The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology, a deistic treatise written by eighteenth-century British radical and American revolutionary Thomas Paine, critiques institutionalized religion and challenges the inerrancy of the Bible. Published in three parts in 1794, 1795, and 1807, it was a bestseller in America, where it caused a short-lived deistic revival. British audiences, however, fearing increased political radicalism as a result of the French revolution, received it with more hostility. The Age of Reason presents common deistic arguments; for example, it highlights the corruption of the Christian Church and criticizes its efforts to acquire political power. Paine advocates reason in the place of revelation, leading him to reject miracles and to view the Bible as an ordinary piece of literature rather than as a divinely inspired text. The Age of Reason is not atheistic, but Deistic: it promotes natural religion and argues for a creator-God.
Most of Paine's arguments had long been available to the educated elite, but by presenting them in an engaging and irreverent style, he made deism appealing and accessible to a mass audience. The book was also inexpensive, putting it within the reach of a large number of buyers. Fearing the spread of what they viewed as potentially revolutionary ideas, the British government prosecuted printers and booksellers who tried to publish and distribute it. The Age of Reason resulted in only a brief upsurge in deistic thought in America. However, Paine's ideas inspired and guided many British freethinkers of the nineteenth century and his rhetorical style has endured even into the twenty-first century, in the works of modern writers such as Christopher Hitchens and the films and persona of Michael Moore.
While some deists accepted revelation, most argued that revelation's restriction to small groups or even a single person limited its explanatory power. Moreover, many found the Christian revelations in particular to be contradictory and irreconcilable. According to these writers, revelation could reinforce the evidence for God's existence already apparent in the natural world, but more often it led to superstition among the masses. Most deists argued that priests had deliberately corrupted Christianity for their own gain by promoting the acceptance of miracles, unnecessary rituals, and illogical and dangerous doctrines (these accusations were typically referred to as "priestcraft"). The worst of these doctrines was original sin. By convincing people that they required a priest's help to overcome their innate sinfulness, deists argued, religious leaders had enslaved the human population. Deists therefore typically viewed themselves as intellectual liberators.
The conservative government, headed by William Pitt, responded to this increasing radicalization by prosecuting several reformers for seditious libel and treason in the famous 1794 Treason Trials. Following the trials and an attack on George III, conservatives were successful in passing the Seditious Meetings Act and the Treasonable Practices Act (also known as the "Two Acts" or the "gagging acts"). These acts prohibited freedom of assembly for groups such as the radical London Corresponding Society (LCS) and encouraged indictments against radicals for "libelous and seditious" statements. Afraid of prosecution and disenchanted with the French revolution, many reformers drifted away from the cause. The LCS, which had previously unified religious Dissenters and political reformers, fractured when Francis Place and other leaders helped Paine publish The Age of Reason; the society’s more religious members withdrew in protest and the LCS lost around one-fifth of its membership.
It has been my intention, for several years past, to publish my thoughts upon religion. . . . The circumstance that has now taken place in France of the total abolition of the whole national order of priesthood, and of everything appertaining to compulsive systems of religion, and compulsive articles of faith, has not only precipitated my intention, but rendered a work of this kind exceedingly necessary, lest in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity and of the theology that is true.Although Paine wrote The Age of Reason for the French, he dedicated it to his "Fellow Citizens of the United States of America", alluding to his bond with the American revolutionaries.
It is unclear when exactly Paine drafted Part I. According to Paine scholars Edward Davidson and William Scheick, he probably wrote the first draft of Part I in late 1793, but Paine biographer David Hawke argues for a date of early 1793. It is also unclear whether or not a French edition of Part I was published in 1793. François Lanthenas, who translated The Age of Reason into French in 1794, wrote that it was first published in France in 1793, but no book fitting his description has been positively identified. Joel Barlow published the first English edition of The Age of Reason, Part I in 1794 in London, selling it for a mere three pence.
Meanwhile, Paine, considered too moderate by the powerful Jacobin wing of the French revolutionaries, was imprisoned for ten months in France. He only escaped the guillotine by accident: the sign marking him out for execution was improperly placed on his cell door. When James Monroe secured his release in 1794, he immediately began work on Part II of The Age of Reason, despite his poor health. Part II was first published in a pirated edition by H.D. Symonds in London in October 1795. In 1796 Daniel Isaac Eaton published Parts I and II, and sold them at a cost of one shilling and six pence. (Eaton was later forced to flee to America after being convicted of seditious libel for publishing other radical works.) Paine himself financed the shipping of 15,000 copies of his work to America. Later, Francis Place and Thomas Williams collaborated on an edition which sold about 2,000 copies. Williams also produced his own edition, but the British government indicted him and confiscated the pamphlets.
