Deism in Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason

June 11, 2021

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Deism, as an ideology, had an important role at the times of the American Revolution and formation of the United States as an independent state. Since this particular philosophy attracted the Founding Fathers by its rational and well-structured perspective on the natural laws and the universe, it could be found in some important American documents, for example, the Declaration of Independence. Moreover, Thomas Paine and his work The Age of Reason can be regarded as one of the most significant writings of this period; it strongly influenced the contemporary society. While causing a substantial opposition of the major figures of the American history, Paine’s manuscript made a kind of revolution among the deist philosophers. Therefore, The Age of Reason is a significant writing that follows principles of Deism and gives an account of the author’s attitude to the Christian religion, the church, and the Bible.

Intellectual Context

In order to discuss the idea of Deism in more details, it is necessary to investigate the meaning of the term first. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Deism refers to what can be called natural religion, the acceptance of a certain body of religious knowledge that is inborn in every person or that can be acquired by the use of reason.” In his literary work, Thomas Paine followed the tradition of the British Deism of the early 18th century. Although people, who supported this philosophy, possessed personal ideas, they also shared some common views, which the writer described in his book (Herrick 26). In this respect, the call for the independent rational demand among all realms in a particular religion can be regarded as the major position that united deists. In line with the idea that the early Christianity had promoted the moral freedom, deists advocated tolerance. Moreover, they demanded to stop any religious harassments and persecutions. More importantly, deists followed the Newtonian ideology and believed that everything in the world, even God, who had created it, obeyed the laws of nature (Herrick 30). Indeed, the natural laws were crucial for deists, who argued that the explanation of the way, in which nature operates, would fall into irrationality. Thus, deists considered God the major power that had designed the Universe with its natural laws.

Moreover, deists severely criticized the Bible and priests, whom they accused of having corrupted the Christianity for their own benefit. They skeptically treated miracles and rejected God’s wonders described in the Bible. Deists claimed that it was unnecessary to search any evidence for proving the existence of God. At the same time, they also were against the only truth or the only faith that the Christianity implemented in the society. For deists, religion as a logical product of God’s mercy had to be simple and universal for everyone (Herrick 32). At the same time, many deists considered the very idea of Christian revelations confusing. For example, the revelation mainly spread the superstition among people, as well as reinforced the evidence of God’s existence (Herrick 37). Deists claimed that it was pointless because the existence of God was apparent. In addition, they criticized priests for promoting God’s miracles and officiating useless rituals (Herrick 38). In such a manner, by educating masses about specific doctrines and concepts, for instance, the original sin, priests obtained power over people, who needed assistance in overcoming their innate sinfulness and real-life difficulties.

The Role of Deism in the American Revolution

The American Revolution caused profound changes in the social, political, and religious spheres of life of the American community of the time. In developing new ideas and issues, the American Revolution was greatly influenced by the Enlightenment. Thus, intellectuals of the 18th century reflected on the importance of the human reason in discovering the mystery of the natural world. In this respect, the studies of Isaac Newton were taken as the basis for the new ideology that was arising at the time (Herrick 38). This ideology discovered some natural laws and defined a person’s place and role in the environment. By attracting many leading colonists, in particular, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, the ideas of Deism had a crucial role in the American Revolution (Frazer 65). Deists believed in the reasoning power of science and rejected the religious part of Christianity. Moreover, they believed in impersonal God. In addition, deists claimed that in order to improve the human world, it was necessary to rely on the reason. Thus, deist thinkers assured that they would be able to create a perfect society.

What is more important, both Deism and ideas of the Enlightenment, in general, were based on the concept of natural laws and human rights as a rational ideology, which nurtured the patriotic desire for the freedom and democracy with the view to achieving and supporting these freedoms. In his study, Two Treatises of Government, a great philosopher John Locke discussed the essence and tasks of governments, which could be created in the society of free people (Frazer 65). Moreover, the philosopher described civil rulers, who were expected to hold their power and authority as a public trust. Later, Thomas Jefferson applied many of Locke’s philosophical ideas to the Declaration of Independence (Frazer 67). In order to be precise, he incorporated some principles and characteristics of the democratic government, including the right to protest an improper refers, and the idea of following natural rights. Thus, the deist ideology was originally developed by John Locke; later on, it played a significant role in the American Revolution.

