American History27 Jan 2008 07:55 am
Thomas Paine had one of the most remarkable political careers in the history of mankind. In the 1770s, he was the most influential pamphleteer and propagandist for the cause of American independence. In the 1790s, he bravely defended the ideals of the French Revolution against conservative attacks. (He even faced the possibility of the guillotine rather than be complicit with Robespierre’s Reign of Terror.) Looking back at his career he remarked, “to have taken part in two revolutions was to have lived to some purpose.” Amen, as the faithful would say.
As it happens, Paine cannot be counted among the faithful himself.
He is most famous for two books. The first, Common Sense, was his direct and forceful call for American independence. The other, The Rights of Man, was a direct response to Edmund Burke’s critical Reflections on the Revolution in France. But these are not his only major works. Though it is often excluded from collections of his writing and seldom mentioned in short biographical sketches, The Age of Reason may be Paine’s most revolutionary work.
The Age of Reason is subtitled Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology, and it may have been the most strident critique of religion ever published when Paine released it. Paine began writing the work while awaiting execution in a French prison (he was eventually released) and he wrote like a man with nothing to lose. He called the Hebrew Bible “a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.” He called the “fable” of Jesus Christ “blasphemously obscene,” after wryly observing that “it is nothing extraordinary that a woman should be with child before she was married.” (True enough, but an incredibly blasphemous remark about the Virgin Mary at the time it was written.)
Paine’s writings on religion are still shocking today, centuries after they were written. Nonetheless, they deserve to be better known. No account of this Founding Father is complete without them.
Read The Age of Reason and other works by Thomas Paine here.
Many writers have attempted to advance the case for secularism in recent years, and almost all of them have cited Paine as an inspiration. Check out some of their works.
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