Book Review: The Age of Reason



Book Review: The Age of Reason - Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology by Thomas Paine

While I concern myself with many things (scientific and historical primarily); this [ill tended] web log is dedicated to matters of theism, church/state separation, morality and things related. It is a rare event indeed that one finds a book that touches on so many subjects that I find compelling. For a forum such as this, there would be a number of writings that might be considered ‘required reading’. I have read tomes from Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Stenger. In addition, I have read an increasing number of Christian apologetic works by authors recommended to me (such as C.S. Lewis, Strobel, Aquinas, Geisler/Turek).

One work that has eluded me (until now) is American patriot Thomas Paine’s late-life work The Age of Reason. Paine's story is, to my mind, a rather tragic one. Paine was a patriot and gained great notoriety with the publication of his pamphlet Common Sense in 1776 which was not insignificant in awakening and forming public sentiment in the cause of independence from British rule. He was admired by and corresponded with many of the ‘who’s who’ of our nation’s founding. Moving back to Europe, he later penned The Rights of Man which was critical of monarchies and supported the French Revolution. This, too, was quite influential but it landed him in a French prison. In anticipation of that eventuality and his expected execution, he hastily penned ‘Part I’ of The Age of Reason which he had always planned to write late in life. The Age of Reason is a highly critical deconstruction and condemnation of organized religion. It had long been his intent to write this work but, knowing that he would be roundly criticized for disparagement of Christianity, he waited purposely to make it his swansong. The expectation of beheading seemed to give him a pretty firm date to work with. In the end, he escaped execution and was able to write ‘Part II’ of the book. It will primarily be this second part that I discuss.

First let me note, that Paine was NOT an atheist, but rather a Deist. In ‘Part I’, Paine makes the usual philosophical arguments against theistic belief such as the veracity of revelation, the corruption of the church. These, of course, are common and valid arguments, but it is in ‘Part II’ where Paine really brought something to the table. In ‘Part II’, Paine skillfully and thoroughly used the bible against itself to demonstrate that the claimed authors of the various books could NOT have been authors. Paine, in great detail, dissected and refuted the Old Testament [OT]. I must confess, since most contemporary Christian sects have dismissed the OT as being fables, this section was somewhat like white noise for me. In Paine’s day, though, the OT was still a revered portion of the book that many considered to be the ‘Word of God’.

Paine, using ONLY the Bible as reference, pits each of the books of the New Testament [NT] against themselves and each other. Even today, many believing Christians believe the NT to be the actual, inspired word of God and the be-all end-all in … well … most things of consequence. Paine witheringly shows the gross inconsistencies between the books of the NT and within themselves. Paine went into the effort knowing he would find inconsistencies, but he surprised even himself with just how flawed a document the Bible is.

Examples of what Paine details:

  • - Purported authors speaking of events that transpired after their own death
  • - Proof that some writings had to be CENTURIES removed from the events they describe
  • - Grossly conflicting accounts of the same event.
  • - Major events conspicuous in their absence of some of the books of the NT

The Age of Reason would be a devastating deconstruction of the Bible (and religion) even if it were half its length. I initially picked up the book just as an historical work, but found it to be the most rigorous deconstruction of the bible I had seen. It wouldn’t surprise me that some would scoff at the validity of a 200 year old book…but then again…apologists might not want to bring up the age of their book!

The Age of Reason is a highly recommended read.

14 comments:

Brian said...

And just to express my goodwill and charity towards you, Mike, I have just downloaded Thomas Paine and have already begun reading it. I also noticed on your site that you have read some Lewis. Which ones, might I ask? I consider Miracles to be his masterpiece, and I have never seen his argument regarding consciousness refuted. You should give it a go.

FVThinker said...

Sorry I couldn't get to you sooner..holiday hosting and work responsibilities. It has been some time, but I read Mere Christianity. I don't recall reading his 'consciousness' argument there, but I did try to look it up to bone up before I responded. What I found didn't detail it; so if you have a link that well states that argument, I would like to see it. I did find his quote "Consciousness is either inexplicable illusion, or else revelation." Based on that quote alone; that would be a false dichotomy...and hence and invalid argument. I will presume that he has a little more meat in the argument though.

That said, I certainly found nothing in what I did read of Lewis that would give me pause (or cause me to remember such). I will see if my library has 'Miracles'

Rickr0ll said...

