Doubting Thomas Paine
Sydney A. Mayers
[Originally published in Fragments,
October-December, 1967. Reprinted
in the Bulletin of Thomas Paine Friends]
FOR ALL its iconoclasm, The Age of Reason is a profoundly
religious book. It is ironic that its author should be so hatefully
reviled as an atheistic destroyer of faith. For almost two
centuries, vilification has besmirched his name, notwithstanding
that (quite ambivalently) Thomas Paine continues to be patriotically
revered as a champion of freedom and the rights of man. Like his
contemporary, Benedict Arnold, he is a historical Jekyll and Hyde, a
Janus with a face of good and a face of evil. But does he merit the
Paine has been found guilty of the crime of Godlessness. Yet he
repeatedly declared his fervent belief in the Creator and in His
almightiness. It was this alleged infidel who said: "I believe
in one God, and no more; I hope for happiness beyond this life.
teaches us, without the possibility of being deceived, all that is
necessary or proper to be known.
It is the fool only, and not
the philosopher, or even the prudent man, that would live as if
there were no god." These are hardly the words of an atheist.
Why, then, is the man who wrote them condemned as ,a faithless
denier of the existence of God? The answer is intriguing.
What Doubting Thomas Paine scoffed at, sought to debunk, was not
the God-concept, but the religious fabrications of men. He took a
dim view of Bibles, Testaments, churches, congregations, rituals,
and the like, all of which he insisted were fashioned by mortals,
and none the work of God. He dismissed such mundane trappings as
mere physical structures or romantic mysticism. He found divine
revelation in creation, in the universe, and in existence, which
evidence of an Almighty Power he considered "infinitely
stronger than anything we can read in a book that any imposter might
make and call the word of God." As for morality, Paine wrote "the
knowledge of it exists in every man's conscience."
Lacking the philosophical detachment and self-sufficiency of Henry
Thoreau, Paine was hurt and bewildered by the vehement reaction of
the establishment" to his opinions on religion. He was
particularly distressed because, like Thoreau, he had no desire to
condemn those having contrary ideas, who, he said, "have the
same right to their belief as I have to mine." He only urged
man to be faithful to himself, pointing out: "Infidelity does
not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in
professing to believe what he does not believe." Therein is the
essence of Paine's effort: he fought not against religion, but
Far from an atheist, Thomas Paine was not even an agnostic. He did
not deny or question God's being. His target was the "religion"
concocted by man, not the affinity between any individual and the
Spirit that may ennoble him. Paine needed no house of worship; he
said: "My own mind is my own church."