C. Rommial Butler

Journey through the Age of Reason

The more unnatural anything is, the more it is capable of becoming the object of dismal admiration.

Thomas Paine

“Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half of the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.”

Such are the words of Thomas Paine, the iconoclast who penned Common Sense, the literary catalyst for the American Revolution. The above quotes are, however, from a treatise against revealed religion which he wrote later in life: Age of Reason.

Still to this day these are challenging and taboo sentiments. Even many of the left-leaning politicos who have mostly abandoned religious fervor will nevertheless refrain from criticizing beliefs still so largely held, presumably for the sake of political expediency; and in some cases perhaps because they follow that old maid’s maxim that if one has nothing nice to say, they had best keep their silence.

As this essay progresses, the reader will discover neither Thomas Paine nor myself to be such an one. In advancing this critical dissent—in what I hope is nevertheless a civil manner—I wish to portray an homage to Paine’s well articulated critiques of Biblical lore as well as to expose the general fallacies of metaphysical thinking which seem to still plague human nature and society, even in secular circles.

So onward will I journey through Paine’s irreverent treatise as one who strolls through nature’s less traveled paths, picking out pieces of the landscape by which to enumerate the many facets of his—and ultimately, more broadly, our own—philosophical ecosystem.

Paine makes an excellent point that the Jewish prophets were poets/musicians, and that modern culture has misappropriated the meaning of the word prophet out of its Biblical context:

“In many things, however, the writings of the Jewish poets deserve a better fate than that of being bound up, as they are now with the trash that accompanies them, under the abused name of the word of God.”

Speaking of the epistles of the New Testament:

“…out of the matters contained in those books, together with the assistance of some old stories, the Church has set up a system of religion very contradictory to the character of the person whose name it bears.”

In Part first, Section 10, Paine discusses the manner in which religions based on poor epistemology inevitably lead to moral failure. This criticism would hold true for secular ideologies as well. As for Paine’s Deism, it amounts to the same series of non sequiturs as modern intelligent design theory, and I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t tongue-in-cheek on his part, knowing as he would that arguments for reason and scientific inquiry would be better bolstered by an acknowledgment—no matter how facile—that there must be a God, than an acknowledgment that the question of the existence or non-existence of God is irrelevant to the pursuit of reason and scientific inquiry. Perhaps it is much like how some people use the story of Santa Claus to get their kids to brush their teeth and go to bed on Christmas Eve.  

“From the time I was capable of conceiving an idea and acting upon it by reflection, I either doubted the truth of the Christian system or saw it as a strange affair; I scarcely knew which it was, but I well remember, when about seven or eight years of age, hearing a sermon read by a relation of mine, who was a great devotee of the Church, upon the subject of what is called redemption by the death of the Son of God. After the sermon was ended, I went into the garden, and as I was going down the garden steps (for I perfectly recollect the spot) I revolted at the recollection of what I had heard, and thought to myself that it was making God Almighty act like a passionate man, that killed his son when he could not revenge himself any other way, and as I was sure a man would be hanged that did such a thing, I could not see for what purpose they preached such things. This was not one of that kind of thoughts that had anything in it of childish levity; it was to me a serious reflection, arising from the idea I had that God was too good to do such an action, and also too almighty to be under any necessity of doing it. I believe in the same manner at this moment; and I moreover believe, that any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be a true system.”

I was seven years old when I stopped believing in Christianity, and came to the conclusion for much the same reason Paine did: too much of their doctrine was, even to my still developing mind, contradictory. My initial conclusion was that there was no God at all, or, if there was, God must in fact be terrible and wrathful like the Old Testament version. I now simply believe there is no such thing, and see no reason or evidence to believe otherwise. However, with reference to the last line of the above quote, Paine gives the common person too much credit. Most children never stop to think about these things at all, and only believe what they are told. This is why such an absurd belief has been capable of holding the imagination of a third of the world’s population for so long, and similar beliefs still inspire the devotion of most of the rest of the world. As Nietzsche remarked in Beyond Good And Evil:

“The extraordinary limitation of human development, the hesitation, protractedness, frequent retrogression, and turning thereof, is attributable to the fact that the herd-instinct of obedience is transmitted best, and at the cost of the art of command.”

