Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Thomas Paine - the first 'New Atheist'?

Thomas Paine, author of The Age of Reason, had an 'interesting' involvement in the French Revolution.  At the time he was living in France and although he was an English born 'Founding Father' of USA, he was acting as an elected member of the French National Convention when the revolution happened.  Things did not go well for him, but at least he escaped with his life.

Thomas Paine - an atheist and a deist.

Paine was a deist - in other words he believed in a creator of the universe but not a creator who intervened in its workings.  He was quite fervently anti-christian, and having been reading The Age of Reason I will be sure to write about him again in the future.

For the time being, here is what he said about the subject of miracles, with an interestingly humorous comment about Jonah and the whale.

Of all the modes of evidence that ever were invented to obtain belief to any system or opinion to which the name of religion has been given, that of miracle, however successful the imposition may have been, is the most inconsistent. For, in the first place, whenever recourse is had to show, for the purpose of procuring that belief, (for a miracle, under any idea of the word, is a show), it implies a lameness or weakness in the doctrine that is preached. And, in the second place, it is degrading the Almighty into the character of a showman, playing tricks to amuse and make the people stare and wonder. It is also the most equivocal sort of evidence that can be set up; for the belief is not to depend upon the thing called a miracle, but upon the credit of the reporter who says that he saw it; and, therefore, the thing, were it true, would have no better chance of being believed than if it were a lie.

Suppose I were to say, that when I sat down to write this book, a hand presented itself in the air, took up the pen, and wrote every word that is herein written; would anybody believe me? Certainly they would not. Would they believe me a whit the more if the thing had been a fact? Certainly they would not. Since, then, a real miracle, were it to happen, would be subject to the same fate as the falsehood, the inconsistency becomes the greater of supposing the Almighty would make use of means that would not answer the purpose for which they were intended, even if they were real.

If we are to suppose a miracle to be something so entirely out of the course of what is called nature, that she must go out of that course to accomplish it, and we see an account given of such miracle by the person who said he saw it, it raises a question in the mind very easily decided, which is, is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.

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. In this, which may serve for all cases of miracles, the matter would decide itself, as before stated, namely, is it more that a man should have swallowed a whale or told a lie?

But suppose that Jonah had really swallowed the whale, and gone with it in his belly to Nineveh, and, to convince the people that it was true, had cast it up in their sight, of the full length and size of a whale, would they not have believed him to be the devil, instead of a prophet? Or, if the whale had carried Jonah to Ninevah, and cast him up in the same public manner, would they not have believed the whale to have been the devil, and Jonah one of his imps?

The most extraordinary of all the things called miracles, related in the New Testament, is that of the devil flying away with Jesus Christ, and carrying him to the top of a high mountain, and to the top of the highest pinnacle of the temple, and showing him and promising to him all the kingdoms of the World. How happened it that he did not discover America, or is it only with kingdoms that his sooty highness has any interest?

Interestingly, I believe that if Paine lived today he would have realised that his deistic god had been backed so far into a corner that deism was not longer a defensible argument.  His rational and reasoning mind would be a great addition to the ranks of the present New Atheists, and he was perhaps the historical character who was nearest in every way to the late, great, Christopher Hitchens.

One could almost call Paine 'the first of the New Atheists', even though he died in 1809!


RosaRubicondior said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RosaRubicondior said...

"The Age of Reason" is still very much worth reading. I think it's highly likely that, had Darwin's Theory of Evolution been published a century earlier, this would have removed his one remaining reason for being a Deist, which was never more than the Paley's Watch reasoning.

Thomas Lawson said...

People tend to think it unfair to call the Founders and earlier philosophers atheists, but I say that had Darwin's theory come about in their time they most assuredly would have been. All deists should be posthumously baptized as atheists. (winky-face)

Plasma Engineer said...

Yes - like the de-baptismal certificates from the FFRF (http://www.ffrf.org/). Good idea. One might claim quite reasonably that deists already ARE atheists. There is no such word as adeist though. Mnd you - there is no such word as afairyist but various people still use it.