Tag Archives: Founding Fathers

Awarding Thomas Paine the Heretic Badge of Honor

19 Sep

A couple days ago, a fellow student and I somehow got on the topic of costumes of Halloweens past.  She commented that, last year, she dressed up as T-Pain.  I was really excited until I realized that she was not, after all, talking about Thomas Paine, of Common Sense fame.  T-Pain, apparently, is some sort performer and producer involved in, according to Wikipedia, R&B, Pop, and Crunk.  I have decided not to research “crunk.”

So I’m slightly disconnected from popular culture.  So what?  The point is that my mistake led me to find Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason as a digital book in the great Google library.  That in itself is impressive.  As the forward reads:

This is a digital copy of a book that was preserved for generations on library shelves before is was carefully scanned by Google as part of a project to make the world’s books discoverable online.  It has survived long enough for the copyright to expire and the book to enter the public domain.

That’s really pretty insightful, for a preface to a long legal disclaimer.

Not all books do survive, or if they do, not all books are remembered.  But Thomas Paine’s works are not only available online—he has over 5,000 fans on Facebook!  Thomas Paine’s works, which contributed to the initiation of public debate on independence, are  even more accessible now than they were in the 18th century, when he helped influence the course of the Revolutionary War (his pamphlet series The Crisis, after all, was read out loud by General George Washington to his troops as inspiration before battle).

The trick now is to go from accessible to influential again— Thomas Paine might have helped to prod along the Revolution, but his most radical ideas may not be in the realm of politics.

Thomas Paine was a deist, someone who accepted the idea of a Creator on the basis of reason, but rejected any supernatural deity who interacts with humankind.  He rejected all organized religion and famously wrote in the Age of Reason:

“My mind is my own church.”

That’s not something you hear often in modern America.  I think—and if T-Paine was around I believe he’d probably think so too—that this is the mindset most needed in a time when individual rights and liberties are being eroded by a government which rejects the sovereignty of the human mind.

“Good” pious behavior for a theist (as opposed to a deist) means adhering both to what is considered proper practice (going to Mass, going to confession, tithing…) and to proper thought. Most organized religions have doctrine, beliefs that you must accept to be in good standing with the institution and community. And we all know about “heretics” being burned at the stake or otherwise punished.  But the most frightening part, the part we don’t often consider, is to be a heretic, you didn’t even have to do anything; you just have to think something contrary to the orthodox doctrine.

It’s because of this insistence on thinking (or forcing yourself to think) a certain way that Paine rejects religion—

“It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing or disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”

Any religious system based on faith would force him to be mentally unfaithful to himself.

From the dictionary: “Faith” is having strong trust or confidence in something, “because of spiritual apprehension and not truth.” If you have proof (whether physical or logical), then it wouldn’t be faith: it would be knowledge. Because the only source of human knowledge is the human mind, by definition having “faith” undermines reason.

Thomas Paine argued that this was true of all religions founded on “revelation” (the Bible, for instance, as believed to be divinely-inspired and the vessel of truths or knowledge without proof).  In this view, taking the ideas/practices handed down from God by “revelation” would be equivalent to hearsay— if someone believes that he personally had a supernatural experience, let him believe it; but you’re under no obligation to believe something just because you’re told it’s true (even if that person is in a position of authority). The highest authority is your own mind.

Most significant, perhaps, is this:

The reason so many of our Founding Fathers were deists is the same reason the supported liberty and individual rights: they believed that there was no authority greater than an individual’s own mind. The Church and State are separate because people cannot be forced to be “mentally unfaithful” to themselves; individual rights (freedom of action) is protected because the government does NOT know best (no one knows what’s best for you except you).

A family member once told me that being called a “heretic” (as I was, for various reasons, in high school) should be considered a badge of honor.  I think this connects to the idea that freedom of thought and freedom of action are inextricably intertwined.

Just think about the origin of the word “heretic”— from the Greek hairetikos, it means to choose.