Paine was an exceptional individual and obviously a precocious child. Yet like many of his fellow egalitarians, he did not entirely accept the limitations of the majority, the mob, the rabble, though I wonder again if he did and simply acted otherwise to lure in the reader, in the same wise as I earlier mentioned he might have professed deism instead of atheism.

But then, even so exceptional an intellect as Paine’s could really have believed in divinity. It seems to me that there is a part of our neurological makeup which has evolved to experience the world in this way, and I would conjecture that it exists precisely for the purpose of giving us an emotional impetus to push forward in the face of futility, because it is the gene driving us, not what we think of as the self. If it is the self alone by which we are to measure the value of life, we are, I think, ultimately left regarding a frantic, neurotic self-diagnostic program with little in the way of serendipity or serenity, let alone divinity, and this makes the modern trend toward deification of the self all the more hapless and dangerous; so, in that respect, perhaps Paine and the other Deists were onto something in their attempt to preserve the idea of divinity as exemplified by nature while discarding the many mythological and metaphysical accoutrements with which it has been perpetually weighted to the point of denying its very utility.

Nevertheless, I remain a cynical, nihilistic atheist on the grounds that I wish to change the programming itself so that this act of dissociation becomes as unnecessary as the belief in a redeemer. When I can discover in this nihilistic reality the very serenity and ecstasy which I was once able to cull from devotional practices I will know I have succeeded; but I shall likely die trying, which is still good enough for me! One way or another, I no longer doubt there will be peace.

In section 13 Paine goes on to make a case against Christianity through use of his astronomical knowledge. Though he was correct in asserting a plurality of solar systems and worlds, he was incorrect in asserting that all, or even a majority, of these worlds must be teeming with life. However, his point that much ancient religious belief—including Christianity—posits the world as the whole of existence, is validly refuted by his former assertion. However, the latter assertion, having been proven false by the present day, has poked a huge hole in his deistic interpretation of the significance of the plurality of worlds and the magnitude of space.

Again, Paine’s Deism seems a prototype of modern intelligent design theory, which asserts a non-sequitur as scientific data: namely the idea that because a thing exists it must have been created under the guidance of some intelligence. I am not the first commentator to wonder aloud as to whether or not Paine really believed these things. I offer as evidence in favor of his smirking duplicity this passage in which Paine then goes on to wonder aloud himself as to where the point of diminished returns is with regard to deceiving people for their own good (emphasis mine):

“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 persuade 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 afterward be explained, for it is with a pious fraud as with a bad action, it begets a calamitous necessity of going on.”

The point being that no matter how benign or even beneficial a false belief may at first seem, it is bound to eventually cause trouble when it clashes with reality, and so it does when the diversity and absurdity of terrestrial belief systems create conflict irreconcilable by any other means than war.

Paine goes on to speak of mystery, miracle and prophecy as the three means by which religion imposes itself on humanity. He talks of how “created things” are mysteries in the sense that we may not necessarily understand the underlying mechanics of how they work, but we understand that they work, giving the example of how a planted acorn becomes a tree.

“But though every created thing is, in this sense, a mystery, the word mystery cannot be applied to moral truth, any more than obscurity can be applied to light. The God in whom we believe is a God of moral truth, and not a God of mystery or obscurity. Mystery is the antagonist of truth. It is a fog of human invention, that obscures truth, and represents it in distortion. Truth never envelops itself in mystery, and the mystery in which it is at any time enveloped is the work of its antagonist, and never of itself.”

On the one hand, his point about religious obscurantism is valid. On the other, his use of the concept of moral truth in this context is just as mystical as any other religious belief. He’s piling up non sequiturs. He asserts that mystery obscures the true religion, which is benevolent action in nature, which he deems in an almost Leibnizean manner to be a gift from God; but an honest and impartial observation of nature does not yield such a conclusion. It is full to brimming over with cruelty and caprice, and the folly of metaphysics is as much a result of human nature as any form of reciprocity or altruism.

On the manner in which reports of miracles and prophecy should do more to discredit the authenticity of a belief system than validate it, Paine is correct—yet here we have the realization that people would rather believe the incredible when it suits their emotional needs than accept credible information that is underwhelming or disappointing, for again, still to this day such beliefs prevail with the majority.

