I've written on the subject many times on The Taper as well.
Simply put, religion as we know it has no place in government. It's fine if people in government have religious opinions and views, but it's not their place to enact laws or policies that favor their religious persuasion or prejudices. Sunday blue laws should go. Closing government offices on "Good Friday" is ridiculous. Organized religious prayers conducted on government property — schools as well as in Congress — probably aren't such a good idea. Religionists don't play well with others; tolerance is seldom displayed.
While others write blog posts this weekend about the need for separation of church and state, I want to explore the nature of religion itself. What is it? Why do we want it or need it in our lives? Does it lead to people getting along better or does it serve to divide and inflame us? How and why has it become so intertwined with government? What are the true objectives of those who perpetuate organized religion? Why do religionists cling to antiquated, non-scientific, unreasonable ideas and seek to keep others locked in the same mindset?
Lately I've been reading the works of Thomas Paine. Not often mentioned in American history class, he wrote Common Sense, which rallied the American colonists in 1776 to take up arms against the British Crown. Without Paine, Americans might still be singing God Save the Queen and wrapping ourselves in the red, white and blue of the Union Jack.
During the mid-to-late 1770s, Paine became a celebrity and a leading figure in the struggle for American independence. Though he came from "lowly" stock (his father was a Quaker who made stays for ladies' corsets), he was soon hobnobbing with the gentry and the elite of his time: Washington, Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John and Samuel Adams.
Some of the more aristocratic members of American society, however, such as William Smith of Philadelphia and Gouverneur Morris of New York, continued to look down their noses at Paine because he was "without fortune, without family or connections, ignorant even of grammar."
Biographer John Kane, in his Tom Paine: A Political Life, called Thomas Paine "the greatest public figure of his generation."
President John Adams wrote in 1805: "I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years that Tom Paine. Without the pen of Paine the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain."
Of Paine President Thomas Jefferson wrote: "[An] advocate for human liberty, Paine wrote for a country which permitted him to push his reasoning to whatever length it would go.... No writer has exceeded Paine in ease and familiarity of style; in perspicuity of expression, happiness of elucidation, and in simple and unassuming language."
Even President Abraham Lincoln, over a half century after Paine's death, said, "I never tire of reading Paine."
After the American War of Independence, Paine turned his eyes on France's revolutionary struggle while continuing to write pamphlets calling for the end of the English monarchy. He was awarded French citizenship and was elected a delegate to the National Convention. His opposition to the execution of Louis XVI led to his imprisonment for a year during the Reign of Terror.
He wrote The Age of Reason during and after his imprisonment.
When he returned to America, most of the American public turned their back on him, or worse, labeled him an "agitator" and an "atheist."
Gordon Wood, writing in the foreword to his Common Sense and Other Writings, called The Age of Reason "a penetrating critique of organized religion that struck many readers as blasphemous."
In the introduction to his edition of Paine's works, Wood says, "Unfortunately for Paine's reputation, most of the common people that he emotionally represented brought with their democratic revolution and their anti-aristocratic attitudes an intense religiosity and an evangelical Christianity that Paine never shared. Upon his return to America, Paine was attacked as a 'lying, drunken, brutal infidel,' and sympathizers like aged Samuel Adams grieved over what they took to be Paine's efforts to 'unchristianize the mass of our citizens.' Paine denied truthfully that he was ever an atheist, but it was to no avail. Every defense he made only made matters worse. He had lived by the pen and in the end he died by the pen. He became, in his biographer's words, one of 'the first modern public figures to suffer firsthand' from a scurrilous and powerful press. He was always a man out of joint with his times, and he has remained so ever since."
Though I was an avid student of American history in high school and college, and of course had heard of Thomas Paine, somehow I never read either of his most famous works, Common Sense and The Age of Reason.
When I finally discovered these two tracts, I was elated to have found a new literary and intellectual hero, a like-minded writer who expressed so handily ideas that I had long held on the subjects of both freedom and religion. To become aware that I had, without his direct influence, arrived at ideas so similar to Paine's, was a heady realization.
Thomas Paine was not an atheist, and he often said so, in public as well as in The Age of Reason itself. The tract challenged the prevailing religious beliefs, both Protestant and Catholic, and enraged many Christians who chose to refuse to think about what Paine was actually saying about religion.
In The Age of Reason, Paine held that there is no "word of God" as we define it, written in books by man. The true Word of God — true Religion itself — he argues, is Creation itself: The stars, our sun, the planets, the Earth and Nature herself, and the principles that govern them. Natural philosophy is the only true religion. He writes,
It is from the study of the true theology that all our knowledge of science is derived, and it is from that knowledge that all the arts have originated.He argues that it is the study of "the internal evidence the thing carries with itself, and the evidence of circumstances that unites with it" that is imperative, not the study of dead languages and the "humble sphere of linguistry" such as ancient Latin and Greek, which were about all that was taught in what passed for centers of education during the 1,400 years since the formation of the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church.
