Thomas Paine Answers: Commentary

This page offers a commentary on the Thomas Paine excerpt.

Paine’s life is both epic and tragic. Rising from the obscurity of a small English market town, with a succession of failed careers and marriages behind him before he emigrated to the New World, he eventually became the darling of both America and France for his works ‘Common Sense’ (credited as a catalyst for the American War of Independence against the British) and ‘The Rights of Man’ (a manifesto for the social and political revolutions of France and other European Enlightenment movements).

He was celebrated by his contemporaries as the most influential man of his generation. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Edison – the most famous names of American history – all at one time or another revered him. But in his later years Paine fell into obscurity, primarily as a result of ‘The Age of Reason’, from which the above paragraphs are extracted. The ideas expressed in the book, an extended critique of the irrationality of religions, were not – as Paine had expressed his hopes in earlier writings – ‘yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour’.

Despite the integrity and clarity of most of Paine’s analysis and critique concerning the Bible in particular and religion in general, there is no doubt that he underestimated the enduring power of the myths he was exposing. In common with many modern – and often inferior – critiques of religion, what Paine’s open, honest and rational treatment of his subject overlooked was the psychological entrenchment and attraction of institutionalized worship, which has little to do with either truth or credibility and more to do with being a kind of social authority broad enough to bear the responsibility of dealing with the gravitas of existential and spiritual matters.

Paine is not an atheist, as he says in §4. In fact he is, in common with many from Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson, a ‘deist’: someone who believes that God created the Universe but takes no further part in it. He is particularly vexed by religions which corrupt people’s rational and warranted belief in the spiritual in order to exploit it for their own ends (§8).

Nonetheless, what is outstanding about Paine’s critique is the fact that he avoids using his own assumptions as reasons to discredit his target. Instead, he questions the credibility of religious authority through what we would now called linguistic (§15, §16: what does the term ‘revelation’ mean?), historical (§20, §21: how did these beliefs originate?) and conceptual analyses (§24, §25, §26).

The last of these is particularly noteworthy because it is one of the early examples of a philosophical method that would be made famous by Wittgenstein in the 20th century. The method is this: ask for criteria for accepting something as true, or as making sense, or as being plausible or acceptable in ordinary cases; then see if these same criteria are being consistently applied in the problematic case under consideration.

The implication is that problems, paradoxes and incredible beliefs often arise when we fail to apply the criteria that we use in normal situations in some special situation. Such is the case, concludes Paine, when we ask about the credibility of the Ascension and Resurrection. For in any other publicly observable event that everyone is expected to believe or accept, belief is only plausible when a sufficient number of witnesses can testify to its veracity. If we want to put a modern twist on it, Paine might have said that more people claim to have seen ghosts and UFOs than the Ascension of Christ, but the reasons most of us do not accept the existence of these are exactly the same as we shouldn’t accept the stories about Christ: there is simply an insufficient number of credible witnesses or reliable records of the event to satisfy our normal standards of acceptance.

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