Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine is driven by the same impulses that energize such earlier works as the pamphlet Common Sense (1776) and a series of papers gathered under the title The American Crisis (1776-1783). In Rights of Man (1791-1792) he expresses his hatred of enslavement and his belief that all people have the natural right to be free of all tyranny—physical, mental, and spiritual. Benjamin Franklin once said, “Where liberty is, there is my country.” Paine replied, “Where liberty is not, there is mine.” This idealistic altruism motivated him to give his writings to the world without hope of financial remuneration.
In approach and style, The Age of Reason is similar also to the earlier works. The author is direct, candid, and simple; he appeals to common sense and presents what to him is overwhelming evidence for his arguments. The author is at times ironic, jeering, or sarcastic. He never writes down to his audience or forgets for whom he is writing.
It is one of the ironies of the literary and theological world that The Age of Reason, which, although written to express the author’s doubts regarding traditional religion, was intended primarily to save the world from atheism, brought against Paine the charge of atheism. Paine, in The Age of Reason, seeks to combat atheism. As a result of this book, the great reputation he earlier enjoyed as one of the prime movers in the Revolutionary War was blackened. Paine became feared throughout America because of his alleged atheism.
Paine’s doubts about conventional religion were deep. John Adams said that Paine had them in 1776, and Paine says in The Age of Reason that he had entertained such ideas for many years. Paine’s ideas grew out of his idealistic view that the human condition could be better. They were strengthened by the influences of his Quakerism; by his Newtonian bent toward science; by the examples of classical antiquity in the teachings of such people as Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato and the great society in which they lived; and by the revelations of research into Eastern religions. Paine was one of the early comparative religionists.
The Age of Reason is subtitled Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology. In the dedication to his “Fellow-Citizens of the United States of America,” Paine insists that the views he is about to express are his alone, and he reaffirms his belief in the right of all to form their own opinions, for to deny the right of all to their own beliefs leads to slavery. He will, therefore, he says, examine all aspects of life, especially religion, with reason.
Paine’s own position is made clear from the start. He believes in one God, and, like all Newtonians, he professes the Deistic hope for happiness in another world because, contrary to the Calvinistic doctrines that he detests, Deism affords a happiness not found in other religions. Paine states explicitly that he does not believe in the creeds professed by any churches, for his own mind is his tabernacle. All national institutions of faith and dogma have been instituted to rule over the lives of people, he opines.
The universal purpose of churches—to beguile or to deceive the people—is strengthened by another characteristic churches have in common: the pretense of some special mission from God communicated to certain individuals, for example, Moses to the Jews, Jesus Christ to the Christians, Mahomet to the Turks. These revelations must be accepted on faith because there is never a pragmatic truth to grant their validity.
Paine has no criticism of Jesus, who was, Paine feels, a virtuous and amiable man. Jesus, Paine notes, wrote nothing about his so-called special mission on Earth. Thus, all accounts about him were written by others, many long after his death. For this reason they are open to suspicion. That Jesus existed is an unquestionable historical fact, and that he preached morality is certain. That he claimed to be the Savior of the world, however, is suspect. Further, most of the writings about Jesus as Savior, the bases of Christianity, differ very little...
(The entire section is 1720 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Aldridge, Alfred Owen. “The Age of Reason.” In Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine. London: Cresset, 1960. Provides an excellent summary of the argument developed in The Age of Reason. Describes the work’s publication history and critical reception.
Davidson, Edward H., and William J. Scheick. Paine, Scripture, and Authority: “The Age of Reason” as Religious and Political Idea. Bethlehem, Pa.: Lehigh University Press, 1994. Discusses Paine’s subversiveness and notes how The Age of Reason appears to authorize a world order that depends on the traditions it criticizes.
Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. Updated ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. An updated edition of the book originally published in 1976. Examines Paine’s political and social ideas and describes the new form of political writing in which he expressed these concepts.
Larkin, Edward. “The Science of Revolution: Technological Metaphors and Scientific Methodology in Rights of Man and The Age of Reason.” In Thomas Paine and the Literature of Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Treats Paine as a literary figure, describing how his writings “translated” eighteenth century political theories into a language that was accessible to the public.
Nelson, Craig. Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations. New York: Viking, 2006. Nelson argues that The Age of Reason is not an expression of Paine’s atheism but advocates eighteenth century Deism and is part of the “mainstream Anglo-American religious discourse” of its time.
Popkin, Richard H. “The Age of Reason Versus The Age of Revelation: Two Critics of Tom Paine, David Levi, and Elias Boudinot.” In Deism, Masonry, and the Enlightenment, edited by J. A. Leo Lemay. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987. Shows how Paine’s humanistic Deism was opposed to orthodoxy.
Wilson, Jerome D., and William F. Ricketson. “Reaction to Organized Religion.” In Thomas Paine, edited by Patricia Cowell. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Describes the historical and social contexts of The Age of Reason and notes how the essay stands as a remarkable example of classic eighteenth century Deism.