Paine is throughout this work attempting to make that Leibnizean case for a best of all possible worlds, which is a noble enough assertion. However, it is hard for me to believe that he and Leibniz both did not at least suspect on some level that one of the primary reasons most people are so predisposed to long for an afterlife and believe in magical and mystical absurdities is because this life is so difficult and painful.

If anything, though Paine accurately demonstrates the harm done by theism, he is yet perpetuating the disservice to humanity done by religion which stems from setting up a false dichotomy between the world as it is and a world which we can discover is much better than it seems—if we only act according to God’s plan. Here, perhaps, Paine is attempting to commit a pious fraud of his own. 

In a prologue to the first part and preface to the second, Paine discusses his imprisonment in France, which occurred, he says, no more than six hours after he had finished the first installment. He discusses how he was compelled to publish the work sooner rather than toward the end of his life as a result of seeing that “The intolerant spirit of Church persecutions had transferred itself into politics”. Fast forward to the modern-day and we have to admit that religion was never the specific problem, and that group ideology in any form presents the same dangers Paine encountered in the wake of the revolution in the person and character of Robespierre.[1] This does not invalidate Paine’s critique of religion in the least, only his assertion that this intolerant spirit springs therefrom, or from any specific religion. This intolerant spirit is more universal than either love or God. It is the territorial instinct, or, as Nietzsche supposed it, the will to power, and it cares very little for the high-minded ideals of free thinkers, except for insofar as those ideas can themselves be pressed into its service.

This inevitable realization is the source of the great despair of free thinkers. Each of us attempt to affix to it some redeeming solution. Nietzsche intimates that we should embrace will to power in the throes of Dionysian delight.[2] Many others suppose that we can overcome it with love, empathy, compassion, happiness, but never admitting, as Paine seems unwilling to admit here, that those concepts themselves require a level of selflessness that not only seems unachievable on a societal scale, but which, due to the inevitable lack of reciprocity from the greater part of society (virtue signaling and lip service aside), any individual who attempts this level of selflessness is likely doomed to be chewed up, spit out and left to rot.

Nevertheless, I appreciate Paine’s declaration with regard to why he was willing to return as a delegate to the French convention on behalf of the United States:

“The Convention, to repair as much as lay in their power the injustice I had sustained, invited me publicly and unanimously to return into the Convention, and which I accepted, to show I could bear an injury without permitting it to injure my principles or my disposition. It is not because right principles have been violated that they are to be abandoned.”

I wonder, as more and more people literally abandoned Paine in the ensuing years, largely over the views he published in this book, but also because of his opposition to slavery, and his generally irascible nature, if he was able to sustain the same view of “creation” as the word of God, as being inherently good. After all, were not these very same people, who owed to him in many ways a burgeoning Republic, and some of whom professed to be his friends, part of this supposedly glorious “creation”? By standing firm on his principles and speaking truth, he lost the love and respect of these people, as if such warm regard were no more than the product of mutually inspired feeling rather than, as Paine likes to suppose, Reason. On the day of his funeral, only six people appeared to mourn a great man who literally improved the lot of thousands.

Much of this second book is a blow by blow critical analysis of the Bible. Paine even points out the mathematical errors in the accounts of Hebrew lineage. There are some baseless assertions about Jews lacking ingenuity that borders on the antisemitic, but I don’t think Paine was an antisemite, as  evidenced by his earlier praise for the Jewish poets, and his almost dogmatic egalitarianism. Nevertheless, though those particular observations are hardly relevant to his greater purpose, the rest of his careful dissections do demonstrate unequivocally that the Bible is necessarily a fabrication, highly fallible, blatantly contradictory and does not constitute a credible account of history or a coherent morality.

This hit a little too close to home for me, as I had a gloriously misspent youth in my own right, though doubtfully was it the equal of a King like Solomon: “The book of Ecclesiastes, or the preacher, is also ascribed to Solomon, and that with much reason, if not with truth. It is written as the solitary reflections of a worn-out debauchee, such as Solomon was, who, looking back on scenes he can no longer enjoy, cries out “All is vanity!”

