Thomas Paine (1736-1809)
We return from France to America, to yet another of the Founding Fathers of the United States, only to quickly return to France. Thomas Paine had a hand in two revolutions, being also a member of the revolutionary Convent. As a foreigner and a known ally of a moderate republican Girondin movement, he was imprisoned, when the radicals led by Robespierre had managed to take control of the government. While in prison, Paine wrote the first part of his The Age of Reason, a book investigating Christian religion from the standpoint of Deism.
After being salvaged from impending death by the execution of Robespierre, Paine added two further parts to the book. In the prison cell, he had had no Bible to check, and the final parts are meant to accommodate for that fault: Paine goes painstakingly through various books of the Bible, finding out evidence suggesting that the book is not a work of divine revelation.
Paine's primary strategy is to point out internal incoherencies – Moses couldn't have written the first books of the Bible, because he dies before the end of the book, supposed prophecies pointing to the coming of Christ were actually related to ancient affairs of Jews and their kingdoms etc. Although this part of Paine's book was quite relevant when it appeared, it seems trite nowadays, since no one in his right mind takes Bible as a literal source of history. Of course Bible has it inconsistencies – just the existence of two different creation stories belies this. But far more interesting than such biblical nitpicking is to ask why these stories, with all their inconsistencies, have been able to cause a feeling of divinity in their readers.
A more interesting avenue of criticism lies in Paine's discussion of dreams – or the criticism itself is again quite trite (dreams of a person are no proper testimony, and even if God would have used them to reveal his will to people, this power of revelation would only hold for those who had the vision), but the machinery behind this criticism is interesting. Paine sets out an intricate picture of human mind. The driving force of mind is imagination, Paine says, and its activities are recorded by memory and regulated by judgement. Imagination works always, but memory and judgement often rest during sleep. When memory is not working, we don't have any recollection of what we have thought. When memory is working, but judgement is not, we are dreaming.
In addition to incoherence, Paine criticized the supposed immorality of Bible. Lot of this criticism is undoubtedly to the point – stories of ancient Israelites killing innocent babies are cruel. Still, Paine's disdain is also at times difficult to understand. Thus, Paine thinks that the idea of God forgiving sins would be detrimental to morality, because bad deeds would not then be punished in any way. Yet, one might say that at least in some cases true repentance is an acceptable option for external punishment.
Another part of Paine's crusade against the impious Bible is his insistence that the biblical notion of immortality is crass. Christianity speaks of bodily resurrection, but, Paine suggests, a body similar to our current body would just wind out just as our current bodies. Thus, he concludes, immortality must mean change into a completely different, more perfect plane of living. Paradoxically, Christian notion of immortality is then denied by Paine because it is too materialistic – a reason why it was easy for Christian philosophers to accept Aristotelian notion of soul.
After having thrown away all of Bible, Paine directs his reader to the true revelation of God, that is, nature. There is not much original in Paine's naturalistic theology, but we might notice one curious detail in it, namely, Paine's attitude towards mathematics. It appears that Paine thinks even mathematical truths were designed and chosen by God. Thus, mathematics becomes one of the natural sciences, because e.g. the relationships of different triangles are in Paine's eyes evidence for God's existence.