Atheists and Agnostics Compendium

PAINE ON TRIAL

INTERVIEWER: Name?

T PAINE: I am Tom Paine.

INTERVIEWER: Nationality? You were born in England so you are not a citizen of these United States.

BRITISHER: He may have been born in England but he is not of us.

INTERVIEWER: Who are you?

BRITISHER: I am a proud to be a British subject and Royal appointee to the Presidency of the London Society for the Suppression of Vice and Immorality. The accused, Thomas Paine, has written a call for the common Englishman to rise up against his lawful King and, therefore, is a traitor to his country. Should he step foot in England he would be immediately hanged!

FRENCHY: Do not let him claim French citizenship.

INTERVIEWER: And you are?

FRENCHY: I am a representative of the French National Assembly. Monsieur Paine came to us when our revolution was new and was once a member of our Assembly but he sided with the moderates who plotted against our revolution. He voted not to send the King to the guillotine. Monsieur Paine was jailed for ten months and almost met Madam Guillotine himself. France no longer wants him.

INTERVIEWER: (turning to Paine) Nationality?

T PAINE: Where freedom is not, there is my country.

INTERVIEWER: Profession?

BRITISHER: Professional rabble-rouser! Traitor!

FRENCHY: Hypocrite! Counter-revolutionary.

T PAINE: (calmly) Writer of essays and (more strongly) and an advocate for the freedom of man!

INTERVIEWER: And how do you plead?

T PAINE: What am I accused of?

BRITISHER: Atheism!

FRENCHY: Atheism!

INTERVIEWER: Atheism!

T PAINE: (after a pause) Not guilty.

INTERVIEWER: Did you not write that the Bible was a fraud and a lie?

FRENCHY: Did you not write that the Virgin Mary might have been pregnant by a Roman soldier?

BRITISHER: Did you not describe the Almighty as “laying plans in heaven to entrap and ruin mankind?”

INTERVIEWER: How do you plead? The charge is atheism.

T PAINE: I am not guilty. I believe in one God and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

INTERVIEWER: How can you say that and write of the Bible as a lie and deny the virgin birth of the Christ?

T PAINE: I do not believe in the creed professed by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit. Of all the tyrannies that afflict mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst.

INTERVIEWER: You are an atheist — a person who does not believe.

T PAINE: I have my beliefs. I believe in the equality of man. I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

INTERVIEWER: How can you speak of religious duties? You, who would deny the revealed word of God.

T PAINE: Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God. Each of those churches show certain books, which they call revelation, or the word of God. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.

INTERVIEWER: Everybody knows that the Bible is the revealed word of God.

T PAINE: Revelation, when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man. But when something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only.
When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.
It is a contradiction in terms, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand… One who receives directly, what he may believe is, the word of God may find himself obliged to believe it. But it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.

INTERVIEWER: (slight pause) Is it true that you wrote that scandalous thing about the mother of God?

T PAINE: When I am told that a woman called the Virgin Mary, said, or gave out, that she was with child without any cohabitation with a man, I have a right to believe her or not. Such a strange circumstance requires much stronger evidence than her bare word for it; but we have not even this- for neither Joseph nor Mary wrote any such matter themselves; it is only reported by others that they said so- it is hearsay upon hearsay, and I do not choose to rest my belief upon such evidence.

INTERVIEWER: You certainly have a strong bias against biblical teachings. I am interested in how you came to such heretical ideas. When did you first begin to doubt the word of God?

T PAINE: From the time I was capable of conceiving an idea. When I was about seven or eight years of age, I either doubted the truth of the Christian system or thought it to be a strange affair.
I well remember, hearing a sermon read by a relation of mine upon the subject of what is called redemption by the death of the Son of God.
After the sermon was ended, I went into the garden, and as I was going down the garden steps (for I perfectly recollect the spot) I revolted at the recollection of what I had heard.
I had the idea that God was good and yet Jesus cried out in pain asking why his father had forsaken him to die so horribly. The Christian story of God the Father putting his son to death, or employing people to do it (for that is the plain language of the story) seemed to me to make of God a murderer. I was sure a man would be hanged that did such a thing, I could not see for what purpose they preached such sermons… and to tell a child that it was done to make mankind happier and better is making the story still worse- as if mankind could be improved by the example of murder; and to tell him that all this is a mystery is only making an excuse for the incredibility of it.

INTERVIEWER: I am shocked at hearing such heresies! The Bible is a holy book. What you call the Christian story is the revered word of God; attested to for centuries.

T PAINE: But it is a translation! Vulnerable to the errors to which translations are subject, the mistakes of copyists and printers, together with the possibility of willful alteration… The human language, whether in speech or in print, cannot be the vehicle of the word of God. The word of God exists in something else.
Did the book called the Bible excel in purity of ideas and expression all the books that are now extant in the world, I would not take it as being the word of God, because the possibility would nevertheless exist of my being imposed upon.
But when I see throughout the greater part of this book scarcely anything but a history of the grossest vices and a collection of the most paltry and contemptible tales, I cannot dishonor my Creator by calling it by his name.