With all due respect to both Solomon and Mr. Paine, I think it safe to say that we worn-out debauchees are the best suited to pass such judgments. After all, we have experienced life to the fullest, otherwise we would not be so worn out! Paine goes on to talk about the remedy to this nihilistic despair:

“To be happy in old age, it is necessary that we accustom ourselves to objects that can accompany the mind all the way through life, and that we take the rest as good in their day. The mere man of pleasure is miserable in old age, and the mere drudge in business but little better; whereas, natural philosophy, mathematical and mechanical science, are a continual source of tranquil pleasure, and in spite of the gloomy dogmas of priests and of superstition, the study of these things is the true theology; it teaches man to know and admire the Creator, for the principles in science are in the creation, and are unchangeable and of divine origin.

Those who knew Benjamin Franklin will recollect that his mind was ever young, his temper ever serene; science, that never grows gray, was always his mistress. He was never without an object, for when we cease to have an object, we become like an invalid in a hospital waiting for death.”

Putting aside the certain knowledge that Franklin had many more mistresses than science, this passage is a true nugget of inspiring and calming philosophical wisdom hidden in an otherwise acerbic critique. We might conjecture that this was Paine’s own perceived reward, his manna from Heaven in the dark days of his life after the French Revolution.

Paine critiques certain books of the old testament on the grounds that they were in fact translations by the Hebrews of some Gentile mythology which they adopted. It is likely true in some cases, but in other cases the assertion is dubious, and a poor base for a critique, as it is easy enough to show the tales to be mythological, and hardly relevant as to whose mythology. All cultural beliefs are ultimately an amalgamation of earlier beliefs. This holds true, even, for much of what we consider history, which is comprised—at best!—of half-truths convenient to the machinations of the current ruling elite in any time and place.

Paine moves on to the New Testament, and drops this axiomatic gem in the lap of the reader:

“I lay it down as a position that cannot be controverted, first, that the agreement of all parts of a story does not prove that story to be true, because the parts may agree, and the whole may be false; secondly, that the disagreement of the parts of a story proves the whole cannot be true. The agreement does not prove true, but the disagreement proves falsehood positively.”

It’s easy to decipher, according to the most rudimentary logic, that the New Testament account is false, and whether or not there is any part of it that is true is impossible to tell because of the contradiction of its parts. For my part, I will say it is all good and well to take it as a symbolic representation of archetypical concepts—though I wonder if Paine would have been obliged to do so—but as a literal historical account it obviously does not hold, and there is no justification whatsoever for treating it as such, let alone persecuting anyone for refusing to believe it, or any premise associated with it.

Paine dissects the almost complete contradiction between Matthew and Luke on the lineage of Jesus, then goes on to say:

“If his natural genealogy be manufactured, which it certainly is, why are we not to suppose that his celestial genealogy is manufactured also, and that the whole is fabulous? Can any man of serious reflection hazard his future happiness upon the belief of a story naturally impossible, repugnant to every idea of decency, and related by persons already detected of falsehood?”

In fact, many have and many still do, and, saddest of all, the hazard to the happiness of the individual comes not from the belief in the lie, but in the refusal to go along with it, even if one does not believe, and this must have become apparent to Paine after he released this book. He goes on:

“Is it not more safe that we stop ourselves at the plain, pure, and unmixed belief in one God, which is Deism, than that we commit ourselves on an ocean of improbable, irrational, indecent and contradictory lies?”

Here Paine again builds his case for a Deistic belief from a non sequitur. There is no more evidence for the existence of any one particular god or another, and on the grounds of his own stated belief in reason, and in the need to base belief on the best available evidence, his case for Deism is no better than any case for theism. However, the use of the word “safe” in this context might give us more insight into what Paine was actually thinking. Perhaps it’s the simple admission that the general population is not ready to give up on some such belief, and the emotional mechanisms associated therewith must be transferred to some “safe” belief until such time as we can gradually ween ourselves from the need.

Nietzsche anticipated that we would do just such a thing with secular ethics in the 20th century, and he was right. Whether one references communist totalitarianism or modern progressivism, both of which purport to be based on secular, and largely Marxist, principles, we find a blatant use of what we can only consider historically as religious sentiment for the sake of secular ethics, and along with it the shameless promulgation of just as many “improbable, irrational, indecent and contradictory lies”. This also holds true of fascist and neoconservative nationalism, but since these go hand in hand with evangelical or militant religiosity, it qualifies as more of a holdover than a transfer.

