It is revelation to that person only

I’ve always liked Thomas Paine’s point about revelation in The Age of Reason.

Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet; as if the way to God was not open to every man alike.

Each of those churches shows certain books, which they call revelation, or the Word of God. The Jews say that their Word of God was given by God to Moses face to face; the Christians say, that their Word of God came by divine inspiration; and the Turks say, that their Word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from heaven. Each of those churches accuses the other of unbelief; and, for my own part, I disbelieve them all.

As it is necessary to affix right ideas to words, I will, before I proceed further into the subject, offer some observations on the word ‘revelation.’ Revelation when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man.

No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it.

It is a contradiction in terms and ideas to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication. After this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner, for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.

When Moses told the children of Israel that he received the two tables of the commandments from the hand of God, they were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so; and I have no other authority for it than some historian telling me so, the commandments carrying no internal evidence of divinity with them. They contain some good moral precepts such as any man qualified to be a lawgiver or a legislator could produce himself, without having recourse to supernatural intervention. [NOTE: It is, however, necessary to except the declamation which says that God ‘visits the sins of the fathers upon the children’. This is contrary to every principle of moral justice.—Author.]

When I am told that the Koran was written in Heaven, and brought to Mahomet by an angel, the account comes to near the same kind of hearsay evidence and second hand authority as the former. I did not see the angel myself, and therefore I have a right not to believe it.

When also I am told that a woman, called the Virgin Mary, said, or gave out, that she was with child without any cohabitation with a man, and that her betrothed husband, Joseph, said that an angel told him so, I have a right to believe them or not: such a circumstance required a much stronger evidence than their bare word for it: but we have not even this; for neither Joseph nor Mary wrote any such matter themselves. It is only reported by others that they said so. It is hearsay upon hearsay, and I do not chose to rest my belief upon such evidence.

1793, he wrote that. Yet it hasn’t sunk in yet.


  1. Silentbob says

    And he also wrote The Rights of Man which popularized the whole idea of “inalienable” human rights irrespective of class. Not bad for a privileged white guy. 😉

  2. emily isalwaysright says

    Funny, I was reading Wollstonecraft yesterday and thinking: “I can’t believe this is still relevant!” She was writing in 1792. I wonder if the reactionaries will ever run out of puff.

  3. Ant (@antallan) says

    I take it Minnie actually wrote “I found in the scriptures the origin of woman’s slavery” rather than “I found in the scriptures the origin of woman’s slayer”!

    Agreed; there’s nothing new in gnu atheism, which is why we say “gnu” not “new”, isn’t it?

    But doesn’t this underscore the link between atheism and feminism?


  4. Dave Ricks says

    For me, the most valuable benefit of any academic or intellectual criticism of the New Atheism was advice to read Paine’s Age of Reason, which reminds us of a point of history, when the revealed religions of the Jews, Christians, and Turks ran onto the rocks of comparison. That point of conflict or comparison was the basis of Freethought as a philosophical movement.

    Bowie mashes up the symbolism, so you don’t have to. Not that his video represents this point exactly, but his video seems to mashup Christianity versus some Other.

  5. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Ophelia Benson
    March 24, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    Wo, I like Minnie O. Parrish

    I thought you might. I can’t help but wonder if Minnie was hassled by Edwardian slymers?

  6. johnthedrunkard says

    Thanks for Minnie. She does go the last step to reject deities entirely.

    Paine was not atheist. The Age of Reason is as much a tract promoting deism as it is a critique of the Abrahamic troika. Still and all, it is a wonderful read and an amazing accomplishment.

  7. gös says

    Ant (@antallan)But doesn’t this underscore the link between atheism and feminism?

    I’d say it’s an excellent reason for feminists to embrace anti-theism. Of course, many atheists are also anti-theists (although I suspect many of them, like myself, are so out of necessity and would much prefer to live in a society that was truly secular so we wouldn’t have to bother).

    I’m not sure that there’s a strict logical link other than that common enemy. It might be argued that a commitment to rationalism would lead to both positions, but there seem to be plentiful counterexamples 🙂

    I’m fairly certain there’s a strong correlation between the two, if we ease our requirements to allow statistical evidence, and I’ve found many feminists very receptive to arguments against religion, although others were less so, either because they were religious or because they embraced a relativist philsophical position.

    I’ve been both for as long as I’ve thought about either issue (and even before that, really), but they have different roots for me: feminism excites my sense of justice and atheism stems from a respect for truth and deep distaste for wishful thinking. The two are independent (for me), I can well envision being one without the other, as far as I can imagine being non-feminist or non-atheist at least 🙂 For example, I can imagine abandoning my atheism based on evidence, but that would not affect my feminism in the least.

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