In the late 1790s, Paine fled from France to the United States, where he wrote Part III of The Age of Reason: An Examination of the Passages in the New Testament, Quoted from the Old and Called Prophecies Concerning Jesus Christ. Fearing unpleasant and even violent reprisals, Thomas Jefferson convinced him not to publish it in 1802; five years later Paine decided to publish despite the backlash he knew would ensue.
Following Thomas Williams's sentence of one year's hard labor for publishing The Age of Reason in 1797, no editions were sold openly in Britain until 1818 when Richard Carlile included it in an edition of Paine's complete works. Carlile charged one shilling and sixpence for the work, and the first run of 1,000 copies sold out in a month. He immediately published a second edition of 3,000 copies. Like Williams, he was prosecuted for seditious libel and blasphemous libel. The prosecutions surrounding the printing of The Age of Reason in Britain continued for thirty years after its initial release and encompassed numerous publishers as well as over a hundred booksellers.
At the beginning of Part I of the Age of Reason, Paine lays out his personal creed:
Paine's creed encapsulates many of the major themes of the rest of his text: a firm belief in a creator-God; a skepticism regarding most supernatural claims (here the afterlife, later in the text, miracles); a conviction that virtues should be derived from a consideration for others rather than oneself; an animus against corrupt religious institutions; and an emphasis on the individual's right of conscience.
- I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.
- I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavouring to make our fellow-creatures happy.
- But, lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.
- I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.
- All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
- I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.
Paine also attacks religious institutions, indicting priests for their lust for power and wealth and the Church's opposition to scientific investigation. He presents the history of Christianity as one of corruption and oppression. Paine criticizes the tyrannical actions of the Church as he had those of governments in the Rights of Man and Common Sense, claiming that “the Christian theory is little else than the idolatry of the ancient Mythologists, accommodated to the purposes of power and revenue.” This kind of attack distinguishes Paine's book from other deistic works, which were less interested in challenging social and political hierarchies. He 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:
As Jon Mee, a scholar of British radicalism, writes: "Paine believed . . . a revolution in religion was the natural corollary, even prerequisite, of a fully successful political revolution. Paine lays out a vision of, in Davidson and Scheick's words, “an age of intellectual freedom, when reason would triumph over superstition, when the natural liberties of humanity would supplant priestcraft and kingship, which were both secondary effects of politically managed foolish legends and religious superstitions.” It is this vision that scholars have called Paine’s “secular millennialism” and it appears in all of his works—he ends the Rights of Man, for example, with the statement: “From what we now see, nothing of reform in the political world ought to be held improbable. It is an age of revolutions, in which everything may be looked for.” Paine "transformed the millennial Protestant vision of the rule of Christ on earth into a secular image of utopia," emphasizing the possibilities of "progress" and "human perfectibility" that could be achieved by humankind, without God's aid.
Though these larger philosophical traditions are clear influences on The Age of Reason, Paine owes the greatest intellectual debt to the English deists of the early eighteenth century, such as Peter Annet. John Toland had argued for the use of reason in interpreting scripture, Matthew Tindal had argued against revelation, Middleton had described the Bible as mythology and questioned the existence of miracles, Thomas Morgan had disputed the claims of the Old Testament, Thomas Woolston had questioned the believability of miracles and Thomas Chubb had maintained that Christianity lacked morality. All of these arguments appear in The Age of Reason, albeit less coherently.
In a letter to Elihu Palmer, one of his most loyal followers in America, Paine describes part of his rhetorical philosophy:
The hinting and intimidating manner of writing that was formerly used on subjects of this kind [religion], produced skepticism, but not conviction. It is necessary to be bold. Some people can be reasoned into sense, and others must be shocked into it. Say a bold thing that will stagger them, and they will begin to think.Paine's rhetoric had broad appeal; his "pithy" lines were "able to bridge working-class and middle-class cultures" and become common quotations.
Part of what makes Paine's style so memorable is his effective use of repetition and rhetorical questions in addition to the profusion of "anecdote, irony, parody, satire, feigned confusion, folk matter, concrete vocabulary, and . . . appeals to common sense". Paine's conversational style draws the reader into the text. His use of "we" conveys an "illusion that he and the readers share the activity of constructing an argument". By thus emphasizing the presence of the reader and leaving images and arguments half-formed, Paine encourages his readers to complete them independently.
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. [emphasis Paine's]The irreverent tone that Paine combined with this vulgar style set his work apart from its predecessors. It took “deism out of the hands of the aristocracy and intellectuals and [brought] it to the people".
