I’ve been reading the works of 18th and 19th century heretics. I feel cheated. My education elided freethinking. If mention of a freethinker was necessary, textbooks and teachers focused on something else they’d done, not the actual freethinking bit. This allowed Christians to slumber happily in the delusion that in days gone by, not a word was said against their religion except by icky people who got their asses kicked, or did nothing important at all, or didn’t matter in the least. And it left me with the impression that atheists had sprung up brand-new this (well, last, now) century. I thought everybody who ever meant anything had been religious of some sort, and of course our Founding Fathers were faithful.
And this, mind you, was in a school system that actually taught evolution, at least a little bit, and did a reasonable job inculcating secular values.
Later, I’d discover that many of our Founders were actually Deists. I heard about the Jefferson Bible, which has left me with an enduring image of that luxurious-haired head bent painstakingly over pages, his tongue plastered thoughtfully to a corner of his mouth, as he applied scissors to the Good Book and made a better one. I found out that many of the nominally Christian ones were the sort of Christians other Christians consider no better than atheists. I’ve come to understand why they shuffled religion off onto the side rails and tried to wall it off from government, which seems like a damned important thing to know. It also would’ve been nice to know what a fuss and drama the clerics stirred up then, howling over God being left out of the Constitution, because it would have allowed me to place their current cries in context now: sound and fury which could and should be ignored.
I’ve discovered that actual atheists existed before the 20th century, strikingly intelligent and courageous men and women, who risked their freedom and fortunes to follow their conscience.
But it’s a Deist I want to discuss at the moment.
Thomas Paine was a definite Deist. Read The Age of Reason, and you’ll have no doubt of that. But the man could take after religion in general and Christianity in particular just as thoroughly as any atheist, New, Gnu or Old. No wonder the frothing fundies would rather pretend he never existed.
There are two things I loved especially about The Age of Reason. The first is this, which answers those people who’d like to hang on to religion because, they say, it does some very nice things.
It is possible to believe, and I always feel pleasure in encouraging myself to believe it, that there have been men in the world who persuaded themselves that what is called a pious fraud, might, at least under particular circumstances, be productive of some good. But the fraud being once established, could not afterwards be explained; for it is with a pious fraud as with a bad action, it begets a calamitous necessity of going on.
But it’s in the second part of The Age of Reason that he really lets go. You see, when he’d written the first part, he didn’t have a copy of the Bible handy and couldn’t get one. He was going from memory, writing furiously in France because he knew he could be arrested at any moment, and he wanted to get this out. Once he was free and safe and had a copy of the – ahem – Good Book in hand, he could settle down to really dissect it. And dissect he did.
He wanted to get at the truth. “[Before],” he wrote, “any thing can be admitted as proved by Bible, the Bible itself must be proved to be true; for if the Bible be not true, or the truth of it be doubtful, it ceases to have authority, and cannot be admitted as proof of any thing.” So he set out to investigate whether the Bible could be proved true. Things looked shaky from the start:
To charger the commission of things upon the Almighty, which in their own nature, and by every rule of moral justice, are crimes, as all assassination is, and more especially the assassination of infants, is matter of serious concern. The Bible tells us, that those assassinations were done by the express command of God. To believe therefore the Bible to be true, we must unbelieve all our belief in the moral justice of God; for wherein could crying or smiling infants offend? And to read the Bible without horror, we must undo every thing that is tender, sympathising, and benevolent in the heart of man. Speaking for myself, if I had no other evidence that the Bible is fabulous, than the sacrifice I must make to believe it to be true, that alone would be sufficient to determine my choice.
Yeouch. Nowadays, I do believe he’d be called militant, strident, and mean by believers and faitheists alike.
Still, he didn’t stop there. He promised “evidence as even a priest cannot deny.” This, my darlings, is where a maniacal grin spread across my face, and I might even have cackled a little, and I said, “Thomas Paine, you were a genius.”
Because this is what he did:
The evidence that I shall produce in this case is from the books themselves; and I will confine myself to this evidence only. Were I to refer for proofs to any of the ancient authors, whom the advocates of the Bible call prophane authors, they would controvert that authority, as I controvert theirs: I will therefore meet them on their own ground, and oppose them with their own weapon, the Bible.
What follows is total devastation. I’m not quite sure how anyone Christian can read The Age of Reason and come away with their faith intact, unless they have the IQ of a developmentally disabled turnip, or flee into metaphor and mumbling about “sort of inspired in parts but not really literally true, and, y’know, people make mistakes and…. stuff.” I don’t know how anyone can claim with a straight face that this silly book is the perfect revealed word o’ god, or that even if it’s not actually authored by god, it’s still the greatest literary masterpiece ever. As Thomas Paine says in an aside, “This book, the Bible, is too ridiculous for criticism.” But criticize it he does. He didn’t even need a flamethrower to leave it in a smoldering heap.
This is why I laugh so heartily when people sputter, “But if you just read the Bible, you’d believe!” Those of us with at least two functioning neurons typically became atheists because we’d read the Bible, or at least major portions thereof (usually omitting the endless begats), and we’d seen it was, as Thomas Paine said, “too ridiculous.”
From now on, when people tell me inane things such as “read the Bible,” I’m just going to stuff the second part of The Age of Reason in their hands and say, “Read this first.” I see it as a little test. If their faith isn’t at least slightly shaken, I’ll know any further conversation with them is pointless, as they have got a brick where their brain should be.
Good old Thomas Paine. I know just who I’ll be celebrating this Fourth of July.