I have a few really great links in relation to this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5DrR-E0RBE&amp

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZuulrAk-d0&amp

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0AXAJHPlVtM&amp

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evElefNJTYo&amp

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1HpZkhDF5E&NR=1

This case up on John Shore's Blog as well, but i have been silenced, so if you would please use these links to add some more information to the discussion, that would be great. You're a good read, by the way.

FVThinker said...

Thanks for you comment Rick. Are you "The Atheist Paladin" represented in the videos?

Ryan Jennings said...

In modern times there are few apologists of the caliber of Ravi Zacharias. Have you tried reading any of his work?

Lewis is good as a Christian philosopher and Strobel a good Christian journalist. Have you read any William Dembski (Christian scientist/mathmatician)?

FVThinker said...

Thanks. I will look up Zacharias and Dembski

...though I do so tire of the apologists. I haven't heard a new argument in ...well...shortly after I started reading them.

Ryan Jennings said...

Yes...I see your point...the frustating thing for me about the secular-humanist position though is that it changes every other year as new information comes out...when will it be accurate?

FVThinker said...

The flippant answer to that would be "before you have an accurate interpretation of the bible".

The actual answer would be "probably before you have an accurate interpretation of the bible."

I justify that answer because the secular humanist actually has tools that bring them closer and closer to demonstrable truths (as compared to 'Truth'). We actually have a large and expanding body knowledge and empirical evidence that is giving us progressively more insights into ethics and origins and even religion religion and love. The theist has no tool but progressive reinterpretation which has been going on for nearly 2000 years. So you have a massive head start (1000 years+) and still don't have it buttoned down.

Add to that; the reinterpretation of scripture is often the result of empirical evidence provided by the secular humanist. And the unfortunate truth is that the less religion in a society, the better the societal health (source: Creighton University http://www.skeptic.com/the_magazine/featured_articles/v12n03_are_religious_societies_healthier.html)


Sorry, but the 'moral relativity' argument doesn't carry any weight with me.

Ryan Jennings said...

It is true that every Bible passage is open to interpretation, but often times the way that objection is raised is to discount one person's particular interpretation. That objection doesn't really do that. Everything needs to be interpreted. In fact, the words you're reading now need to be interpreted by you because I must use language to communicate my thoughts to your mind and you must understand that language before my thoughts can become your thoughts.

If it's true that everything needs to be interpreted, it does not also mean that it's impossible to know anything because everything is subject to interpretation because interpretation is not a willy-nilly type thing.

the issue when it comes to interpretation is to try to determine what the intent of the original writer or speaker was. What were the thoughts of his mind? So we go through a process of reasoning to determine the factual information that the writer was seeking to communicate to the listener or to the reader.

This is why, even though it's a matter of interpretation, not every interpretation is equally valid. This is equally true of modern scientific research as it is the Bible. It is a bold assertion (I like your boldness I must admit) that you make when you speculate that a scientific certainty will be found before an accurate interpretation of the Bible is found. I respectfully disagree, but I do appreciate your passion here. I believe Christians have been in agreement on the major doctrines of our faith for centuries. I'm waiting for the first decade to pass where scientists can come to a strong concensus on how the earth came to be...every new theory seems to blow up (pardon the pun).

As to your "reinterpretation of Scripture from empirical evidence" comment I think you have a small point on a handfull of insignificant biblical accounts...however, in reference to Creation, many of the early Christians and prominent Christian writers wrote about the earth being very old...much older than humanity! The Literal 7-Day theory of Creation may be the traditional view today, however it hasn't always been the majority position (I could give you a list of Jewish Rabbi's from 2,000 years ago as well who held to an old earth view).

Lastly, your comment about the "moral relativity argument not working" with you is a little disheartening...do you not admit that this is the road you are traveling on. To believe as you do is to commit to evolving ethics...there is no other way without an objective standard...It feels very insincere and maybe even a dodge (don't go there) to not want to discuss the ramifications of one's worldview.

Thanks for the quick responses. I don't always have time for such converstations but I'm glad to have had this one with you...peace today!

FVThinker said...

