United States Founding Father Thomas Paine wasn’t just a political revolutionary but also took a radical approach to religion. Born in England in 1736, Paine, moved to the New World in 1774, thanks in part to Benjamin Franklin. He took part in the American Revolution and even inspired the settlers to declare independence from Britain. His pamphlet “Common Sense” and pamphlet series “The American Crisis” made the case for revolution.
Paine would go on to also be an influence in the French Revolution. Because of his political activism in defense of the revolutionary movement, he was arrested in France in 1793. In Luxembourg Prison, he worked on his pamphlet, “The Age of Reason.” In this work, he objected to organized religion, criticized Christianity and advocated for reason and free thought.
Paine would pay a price for his controversial views on religion. When he died in the U.S. on June 8, 1809, just six people paid their respects at his funeral. His condemnation of Christianity made him an outcast even among those who once respected him.
In many ways, Paine’s views on religion were even more revolutionary than his stance on politics, as the following quotes reveal.
Belief in Self
Though Paine was a self-proclaimed monotheist (believing in one God), he disdained virtually all organized religion, proclaiming that his only church was his own mind.
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. [The Age of Reason]
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 one does not believe. It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime. [The Age of Reason]
Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication– after that 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 can not 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. [Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason]
Paine had little time for traditional faith as a religious principle. He placed his trust in the powers of human reason alone, making him a champion for modern humanists.
The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall. [The Age of Reason]
Science is the true theology. [Thomas Paine quoted in Emerson, The Mind on Fire p. 153]
. . . to argue with a man who has renounced his reason is like giving medicine to the dead. [The Crisis, quoted in Ingersoll’s Works, Vol. 1, p.127]
When an objection cannot be made formidable, there is some policy in trying to make it frightful; and to substitute the yell and the war- whoop, in the place of reason, argument, and good order. Jesuitical cunning always endeavors to disgrace what it cannot disprove. [Quoted by Joseph Lewis in Inspiration and Wisdom from the Writings of Thomas Paine]
The study of theology, as it stands in the Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authority; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing, and it admits of no conclusion. [The Writings of Thomas Paine, Volume 4]
Thomas Paine had little tolerance or trust for priests or ecclesiastics of any religion.
Priests and conjurors are of the same trade. [The Age of Reason]
One good schoolmaster is of more use than a hundred priests. [Thomas Paine quoted in 2000 Years of Disbelief, Famous People with the Courage to Doubt by James Haught]
That God cannot lie, is no advantage to your argument, because it is no proof that priests can not, or that the Bible does not. [The Life and Works of Thomas Paine, Vol. 9 p. 134]
Accustom a people to believe that priests or any other class of men can forgive sins, and you will have sins in abundance. [The Theological Works of Thomas Paine, p.207]
On the Christian Bible
As a champion of human reason, Thomas Paine was disdainful to the point of ridicule on the Bible’s stories and allegories. He exhibited constant impatience with anyone who sought to read the biblical verse as literal truth.
Take away from Genesis the belief that Moses was the author, on which only the strange believe that it is the word of God has stood, and there remains nothing of Genesis but an anonymous book of stories, fables, and traditionary or invented absurdities, or of downright lies. [The Age of Reason]
The Bible is a book that has been read more and examined less than any book that ever existed. [The Theological Works of Thomas Paine]
Every phrase and circumstance are marked with the barbarous hand of superstitious torture, and forced into meanings it was impossible they could have. The head of every chapter, and the top of every page, are blazoned with the names of Christ and the Church, that the unwary reader might suck in the error before he began to read. [The Age of Reason, p.131]
The declaration which says that God visits the sins of the fathers upon the children is contrary to every principle of moral justice. [The Age of Reason]
Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call 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. [The Age of Reason]
There are matters in the Bible, said to be done by the express commandment of God, that are shocking to humanity and to every idea we have of moral justice . . . [Complete Writings]
The story of the whale swallowing Jonah, though a whale is large enough to do it, borders greatly on the marvelous; but it would have approached nearer to the idea of a miracle if Jonah had swallowed the whale. [The Age of Reason]
It is far better that we admitted a thousand devils to roam at large than that we permitted one such impostor and monster as Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and the Bible prophets, to come with the pretended word of God and have credit among us. [The Age of Reason]
The continually progressive change to which the meaning of words is subject, the want of a universal language which renders translation necessary, the errors to which translations are again subject, the mistakes of copyists and printers, together with the possibility of willful alteration, are of themselves evidences that the human language, whether in speech or in print, cannot be the vehicle of the Word of God. The Word of God exists in something else. [The Age of Reason]
. . . Thomas did not believe the resurrection [John 20:25], and, as they say, would not believe without having ocular and manual demonstration himself. So neither will I, and the reason is equally as good for me, and for every other person, as for Thomas. [The Age of Reason]
What is it the Bible teaches us?–raping, cruelty, and murder. What is it the New Testament teaches us?–to believe that the Almighty committed debauchery with a woman engaged to be married, and the belief of this debauchery is called faith.
As to the book called the Bible, it is blasphemy to call it the Word of God. It is a book of lies and contradictions, and a history of bad times and bad men. There are but a few good characters in the whole book. [Thomas Paine, Letter to William Duane, April 23, 1806]
Thomas Paine’s disdain for religion was not only limited to the Christian faith. Religion, in general, is a human endeavor that Paine regarded as repugnant and primitive. Modern atheists find a champion in the classic writings of Thomas Paine, although, in reality, Paine did indeed believe in God–it was simply a religion that he did not believe in.
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. [The Age of Reason]
Persecution is not an original feature in any religion, but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law. [The Age of Reason]
Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is no more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory to itself than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid or produces only atheists or fanatics. As an engine of power, it serves the purpose of despotism, and as a means of wealth, the avarice of priests, but so far as respects the good of man in general it leads to nothing here or hereafter. [The Age of Reason]
The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries that have afflicted the human race have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion. It has been the most destructive to the peace of man since man began to exist. Among the most detestable villains in history, you could not find one worse than Moses, who gave an order to butcher the boys, to massacre the mothers and then rape the daughters. One of the most horrible atrocities found in the literature of any nation. I would not dishonor my Creator’s name by attaching it to this filthy book. [The Age of Reason]
My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.
Whence arose all the horrid assassinations of whole nations of men, women, and infants, with which the Bible is filled; and the bloody persecutions, and tortures unto death, and religious wars, that since that time have laid Europe in blood and ashes; whence arose they, but from this impious thing called religion, and this monstrous belief that God has spoken to man? [Thomas Paine quoted in 2000 Years of Disbelief, Famous People with the Courage to Doubt by James Haught]
The story of the redemption will not stand examination. That man should redeem himself from the sin of eating an apple by committing a murder on Jesus Christ, is the strangest system of religion ever set up.
Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst; every other species of tyranny is limited to the world we live in, but this attempts to stride beyond the grave, and seeks to pursue us into eternity.