Paine then goes on to ask whether or not the gospels were written by the authors to which they are ascribed. In his own time there was no empirical evidence for or against. Now we can at least say the oldest existing copies we find were not written by anyone during the supposed life spans of Jesus or the apostles. However, Paine makes a legitimate case for the falsehood of the gospels based on the fact that each book contradicts the other on many points, and this is indicative not of four authors living communally as the apostles were supposed to have done, but of different authors writing fictional accounts under the pseudonym of an apostle.

Speaking later of Paul’s contradictory claims about his belief in the resurrection, Paine drops another axiomatic gem:

“A man may often see reason, and, he has too, always the right of changing his opinion; but this liberty does not extend to matters of fact.”

Then there is this:

“I am not one of those who are fond of believing there is much of that which is called willful lying, or lying originally, except in the case of men setting up to be prophets, as in the Old Testament; for prophesying is lying professionally. In almost all other cases, it is not difficult to discover the progress by which even simple supposition, with the aid of credulity, will, in time, grow into a lie, and at last be told as a fact; and whenever we can find a charitable reason for a thing of this kind, we ought not to indulge a severe one.”

He says this to preface his assertion that the belief in Jesus’ resurrection is just such a lie, built up out of the wishful thinking of his followers. To give another example, he mentions the case of Romans believing they had seen Julius Caesar after his assassination. I can’t help but think of the many sightings of Elvis Presley in the United States after his untimely death, and chuckle. I like to think Paine would have chuckled too.

Paine then goes on to cite Boulanger’s Life Of Paul, specifically extracts of correspondence that show that during the time the New Testament was cobbled together it was generally known that the books therein were not written by the apostles or Jesus.

“The reader will see by these extracts, that the authenticity of the books of the New Testament was denied, and the books treated as tales, forgeries, and lies, at the time they were voted to be the Word of God. But the interest of the church, with the assistance of the fagot[3], bore down the opposition, and at last suppressed all investigation.”

Contesting Paul’s assertion about physical resurrection, Paine waxes philosophical on consciousness and immortality:

“Who can say by what exceedingly fine action of fine matter it is that a thought is produced in what we call the mind? And yet that thought when produced, as I now produce the thought I am writing, is capable of becoming immortal, and is the only production of man that has that capacity.”

Paine goes on from this brilliant observation to posit more Deist non sequiturs, but I won’t hold it against him. Ideas are, in a sense, immortal—which is to say that the lifespan of an idea can far exceed that of its originator, and originate independently in many different people. This doesn’t quite equate to an afterlife, but it is still a revelation to behold ideas persisting through time like the ghost of Elvis or Caesar.

“The most beautiful parts of the creation to our eye are the winged insects, and they are not so originally. They acquire that form and that inimitable brilliancy by progressive changes. The slow and creeping caterpillar-worm of today passes in a few days to a torpid figure and a state resembling death; and in the next stage comes forth in all the miniature magnificence of life, a splendid butterfly. No resemblance of the former creature remains; everything is changed; all his powers are new, and life is to him another thing. We cannot conceive that the consciousness of existence is the same to him in this state of the animal as before; why then must I believe that the resurrection of the same body is necessary to continue to me the consciousness of existence hereafter?”

Paine goes on to malign Paul for making a bad analogy between resurrection and agriculture, which is fair, but then heaps non sequitur upon non sequitur in defense of his own bad analogy:

“The progress of an animal from one state of being to another, as from a worm to a butterfly, applies to the case; but this of a grain does not, and shows Paul to have been what he said of others, a fool.”

Yet we have no basis for believing that either the caterpillar, the butterfly, or most other animals are conscious of their existence, and even less evidence that we are conscious of our existence beyond the death of our own bodies. We have reports of haunting, but those reports don’t come from the ghosts themselves, but rather the haunted, who are still alive. Likewise with dreams of loved ones who have passed on, or spirit mediums, and so on. All these reports are filtered through the perception of living, functioning brains, and do nothing to prove the existence of consciousness beyond the physical death of the body.

It seems that even in the case of AI, if we want to stretch the definition of consciousness to include those preprogrammed decision making processes, it must still be generated from and operate within the confines of some physical apparatus; and again, if our definition of consciousness is extended beyond awareness of our own existence to include preprogrammed decision making processes, then, yes, all organic mechanical life is in that sense conscious, but the programming is quite obviously determined by agents within their physical environment, whether it be the evolution of the DNA through natural selection or the human hand through the advance of technology.

