Friday, July 9, 2010

Thomas Paine and the Debunking of Religion

I've been reading Thomas Paine's pamphlet, The Age of Reason, and am struck by how incredibly radical it still seems today.  Sure, times have changed (he wrote it in 1794).  What he would have thought of as "the church" in many contexts would now be more applicable to "megachurches".  But his fundamental debunking of religion, specifically Christianity, is as damning as ever.

A few good quotes:
On the bible as mythology
It is, however, not difficult to account for the credit that was given to the story of Jesus Christ being the Son of God. He was born when the heathen mythology had still some fashion and repute in the world, and that mythology had prepared the people for the belief of such a story. Almost all the extraordinary men that lived under the heathen mythology were reputed to be the sons of some of their gods. It was not a new thing at that time to believe a man to have been celestially begotten; the intercourse of gods with women was then a matter of familiar opinion. Their Jupiter, according to their accounts, had cohabited with hundreds; the story therefore had nothing in it either new, wonderful, or obscene; it was conformable to the opinions that then prevailed among the people called Gentiles, or mythologists, and it was those people only that believed it. The Jews, who had kept strictly to the belief of one God, and no more, and who had always rejected the heathen mythology, never credited the story.
 On the silliness of the creation story:
Why it has been called the Mosaic account of the creation, I am at a loss to conceive. Moses, I believe, was too good a judge of such subjects to put his name to that account. He had been educated among the Egyptians, who were a people as well skilled in science, and particularly in astronomy, as any people of their day; and the silence and caution that Moses observes, in not authenticating the account, is a good negative evidence that he neither told it nor believed it.
 On the misinterpretation of language:
All the remaining parts of the Bible, generally known by the name of the Prophets, are the works of the Jewish poets and itinerant preachers, who mixed poetry, anecdote, and devotion together--and those works still retain the air and style of poetry, though in translation.

There is not, throughout the whole book called the Bible, any word that describes to us what we call a poet, nor any word that describes what we call poetry. The case is, that the word prophet, to which a later times have affixed a new idea, was the Bible word for poet, and the word 'propesytng' meant the art of making poetry. It also meant the art of playing poetry to a tune upon any instrument of music.

We read of prophesying with pipes, tabrets, and horns--of prophesying with harps, with psalteries, with cymbals, and with every other instrument of music then in fashion. Were we now to speak of prophesying with a fiddle, or with a pipe and tabor, the expression would have no meaning, or would appear ridiculous, and to some people contemptuous, because we have changed the meaning of the word.

We are told of Saul being among the prophets, and also that he prophesied; but we are not told what they prophesied, nor what he prophesied. The case is, there was nothing to tell; for these prophets were a company of musicians and poets, and Saul joined in the concert, and this was called prophesying.

It occurred to me as I read how obvious it felt to me when I was young to critique the religion in which I was raised. This was no doubt due in large part to Hinduism and reincarnation being such alien concepts to my social network (although, in Santa Cruz, maybe not so much).  In my early thoughts, as I neared a conclusion that religion and God were human inventions, I came upon such arguments as I was able fashion alone.

Off the top of my head, I try and recall a few:
  • Infinite Regression: If God created the universe, then who created God.  Science faces the same problem.  But science doesn't invent an all-powerful entity.  It simply says we don't know. 
  • Suffering: There's no explanation for it. 
  • Multiplicity: There are so many religions, how could one possibly know which one is correct?  The vast majority of people simply follow that they were born into.
  • Ego: Humans love to invent things.  Our recorded history is nothing if not one big exercise in magical thinking.  This seems much better explained by the limitations of our complicated mind than evidence that one of these ridiculous stories happens to be true.
  • Evidence: There isn't any.

While I won't go as far as to say that religion is necessarily a force for evil in the world, I will say that it is largely stupid and unhealthy.  While many will find it comforting and helpful, and in many cases it is probably better than any practical alternative, it contains inherent procedures of thought that are at best constricting and at worst, deadly and oppressive.  On the whole describing it as in many ways a cancer upon the human race is quite justified.  While it has also been helpful, it is a habit that would be best replaced with a  more reasonable world view and program for living.

Thomas Paine was a deist, likely in the manner of what would later come to be described as pantheism.  I'm not sure yet why he chose to stop there.  Although writing two hundred years ago, he would have far fewer sociological and scientific resources from which to level a critique of the very notion of God itself.  But in his deism he was able to find all the goodness and spirituality he seemed to have needed.  It was in fact from a place of profound moral righteousness that he drew the courage to challenge the religion he thought was a source of evil in the world.

Atheists too often get stuck bickering with the silliness of religionists, instead of staking out new moral ground and claims of righteous humanity.  In the end, it will be this philosophical bedrock upon which future Atheists people will feel comfortable resting.  And what is more, the questions there seem much more interesting and challenging than arguing about whether one or another magical fantasy exists.

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