Today’s post is from the writing prompt:
Write about a book that has affected your life.
WARNING: My apologies to any of my Christian friends who are reading this. My feelings about religion are not related to my feelings for people who are religious. I love all my friends regardless of what you believe. This essay simply reflects upon my own journey through the waters of faith and reason and is not meant to offend.
Mark Twain wrote, “It took a brave man before the Civil War to confess he had read The Age of Reason. […] I read it first when I was a cub pilot, read it with fear and hesitation, but marveling at its fearlessness and wonderful power.” In this simply written, straight-forward two part masterpiece, Paine systematically and meticulously destroys the entire institution built around world religions, namely Christianity.
First, a word about the man, my hero, and our forgotten Founding Father, Thomas Paine: You may not recognize him because although he almost single-handedly inspired the American Revolution, his face is on no currency. And though he was the best-selling author of the 18th century and wrote the things that inspired the crossing of the Delaware, Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, he has no national monuments or holidays. He invented the name “United States of America,” yet Americans desecrated and destroyed his headstone. He matched wits with every great political figure of his time – Franklin, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, Napoleon, Voltaire, Robespierre, Monroe, and Washington. His biography is like Forrest Gump meets Jason Bourne with a side of Die Hard. He was loved wherever he went…but when he died in 1809 only six people attended his funeral. Today, in Greenwich Village, a small unexceptional plaque hangs on the wall outside the piano bar, Marie’s Crisis to mark the spot. No one knows where his remains are buried.
Paine was not only one of the most gung-ho of revolutionaries, he was a radical activist who fought against, slavery, sexism, poverty, and elitism. He inspired future leaders of this country including FDR and Lincoln, who was such a fan of Paine’s works which basically influenced his beliefs and actions as President during and after the Civil War. And though history has all but forgotten, Thomas Paine should best be remembered by his own words, “Independence is my happiness, the world is my country and my religion is to do good.”
I was introduced to Paine during a period of great struggle with identity especially with my connection to faith and religion. I had grown up as a moderately traditional Protestant vacillating between the Presbyterian Church and the United Methodist Church and to be perfectly honest, in my youth, I really did not know the differences between the two. I later came to know the relatively significant doctrinal distinctions, but it was after I had already rejected Protestantism as a whole anyway.
By the time I read Paine’s works, I had already sampled the 31-plus flavors of Christianity and had reluctantly settled on Greek Orthodoxy. I was attracted to the pomp and ceremony wrapped in history and music and art. Orthodoxy is very beautiful. And it was something so different from what I knew growing up and it had almost all the answers to all my questions—at least the ones that I was willing to ask. At the same time, I had just graduated from college with a degree in Religion & Philosophy, but looking back, I feel as if I basically frittered away my time in college being so blindly devoted to Jesus that I missed a huge opportunity to actual learn something about myself and the world. In many ways, I really regret how obtuse I was about Christianity and how many people I must have hurt or offended for all my stupid thoughts, words, and actions. It was partly my reflection on my behavior in college that made me so ripe and open to Paine’s words and ideas.
The other force that primed my wheels for Paine was love (or what I took for love at the time). I met and started dating a man who was no longer a Christian and though, at the beginning of our relationship, I thought I would be the one to bring him around to my way of thinking, it actually happened exactly the opposite way. Our whirlwind romance led to a short engagement and an even shorter marriage, but the one good thing that came from an otherwise unsalvageable stinking pit of hell and that was the fact that he introduced me to Thomas Paine. And he asked me some questions that I had never asked (or wanted to ask) myself, including, but not limited to: Why do I have to have faith in anything at all? All this time, I was looking for justifications for what I already believed and I never once stopped and asked myself if I really believed the thing I was justifying in the first place. I do not wish to give full credit to this horrible man for my honest and complete transformation from a mindless zombie of faith to a freethinking soul unfettered by the shackles of organized religion. I prefer to give that credit to one of the greatest minds in history: Thomas Paine.
The more I read of The Age of Reason, in particular, the more I came to believe that everything I thought I knew was wrong and I had to become born again—as a freethinker. Some of Paine’s words stick with me now:
“It is from the Bible that man has learned cruelty, rapine, and murder; for the belief of a cruel God makes a cruel man.”
“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.
“All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”
“Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is no more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory to itself than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid or produces only atheists or fanatics. As an engine of power, it serves the purpose of despotism, and as a means of wealth, the avarice of priests, but so far as respects the good of man in general it leads to nothing here or hereafter.”
“But the resurrection of a dead person from the grave, and his ascension through the air, is a thing very different, as to the evidence it admits of, to the invisible conception of a child in the womb. The resurrection and ascension, supposing them to have taken place, admitted of public and ocular demonstration, like that of the ascension of a balloon, or the sun at noon day, to all Jerusalem at least. A thing which everybody is required to believe, requires that the proof and evidence of it should be equal to all, and universal; and as the public visibility of this last related act was the only evidence that could give sanction to the former part, the whole of it falls to the ground, because that evidence never was given. Instead of this, a small number of persons, not more than eight or nine, are introduced as proxies for the whole world, to say they saw it, and all the rest of the world are called upon to believe it. But it appears that Thomas did not believe the resurrection; and, as they say, would not believe without having ocular and manual demonstration himself. So neither will I; and the reason is equally as good for me, and for every other person, as for Thomas.”
“It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving, it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”
These words of Thomas Paine rang true for me over a decade ago and they continue to ring true for me now. It is my hope that regardless of how you feel about religion or faith, that you might simply take the time to read his words and decide for yourself what is true.
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Thanks for musing with bananagrapes!