INTERVIEWER: This is too much! I must protest. You are, I suppose, speaking of some of the frightful things in the Old Testament — the wars and killings and such. But, don’t you see, that is one of the things that is wonderful about the Holy Book. It is also a history of the ancient times. It has poetry and songs and great stories. And, ah, the New Testament! There is such wisdom and beauty in the life of Jesus. The great message of peace and love. The Gospels are Jesus, his sayings, his teachings, his heart is there for all to see - and worship.

T PAINE: And out of that story the Church has set up a system of religion very contradictory to the character of the person whose name it bears. It has set up a religion of pomp and revenue, in pretended imitation of a person whose life was humility and poverty.

INTERVIEWER: God, through his only begotten Son, is offering each one of us the opportunity to be saved. “I am the way and the light — no one comes to the Father but through me.” Don’t you want to be saved from eternal damnation?

T PAINE: The invention of purgatory, and of the releasing of souls therefrom by prayers bought of the church with money; the selling of pardons, dispensations, and indulgences, are revenue laws, without bearing that name.
But the case is, that the crucifixion and the theory deduced therefrom is that one person could stand in the place of another. If I owe money and cannot pay and I am threatened with prison, another person can take the debt upon himself and pay it for me.
But if I have committed a crime or a sin, the case is changed. No other person can stand in for me. The guilty cannot be made innocent by the sacrifice of another. Justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty, even if the innocent one would offer himself on the cross.
The probability, therefore, is that the whole doctrine of what is called the redemption or salvation or deliverance was fabricated. Its purpose to bring forward the power of the church over man. In truth there is no such thing as redemption or salvation.

[The following builds into an emotional argument. Paine’s last speech rises into a passionate sermon and ends in a soft prayer-like last sentence.]

INTERVIEWER: (despairing) Oh, vile man! Would you have us believe we have no word of God? That we cannot be saved? That revelation is false?

T PAINE: But there is a word of God; there is a revelation. When man is told he is a sinner and taught by the church that he is far from his Creator, when he is taught to contemplate himself as an outcast, as it were, as one thrown on a dunghill at an immense distance from his Creator, and who must make his approaches by creeping and cringing to the priests — then he consumes his life in grief. He calls himself a worm, and the fertile earth a dunghill; and all the blessings of life are called vanities. Foolishly he despises the choicest gift of God to man, the GIFT OF REASON!

INTERVIEWER: I speak of faith — devotion — power and wisdom — love and mercy. What is mere reason to all this?

T PAINE: With what do we contemplate God but with the mind he gave us? Do we want to contemplate his power? We see it in the immensity of the CREATION. It is only in the Creation that all our ideas and conceptions of a word of God can unite. The Creation speaketh a universal language, independently of human language. It is an ever-existing original, which every man can read. It cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be altered. It does not depend upon the will of man. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this word of God reveals to man all that is necessary for man to know of God.

Do we want to contemplate his wisdom? We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible whole is governed! Do we want to contemplate his munificence? We see it in the abundance with which he fills the earth. Do we want to contemplate his mercy? We see it in his not withholding that abundance even from the unthankful.

In fine, do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called the Scripture, which any human hand might make, but the Scripture called the Creation. God is the cause of all and by the power of which all things exist.

It is only by the exercise of reason that man can discover God. Take away that reason, and he would be incapable of understanding anything; How, then, is it that people pretend to reject reason and turn to unreasonable faith?
[triumphantly] The real word of God is the existing universe and not that which is shown to us in a printed book.
[softly but firmly]I know that this bold investigation will alarm many, but the times and the subject demand it to be done. [he goes to his seat]

INTERVIEWER:
There is an epilogue to this story. After years abroad, including a year in a French prison under sentence of death, sick and aged, Tom Paine returned to the new United States.

He settled in New Rochelle, New York, not far from New York City; on the farm Congress had awarded him for being an aide-de-camp to Washington and his service as a member of the Continental Army. His pamphlets, Common Sense and The Crisis with its ringing introduction, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” were acknowledged as giving justification and backbone to the American Revolution. His writings stopped the wholesale desertions from the defeated revolutionary army and gave new spirit to freezing men during the terrible winter at Valley Forge. But for his work the revolution might have died.

He had a grand vision for a society free from tyranny and the absolute rule of monarchs. He was staunchly anti-slavery, and he was one of the first to advocate a world peace organization. But his radical views on religion made him a pariah even to friends made during the revolution.

Leaning on his cane, he slowly walked the length of North Avenue to the voting place for the election of 1801. He was followed by whispers of sinner, heretic, blasphemer, atheist. His contributions to the cause of freedom were discounted. The city officials of New Rochelle prevented him from voting on the grounds that he was not a citizen of the United States. He died in 1809 and his body was buried on his farm, not in a cemetery. Two years later someone dug out his remains and broke his tombstone into pieces. His final burial place is unknown.

1737 – 1809

The Rights of Man, Paine's most influential book, was published in 1791. He called for the right to vote for all men over twenty-one in Britain and the abolition of the House of Lords.

The British government immediately banned the book. He escaped to France before he could be arrested. Paine announced that he did not wish to make a profit from The Rights of Man and anyone had the right to reprint his book.

Age of Reason written while he was in a French prison was published 1795. In it Paine questioned the truth of Christianity. He pointed out that the Gospels contained inaccuracies and contradictions.

By the time he died, over 1,500,000 copies of The Rights of Man had been sold in Europe.