I think we must limit the definition of consciousness to self-awareness, and admit that the vast majority of organisms are not conscious of their existence at all and act in just as much an automated manner as any preprogrammed machine. I’m not so sure at this point in my life, after forty-one years of experience and observation, that this doesn’t refer to most humans—or even me!—but I am leaving myself open to be pleasantly surprised.

“…credulity, however, is not a crime, but it becomes criminal by resisting conviction. It is strangling in the womb of the conscience the efforts it makes to ascertain truth. We should never force belief upon ourselves in anything.”

An interesting assertion, considering the virility of Paine’s own expressed beliefs about nature as creation. Nonetheless, he still seems to practice what he preaches for the most part. In his conclusion to part two, he makes a series of excellent points. I’ll start with this one about revelation:

“Revelation then, so far as the term has relation between God and man, can only be applied to something to which God reveals of his will to man; but though the power of the Almighty to make such a communication is necessarily admitted, because to that power all things are possible, yet the thing so revealed (if anything ever was revealed, and which, bye the bye, it is impossible to prove), is revelation  to the person only to whom it is made. His account of it to another person is not revelation; and whoever puts faith in that account, puts it only in the man from whom the account comes; and that man may have been deceived, or may have dreamed it, or he may be an impostor and may lie. There is no possible criterion whereby to judge of the truth of what he tells, for even the morality of it would be no proof of revelation.”

He goes on to say that this is important because it acts as a safeguard between the individual and those who would use false revelation to manipulate the individual. Paine then goes on:

“But though, speaking for myself, I thus admit the possibility of revelation, I totally disbelieve that the Almighty ever did communicate anything to man, by any mode of speech, in any language, or by any kind of vision, or appearance, or by any means which our senses are capable of receiving, otherwise than by the universal display of himself in the works of the creation, and by that repugnance we feel in ourselves to bad actions, and the disposition to do good ones.”

Here again I suspect the hand of the moral propagandist on Paine’s part, trying to do good on two fronts. First by attempting to maintain that there is this God for the sake of not being immediately disregarded on account of atheism and second by trying to induce people into the idea that their capacity to be good indicates their closeness to or derivation from God, which they are so intent on believing anyway.

I’ve already discussed the intelligent design theory argument about the complexity and seeming purpose built into nature, that it is a non sequitur; but the second assertion, that we necessarily feel repugnance to bad actions and a disposition to do good ones, is now more easily refuted than ever, with a wide range of scientific evidence that there are individuals who are pathologically induced to do what Paine is here assigning as bad actions. In other words, the existence of the sociopath, to name only one example, demonstrates this assertion to be a blatant falsehood. Again, I wonder if Paine really believed it himself at the time, but I suppose we’ll never really know.

The primary point about divine revelation does stand, though, and has always served, or at least it seems to me, as the best argument in favor of disbelief in God. Paine goes on to equate all human wickedness with revealed religion, and this too is a demonstrable misnomer now, given the promulgation of ideologies that were based not on religious but secular political belief, that have nonetheless resulted in such wickedness. His primary point about the hypocrisy of revealed religion asserting itself as benevolent or the means to a better morality is, however, valid.

A salient point Paine makes in his conclusion is about the hypocrisy of the Christian doctrine of loving the enemy:

“Loving enemies is another dogma of feigned morality, and has besides no meaning. It is incumbent upon man, as a moralist, that he does not revenge an injury; and it is equally as good in a political sense, for there is no end to retaliation, each retaliates on the other, and calls it justice; but to love in proportion to the injury, if it could be done, would be to offer a premium for crime. Besides the word enemy is too vague and general to be used in a moral maxim, which ought always to be clear and defined, like a proverb. If a man be an enemy of another from mistake and prejudice, as in the case of religious opinions, and sometimes in politics, that man is different to an enemy at heart with criminal intention; and it is incumbent upon us, and it contributes also to our tranquility, that we put the best construction upon a thing that it will bear. But even this erroneous motive on him makes no motive on love for the other part; and to say that we can love voluntarily, and without a motive, is morally and physically impossible.