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Deism and the Founding Fathers

Among the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin were the ones, who showed a great interest to the ideologies of the European Enlightenment. While Deism was one of the major ideas of the Enlightenment, it greatly shaped the way of thinking of American politicians. Hence, the principal figures in the American history did not require any religious revelation, rituals, and rules of the Christianity. Moreover, important American documents, in particular, the Declaration of Independence, utilized the philosophy of Deism, as well. Although the Declaration of Independence speaks of God, it mentions Him only in deist terms without direct references to the Bible or Jesus (Frazer 37). Thereby, the authorities of the United States adopted the ideas of Deism, as well as applied some of them to writing the main documents of the country.

At the same time, one of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, extensively employed principles of the deist ideology. Being a young man, the future politician read certain literature that criticized Deism. However, it had an opposite effect on him, “For the arguments of the deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist” (Franklin 27). Moreover, another Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, also possessed strong deist views. The politician argued that the Bible was so violent that it ruined the image of God and challenged the real teaching of Jesus (Frazer 11). In his study, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson demonstrated his attitude to the Christian writings by emphasizing his rejection of the assertion that they were divinely inspired (Frazer 11). Thus, while sincerely holding deist beliefs, the Founding Fathers were very skeptical to any religious dogmas, as well as unnecessary Christian ceremonies.

Deist Views in The Age of Reason

Among all deists of the time, Thomas Paine can be regarded as one of the most outspoken Americans who supported the particular ideology. In his work The Age of Reason, the author openly spoke of his deist beliefs and views on the religion. The manuscript consists of three parts, which were published in 1794, 1795, and 1807 in accordance (Herrick 38). The work presents common deist principles and arguments. In order to be precise, it demonstrates Paine’s view of the Christian Church and corruption in it. Moreover, the writing condemns any efforts of the church to acquire the political power. The author speaks of reason in the place of revelation; thus, he discards the wonders that were portrayed in the Bible (Paine). In general, The Age of Reason advocates the natural religion by advocating the existence of God, who had created the Universe. Writing about Deism a simple style, Paine made it accessible to the mass audience.

The Age of Reason consists of three parts; each section outlines a specific deist argument. In Part I, the author shared the personal creed with the reader. The next two sections criticized specific parts of the Bible in order to demonstrate that it neither had a divine nature nor was the revealed word of God. At the same time, the discussion of God-creator, the skeptical overview of supernatural claims, and the emphasis on the human right of conscience were the major themes discussed in Paine’s manuscript. In addition, the author started by attacking the Christian revelations while moving to the rejection of the Bible as a whole by stating that it was not a divine inception but a manmade creation (Paine 82). Finally, Paine pointed to numerous contradictions in the Christian Holy Writing.

The Relations between the Founding Fathers and Thomas Paine

It would be difficult to name at least one of the Founding Fathers, who supported Pain’s literary work. Even Benjamin Franklin, who was an outspoken deist, condemned this piece of writing. Before publishing The Age of Reason, the author sent a copy of the manuscript to Franklin looking forward to his opinion. The latter fiercely replied and demonstrated his disapproval of Paine’s argument against the foundations of all religions (Benjamin 34). Although Franklin was one of the least religious Founding Fathers, his reaction to Paine’s work showed that the author’s views were too daring. Furthermore, Franklin was not the only one, who did not support Paine’s manuscript. In such a manner, the signers of the Declaration of Independence: Benjamin Rush, Charles Carrol, and John Witherspoon claimed that The Age of Reason was an impious writing against the Christian religion as a whole (Benjamin 39). Thereby, Paine’s beliefs were strongly rejected by the Founding Fathers, even the least religious ones. In order to be precise, The Age of Reason caused a serious public opposition that greatly challenged the author’s position in the community and made him a social outcast.

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As one of the leading philosophies of the 18th century, Deism had a profound influence on the formation of the United States. Since principles of the philosophy found popularity among the Founding Fathers, they created the basis for the main governmental documents of the country. At the same time, the concepts of the deist philosophy were discussed in details by Paine in his The Age of Reason. This piece of writing utilized the basic concepts of Deism and allowed the reader study Paine’s personal perspective on the Christian religion. Although the work was rejected by the society, especially the Founding Fathers, it remained an important manuscript of the time.