipperupus

    Paine is and always will be one of my personal heroes. The sad part is that he was only stating out loud what statesmen like Adams and Jefferson kept within their personal correspondence. Jefferson kept a Bible that he hand redacted in order to separate the bogus from the spiritual. He focused primarily on the gospels; he believed that the Bible presented two conceptions of Christ. One Christ was compassion personified while the other did not hesitate to damn others and preach the end times. I have to say that I agree with Jefferson with or without believing in Christ the person.

    There are certain truths revealed to us by the axial sages who founded our modern religious institutions. These truths, however, are difficult to embody. Yet it is because of these truths that the axial sages retain their stamp of divine authority. Instead, the part we should be paying attention to is hidden behind absurdities.

    Christ’s sermon on the mount is of paramount importance to the United States today. If we were but to practice the tenets espoused in that sermon, many of our obstacles would be lifted. Instead of preaching this message, however, the churches and their political mandarins cloak Christ in miracles and raise his mythic deeds above his message. Christ has been co-opted as a litmus test for gullibility. In order to be considered a believer you have to accept the ressurection and salvation by blood.

    Thus organized religion has earned its reputation as a merchant of human weakness.

    • Jason Everett Miller

      I always come back to the sermon on the mount when I discuss Christ with Christians. Many seem to have never heard the entirety of its message, good and bad, despite whatever bits and pieces they offer up.

      Until we practice what we preach, however, I see no dramatic change in store with regards to our place in the world; how our religious institutions define what that is; and the negative consequences that result.

      At least we aren’t alone in letting ancient scribbles dictate our national character. The world is lousy with misplaced spirituality. Has been for 50,000 years.