Morality is injured by prescribing duties to it that, in the first place, are impossible to be performed; and, if they could be, would be productive of evil; or, as before said, would be premiums for crime. The maxim of doing as we would be done unto does not include this strange doctrine of loving enemies: for no man expects to be loved himself for his crime or his enmity.

Those who preach this doctrine of loving enemies are in general the greatest persecutors, and they act consistently by so doing; for the doctrine is hypocritical, and it is natural that hypocrisy should act the reverse of what it preaches.”

He is here elucidating the manner in which preachers of unconditional love tend to do so either out of romantic naivete or for the sake of seeking endless forgiveness, no matter the horrendous nature of their deeds; and one must often suspect that the naivete is simply the act of dissociation necessary to justify the selfish action which the preacher wishes to take. Really, Paine doesn’t go far enough here, and this is where his criticisms fall short and those of Nietzsche pick up.

Human culture is hopelessly vain, and even in our kindness we are often engaging in a nefarious power struggle. The established powers of any time do well to understand the manner by which they can use the gregarious instinct to control the herd, and Christianity—as a state religion instituted by Constantine especially—serves this effect better than anything before it, though the modern trend toward secular humanism and so-called liberal progressivism may usurp it, with its overemphasis on emotional sensitivity at the expense of logic, reason and willpower.

We may suppose that the use of this sort of pseudoreligious morality to direct the herd into kinder action toward one another might ultimately serve a greater purpose of uniting humanity, but we’d be ignoring the dark side of the issue, which is that it also makes the herd docile and malleable to the designs of the establishment. The fruits of their labors are collected and used to fund brutality in other parts of the empire, and they simply learn to ignore it so long as their lives remain pleasant enough for them to bear. This is true as well of injustice that occurs within their own society, sometimes right on their doorstep. It’s not their problem. It’s a matter for the authorities, who are the experts.

The most key element in manufacturing consent is convincing the general populace to believe they are consenting to a right course of action which benefits everyone in a utilitarian fashion. This philosophical placebo effect applies just as much to Paine’s Deist propositions, which he goes on to elucidate in the remainder of his conclusion to part two. He presents it as an egalitarian principle: everyone should be free to learn from the work of creation itself, through the use of scientific methods, what creation is, who God is.

In this manner, though, Paine is proscribing an unnecessary limit on what he calls creation; namely, he’s limiting existence to the action of a creator, and there is little theoretical, and no empirical, grounds for so doing—unless it be to convince those who are too thoroughly conditioned to abandon their faith to also embrace the principles of science. Again, I can’t help but suspect the master propagandist who wrote Common Sense of trying his luck at the accomplishment of an even more monumental task.

The third book of Age of Reason was a pamphlet Paine released going through the minute details of Old Testament verses which were supposed by the writers of the New Testament to have prophesied the first coming of Jesus. He does an easy and thorough job of demonstrating the obvious fallacies which the gospel writers so glibly brandished, and because much of what Paine does here is an expansion of the general theme, I won’t quote it at length.

Overall, I appreciate Paine’s willingness to go head to head with the puritanism of his time, but it seems that by the time he returned from France, he missed his window of opportunity, as inquiry into religious belief had cooled after the American revolution and the herd, which always wants to situate itself in the most comfortable field with the best grass and the most efficient blinders, was not only disinterested, but beginning to grow hostile toward anything that might challenge their comfort.

This is the cycle of culture. Even when it seems to be in a period of open inquiry, it is still often confined to certain subjects. There are always needless taboos. Social convention and moral tradition are monolithic in nature. They cannot be toppled overnight, and even when they are toppled, some innocent souls are bound to be crushed beneath the falling debris. So it is still to this day, and so it shall likely always be.

[1]    It is interesting to note that Edward Bulwer-Lytton, about a half-century later, in his novel Zanoni, makes the opposite case for the cause of the horrors of the revolution: namely, that it was an encroaching undercurrent of Enlightenment-era atheism that was primarily responsible.

[2]    Evidence shows he was likely incapable of achieving this for himself.

[3]    Of course, he is here referring to a bundle of wood above which people would be burned while tied to a stake…

C. Rommial Butler‘s writings may be postmortem reflections of a time he didn’t exist to enjoy filtered through the flesh matrix of a biochemical computer program.