Paine's rhetorical appeal to "the people" attracted almost as much criticism as his ridicule of the Bible. Bishop Richard Watson, forced to address this new audience in his influential response to Paine, An Apology for the Bible, writes: "I shall, designedly, write this and the following letters in a popular manner; hoping that thereby they may stand a chance of being perused by that class of readers, for whom your work seems to be particularly calculated, and who are the most likely to be injured by it. But it was not only the style that concerned Watson and others, it was also the cheapness of Paine's book. At one sedition trial in the early 1790s, the Attorney–General tried to prohibit Thomas Cooper from publishing his response to Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, arguing that "although there was no exception to be taken to his pamphlet when in the hands of the upper classes, yet the government would not allow it to appear at a price which would insure its circulation among the people. Similar concerns drove the prosecution of those who printed, published, and distributed The Age of Reason.
Paine's style is not only “vulgar”, it is also irreverent. For example, Paine describes Solomon as a rake, who “was witty, ostentatious, dissolute and at last melancholy"; he “lived fast, and died, tired of the world, at the age of fifty-eight years". Although many early English deists had relied on ridicule to attack the Bible and Christianity, theirs was a refined wit rather than the broad humor Paine employed. It was the early Deists of the middling ranks, and not the educated elite, who initiated the kind of ridicule Paine would make famous.
It was Paine's "ridiculing" tone that most angered Churchmen. As John Redwood, a scholar of deism, puts it: "the age of reason could perhaps more eloquently and adequately be called the age of ridicule, for it was ridicule, not reason, that endangered the Church. Significantly, Watson's Apology directly chastises Paine for his mocking tone:
I am unwilling to attribute bad designs, deliberate wickedness, to you or to any man; I cannot avoid believing, that you think you have truth on your side, and that you are doing service to mankind in endeavouring to root out what you esteem superstition. What I blame you for is this—that you have attempted to lessen the authority of the Bible by ridicule, more than by reason.
Paine takes advantage of several religious rhetorics beyond those associated with Quakerism in The Age of Reason, most importantly a millennial language that appealed to his lower-class readers. Claiming that true religious language is universal, Paine uses elements of the Christian rhetorical tradition to undermine the hierarchies perpetuated by religion itself. The sermonic quality of Paine’s writing is one of its most recognizable traits. Sacvan Bercovitch, a scholar of the sermon, argues that Paine’s writing often resembles that of the jeremiad or "political sermon". She contends that Paine draws on the Puritan tradition in which “theology was wedded to politics and politics to the progress of the kingdom of God". One reason Paine may have been drawn to this style is because he may have briefly been a Methodist preacher, although this fact cannot be verified.
Despite the outpouring of antagonistic replies to The Age of Reason, some scholars have argued that Constantin Volney's deistic The Ruins (translations of excerpts from the French original appeared in radical papers such as Thomas Spence's Pig’s Meat and Daniel Isaac Eaton's Politics for the People) was actually more influential than The Age of Reason. According to David Bindman, The Ruins "achieved a popularity in England comparable to Rights of Man itself". However, one minister complained that "the mischief arising from the spreading of such a pernicious publication [as The Age of Reason] was infinitely greater than any that could spring from limited suffrage and septennial parliaments" (other popular reform causes).
It was not until Richard Carlile's 1818 trial for publishing The Age of Reason that Paine's text became "the anti-Bible of all lower-class nineteenth-century infidel agitators". Although the book had been selling well before the trial, once Carlile was arrested and charged, 4,000 copies were sold in just a few months. At the trial itself, which created a media frenzy, Carlile read the entirety of The Age of Reason into the court record, ensuring it an even wider publication. Between 1818 and 1822, Carlile claimed to have "sent into circulation near 20,000 copies of the Age of Reason". Just as in the 1790s, it was the language that most angered the authorities in 1818. As Joss Marsh, in her study of blasphemy in the nineteenth century, points out, "at these trials plain English was reconfigured as itself 'abusive' and 'outrageous.' The Age of Reason struggle almost tolled the hour when the words 'plain,' 'coarse,' 'common,' and 'vulgar' took on a pejorative meaning. Carlile was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to one year in prison, but spent six years instead because he refused any "legal conditions" on his release.
Paine's new rhetoric came to dominate popular nineteenth-century radical journalism, particularly that of freethinkers, Chartists and Owenites. Its legacy can be seen in Thomas Wooler's radical periodical The Black Dwarf, Richard Carlile's numerous newspapers and journals, the radical works of William Cobbett, Henry Hetherington's periodicals the Penny Papers and the Poor Man's Guardian, the works of the Chartist William Lovett, George Holyoake's newspapers and books on Owenism, and freethinker Charles Bradlaugh's New Reformer. A century after the publication of The Age of Reason, Paine's rhetoric was still being used: George Foote's "Bible Handbook (1888) . . . systematically manhandles chapters and verses to bring out 'Contradictions,' 'Absurdities,' 'Atrocities,' and 'Obscenities,' exactly in the manner of Paine’s Age of Reason. The periodical The Freethinker (founded in 1881) argued, like Paine, that the "absurdities of faith" could be "slain with laughter". In Britain, it was this freethinking tradition that continued Paine's legacy.