Some of the things that you say about interpretation are generally true; but empiricism has the advantage of actually culling down that interpretation closer and closer to a demonstrable, repeatable and documentable truth. Indeed; ‘interpretation’ is the ‘weak link’ in the scientific/empirical method…which is why empiricism must quantify as many points as possible so as to minimize that aspect of discovery. Philosophical interpretation of biblical passages is only bounded by the biases and frailties of the human mind [ http://fvthinker.blogspot.com/2008/03/book-review-on-being-certain-believing.html ]

” you speculate that a scientific certainty will be found before an accurate interpretation of the Bible is found.”I make no such assertion. My intent was merely to say that between contemplation and empiricism, empiricism gives us actual tools (even if imperfect) to document, make falsifiable, make repeatable, and minimize bias.

” I'm waiting for the first decade to pass where scientists can come to a strong concensus on how the earth came to be”Well there is really no dispute as how the earth came to be nor is there much movement in what happened between the ‘big bang’ and present day. There are competing theories as to what happened prior to the big bang though none are intellectually satisfying to me. …but then an omnipotent creator is LESS intellectually satisfying than the others (at least to me). Again: creationism is a conversation stopper. While physicists and cosmologists keeps studying and peering and discovering; claiming ‘God did it’ too often stops inquiry…after all…if we have the answer, why keep looking?

” early Christians and prominent Christian writers wrote about the earth being very old...” Again: Your recounting of how early Christians believing the earth to be much older merely demonstrates the wild swings in interpretation that can and do result when interpretation is bounded by nothing but grey matter.

” Lastly, your comment about the "moral relativity argument not working" with you is a little disheartening...do you not admit that this is the road you are traveling on.”The concept of ‘moral relativity’ probably causes more confusion in these discussions than most topics. We ALL are subject to ‘moral relativity’. While I wouldn’t expect to make headway on this topic in this venue and with my vocabulary; I feel there are actually moral ‘constants’ (for lack of a better word) that humankind has strived to document (what could be more important?). Every religion and every philosopher tried to document them to the best of their ability based on their knowledge of the day and the cultural context. I think the greater error is pounding a stake in the ground at any point in time and saying “This is it. This is perfect moral law.”

We pretty universally understand that murder is bad (as do other species). We pretty universally understand that sharing and cooperation is good (as do other species). When you pull that stake out of the ground, the ethical world doesn’t go reeling wildly and that can be clearly demonstrated. (reference the Creighton University study and prison population studies) Your morality is claimed to be relative to a stake that was pounded in the ground nearly two thousand years ago. Some of what that stake represents is good (i.e. Sermon on the Mount), but Christianity did not invent the Golden Rule. That stake also ties to you (among other things) persecuting homosexuals for no apparent reason. The greater error is pounding a stake in the ground in the wrong place and refusing to move from it.

Thanks for the conversation. It has been a while since I took the time to discuss these issues at any length.

Ryan Jennings said...

Great responses...very thoughtful...thanks

sometimes we get so far off because we squabble over differing interpretations that we miss that which is right in front of our face...

therefore, one last question...isn't eye witness testimony good empirical evidence?

FVThinker said...

Several factors come into play. On matters so far removed we have to look at 1) the provenance of that documentation, 2) that documented testimony from the time was consistent amongst purported witnesses, 3) how it compares to other documentation of other events (i.e. testimony of other competing theistic miracles), 4) the reliability/consistency of the source document.

I will just say that in today's court of law; it is highly unlikely that the bible could pass the 'reasonable doubt' test.

Ryan Jennings said...

I strongly disagree...an attorney would love to have four witnesses such as the Gospel writers who have testified as they have.

FVThinker said...

Well certainly if you had four, credible, first-person witnesses in a courtroom, shortly after the event and their accounts had no appreciable discrepancies...that would carry some weight.

In the case of the gospels, we have testimony recorded WELLLLLLLL after the events described, passing through untold scribes and translators under in the employ of biased mortal men, with descriptions varying not insignificantly and documents that have indications that the purported authors were not even that actual authors and evidence that some aspects were contrived to make it appear that prophesies have come to pass. Add to that the events described were also recorded for other miracles by other gods/deities/messiahs yet are claimed to be false or impossible. There is an excellent Nova episode that touches on some of hard evidence on the provenance of the bible at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/bible/ .

I thought it would be great fun and very enlightening all around if some court case came up that would demand that the existence of a particular god be proven. I would love to hear the arguments...and the outcome. Can you think of a dispute like that the we can get pushed up to a federal court? :-)