Friday, August 7, 2009

Thomas Paine on Religious Establishment

A fantastic reminder from one of our most overlooked Founders, Thomas Paine, clarifying why the dis-establishment of religion is good for religion, for government and for the civic order & peace of our nation:

All religions are in their nature kind and benign, and united with principles of morality. They could not have made proselytes at first by professing anything that was vicious, cruel, perseccuting, or immoral. Like everything else, they had their beginning; and they proceeded by persuasion,e xhortation, and example. How is it then that they lose their native mildness, and become morose and intolerant?

It proceeds from the connexion which Mr. Burke recommends. By engendering the church with the state, a sort of mule-animal, capable only of destroying, and not of breeding up, is produced, called The Church established by Law. it is a stranger, even from its birth, to any parent mother on which it is begotten, and whom in time it kicks out and destroys.

The inquisition in Spain does not proceed from the religion orginally professed, but from this mule-animal, engendered between the church and the state. The burnings in Smithfield proceeded from the same heterogeneous production; and it was the regeneration of this strange animal in England afterwards, that renewed rancour and irreligion among the inhabitants, and that drove the people called Quakers and Dissenters to America. Persecution is not an original feature of all law-religions, or religions established by law. Take away the law-establishment, and every religion assumes its original benignity. In America, a Catholic Priest is a good citizen, a good character, and a good neighbour; an Episcopalian Minister is of the same description: and this proceeds, independently of the men, for there being no law-establishment in America.
--Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man (1791).

I think it would be a good idea if Christopher Hitchens, a fan of Thomas Paine, read him a little more closely and carefully...


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Mark in Spokane said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I for one enjoyed it. I love Thomas Paine, but don't tend to focus on him because the "other" side can (accurately point out) what happened to him and his reputation when started attacking Christianity publicly.

Mark in Spokane said...


Paine is one of my favorite Founders as well, even if I don't agree with much of what he wrote! One point about Paine that I think is overlooked is this: why he did not agree with Christianity, he was not himself "anti-Christian." The text I quoted in my post demonstrates this. He unquestionable wrote against the truth of Christianity, but he did not oppose anyone believing in it if they chose, and he did not want to see religious believers driven underground or restricted in their citizenship. He did not think that "religion poisons everything," as Hitchens and the rest of the "new atheist" crowd say.

So, I think that Paine gets a bad rap when it comes to religion. He was a deist and not an orthodox Christian, but he was not hostile to religious believers -- and while he disagreed with Christians, he didn't seek any restrictions on their rights.

That's why I think Hitchens should re-read Paine again.

bpabbott said...

Regarding Paine and Hitchens, I have to wonder if they each use the word "religion" in the same conext.

Regarding the origins of religion, Paine's focus is on those things that inspire minds toward the constructive.

However, I think Hitchens' focus is not on the constructive origins, but on (1) myth and superstition can lead away from the constructive, and that any benefit that can come from it is available without it; and (2) the manner by which religion may be preveted to lead good men to do evil things.

In any event, it appears to me that Hitchens and Paine both dislike the same liabilities produced by mixing of Church and State, but that Paine also espouses the virtues that are the origins of all religion, while Hitchens appears to dismiss those as unecessary ... which they may be for him.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Don't get me wrong I love Paine, and as a non-conventionally religious person myself, I have no problems with his religious freethinking. I also agree that he didn't mean to harm anyone.

However, his attacks on the Bible could be pretty savage and that he did it publicly did Paine's public reputation in. That made him more of an outlier. I don't believe however that the "key Founders" (the first four Presidents and Ben Franklin) were outliers.

Mark in Spokane said...

No question, Jonathan, that Paine was farther out of the religious mainstream than the other unorthodox Founders. And that fact has caused him to be pushed aside -- he hasn't been able to be characterized as anything other than what he was religiously. It simply isn't possible to "baptize" him, so to speak, into Christianity, for precisely the reason you note.

And I don't want to overlook the fact that Paine was a harsh critic of Christianity and the Bible. And his views in regarding those topics aren't just something tangential or marginal to who he was as a person. They are at the core of who he was -- they flowed from the same deep place within him that Common Sense did. To appreciate Paine, we have to appreciate all of his views.

But Paine also possessed a deep spirituality -- deistic to be sure, but still deep and quite tender. He writes, towards the end of his life, of God being his friend and of his trust in God as he faces the prospect of death. He is content to trust his friend when it comes to whether there is an afterlife, or how he (Paine) would be treated if there was. There is a sense of intimacy with God there. Again, like so many of the Founders he isn't interested in a God who is a "watchmaker" -- he believes in a God that one has a relationship with, a God who stands to man as a friend.

That's a beautiful, and deeply spiritual, sentiment, I think.

Mark in Spokane said...

Hey, Ben. Sorry I didn't address your comment in my earlier reply to Jonathan. I think you raise a very good point re: Hitchens and Paine. I think, though, that Paine, for the reasons I've set out here in the comments, is much more religious than many (of the few who care about him) realize. Paine had a deep spirituality -- it wasn't Christian and it wasn't tied to the Bible, but it was religious. He believed in God, and a God who was so close to him that he referred to that God as a "friend." That isn't proto-atheism or belief in a distant and impersonal divine force. Now, Paine might have been wrong in his views (I'm a Catholic who happily recites the Nicene Creed every Sunday, so I do think Paine was wrong in his attacks on Christianity), but those were his views. Hitchens and others among the "new atheists" who claim Paine among their intellectual ancestors need to come to grips with that.

bpabbott said...


Regarding the "new atheists" impression of Paine, you may be right.

I hadn't thought of that perspective. Being an atheist, I've been amused that so many theists characterize Paine as an atheist. Which he obvious was not.

President Roosevelt for example.

Mark in Spokane said...

Yes, TR was wrong about Paine -- and he wasn't the first or unfortunately the last.

Paine was no atheist -- to my knowledge, none of the Founders were, though. Of the Founders who wrote, he is as far as I know the most unorthodox and most hostile to Christianity, though. Perhaps that is where the perception of atheism comes from -- a confusion of religious belief with Christianity?

I do think that the "new atheists" have misread Paine. Again, perhaps making the same mistake that TR made -- conflating religion in general with a specific religious tradition?

Thanks for your good questions, though. I appreciate the dialogue.