While still in France, Paine formed the Church of Theophilanthropy with five other families; this civil religion held as its central dogma that man should worship God's wisdom and benevolence and imitate those divine attributes as much as possible. The church had no priest or minister, and the traditional Biblical sermon was replaced by scientific lectures or homilies on the teachings of philosophers. it celebrated four festivals honoring St. Vincent de Paul, George Washington, Socrates, and Rousseau. Samuel Adams articulated the goals of this church when he wrote that Paine aimed "to renovate the age by inculcating in the minds of youth the fear and love of the Deity and universal philanthropy". The church closed, however, in 1801, when Napoleon concluded a concordat with the Vatican.
In the United States, The Age of Reason initially caused a deistic "revival", but was then viciously attacked and soon forgotten. Paine became so reviled that he could still be maligned as a "filthy little atheist" by Theodore Roosevelt over one hundred years later.
At the end of the eighteenth century, America was ripe for Paine’s arguments. The First Great Awakening had, in demolishing the "Calvinist hegemony, created a climate of theological and speculative ambivalence that welcomed deism. Ethan Allen published the first American defense of deism, the Oracles of Reason (1784), but deism remained primarily a philosophy of the educated elite. Men such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson espoused its tenets, while at the same time arguing that religion served the useful purpose of "social control". It was not until the publication of Paine’s more entertaining and popular work that deism reached into the middling and lower classes in America. The public was receptive, in part, because they approved of the secular ideals of the French revolution. The Age of Reason went through seventeen editions and sold thousands of copies in the United States. Elihu Palmer, "a blind renegade minister" and Paine's most loyal follower in America, promoted deism throughout the country. Palmer published what became "the bible of American deism", The Principles of Nature, established deistic societies from Maine to Georgia, built Temples of Reason throughout the nation, and founded two deistic newspapers for which Paine eventually wrote seventeen essays. Foner writes that "The Age of Reason became the most popular deist work ever written. . . . Before Paine it had been possible to be both a Christian and a deist; now such a religious outlook became virtually untenable." Paine presented deism to the masses and, as in Britain, educated elites feared the consequences of such material in the hands of so many. Their fear helped to drive the backlash which soon followed.
Almost immediately after this deistic upsurge, the Second Great Awakening began. George Spater explains that "the revulsion felt for Paine’s Age of Reason and for other anti-religious thought was so great that a major counter-revolution had been set underway in America before the end of the eighteenth century.” By 1796 every student at Harvard was given a copy of Bishop Watson’s rebuttal of The Age of Reason. In 1815, Parson Weems, an early American novelist and moralist, published God's Revenge Against Adultery, in which one of the major characters "owed his early downfall to reading 'PAINE'S AGE OF REASON'". Paine's "libertine" text leads the young man to "bold slanders of the bible", even to the point that he "threw aside his father's good old family bible, and for a surer guide to pleasure took up the AGE OF REASON!
Paine could not publish part III of The Age of Reason in America until 1807 because of the deep antipathy against him. Hailed only a few years earlier as a hero of the American revolution, Paine was now lambasted in the press and called "the scavenger of faction", a "lilly-livered sinical [sic] rogue", a "loathsome reptile", a "demi-human archbeast", "an object of disgust, of abhorrence, of absolute loathing to every decent man except the President of the United States [Thomas Jefferson]". In October of 1805 John Adams wrote to his friend Benjamin Waterhouse, an American physician and scientist:
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 word was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.Adams viewed Paine's Age of Reason not as the embodiment of the Enlightenment but as a "betrayal" of it. Despite all of these attacks, Paine never wavered in his beliefs; when he was dying, a woman came to visit him, claiming that God had instructed her to save his soul. Paine dismissed her in the same tones that he had used in The Age of Reason: "pooh, pooh, it is not true. You were not sent with any such impertinent message. . . . Pshaw, He would not send such a foolish ugly old woman as you about with His message.
The Age of Reason was largely ignored after 1820, except by radical groups in Britain and freethinkers in America, among them Robert G. Ingersoll and the abolitionist Moncure Daniel Conway, who edited his works and wrote the first biography of Paine, favorably reviewed by The New York Times. Not until the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859, and the large-scale abandonment of the literal reading of the Bible that it caused in Britain, did many of Paine's ideas take hold. Yet, Paine's text is still published today, one of the few eighteenth-century religious texts to be widely available. Its message still resonates, evidenced by Christopher Hitchens's statement that "if the rights of man are to be upheld in a dark time, we shall require an age of reason". His 2006 book on the Rights of Man ends with the claim that "in a time . . . when both rights and reason are under several kinds of open and covert attack, the life and writing of Thomas Paine will always be part of the arsenal on which we shall need to depend. Paine's unique rhetorical flair is also still alive in American culture; it is embodied, for example, in the persona and the films of Michael Moore, who has been called "the new Tom Paine".
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