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.