The Almighty Lecturer, by displaying the principles of science in the structure of the universe, has invited man to study and to imitation. It is as if He had said to the inhabitants of this globe, that we call ours, "I have made an earth for man to dwell upon, and I have rendered the starry heavens visible, to teach him science and the arts. He can now provide for his own comfort, AND LEARN FROM MY MUNIFICENCE TO ALL, TO BE KIND TO EACH OTHER."
Of what use is it, unless it be to teach man something, that his eye is endowed with the power of beholding to an incomprehensible distance, an immensity of worlds revolving in the ocean of space? Or of what use is it that this immensity of worlds is visible to man? What has man to do with the Pleiades, with Orion, with Sirius, with the star he calls the North Star, with the moving orbs he has named Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury, if no uses are to follow from their being visible? A less power of vision would have been sufficient for man, if the immensity he now possesses were given only to waste itself, as it were, on an immense desert of space glittering with shows.
It is only by contemplating what he calls the starry heavens, as the book and school of science, that he discovers any use in their being visible to him, or any advantage resulting from his immensity of vision. But when he contemplates the subject in this light he sees an additional motive for saying, that nothing was made in vain; for in vain would be this power of vision if it taught man nothing.
...[T]he outrage offered to the moral justice of God by supposing him to make the innocent suffer for the guilty, and also the loose morality and low contrivance of supposing him to change himself into the shape of a man, in order to make an excuse to himself for not executing his supposed sentence upon Adam — putting, I say, those things aside as matter of distinct consideration, it is certain that what is called the Christian system of faith, including in it the whimsical account of the creation — the strange story of Eve — the snake and the apple — the ambiguous idea of a man-god — the corporeal idea of the death of a god — the mythological idea of a family of gods, and the Christian system of arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three, are all irreconcilable, not only to the divine gift of reason that God hath given to man, but to the knowledge that man gains of the power and wisdom of God, by the aid of the sciences and by studying the structure of the universe that God has made.In case you simply skimmed the above, I'll summarize: (1) God and his goodness can be found only by studying his Creation, not by reading "revealed religion" written by men. (2) Revealed religion is nothing more than mythology colored with later writers' morals, opinions and, often, chicanery. (3) Those who held religious power realized that the advancement of science would decrease their power, and therefore sought to stymie scientific progress.
The setters-up, therefore, and the advocates of the Christian system of faith could not but foresee that the continually progressive knowledge that man would gain, by the aid of science, of the power and wisdom of God, manifested in the structure of the universe and in all the works of Creation, would militate against, and call into question, the truth of their system of faith; and therefore it became necessary to their purpose to cut learning down to a size less dangerous to their project, and this they effected by restricting the idea of learning to the dead study of dead languages.
They not only rejected the study of science out of the Christian schools, but they persecuted it, and it is only within about the last two centuries that the study has been revived. So late as 1610, Galileo, a Florentine, discovered and introduced the use of telescopes, and by applying them to observe the motions and appearances of the heavenly bodies, afforded additional means for ascertaining the true structure of the universe. Instead of being esteemed for those discoveries, he was sentenced to renounce them, or the opinions resulting from them, as a damnable heresy. And, prior to that time, Vigilius was condemned to be burned for asserting the antipodes, or in other words that the earth was a globe, and habitable in every part where there was land; yet the truth of this is now too well known even to be told.
If the belief of errors not morally bad did no mischief, it would make no part of the moral duty of man to oppose and remove them. There was no moral ill in believing the earth was flat like a trencher, any more than there was moral virtue in believing that it was round like a globe; neither was there any moral ill in believing that the Creator made no other world than this, any more than there was moral virtue in believing that he made millions, and that the infinity of space is filled with worlds. But when a system of religion is made to grow out of a supposed system of creation that is not true, and to unite itself therewith in a manner almost inseparable therefrom, the case assumes an entirely different ground. It is then that errors not morally bad become fraught with the same mischiefs as if they were. It is then that the truth, though otherwise indifferent itself, becomes an essential by becoming the criterion that either confirms by corresponding evidence, or denies by contradictory evidence, the reality of the religion itself. In this view of the case, it is the moral duty of man to obtain every possible evidence that the structure of the heavens, or any other part of creation affords, with respect to systems of religion. But this, the supporters or partisans of the Christian system, as if dreading the result, incessantly opposed, and not only rejected the sciences, but persecuted the professors. Had Newton or Descartes lived three or four hundred years ago, and pursued their studies as they did, it is most probable they would not have lived to finish them; and had Franklin drawn lightning from the clouds at the same time, it would have been at the hazard of expiring for it in the flames.
Latter times have laid all the blame upon the Goths and Vandals; but, however unwilling the partisans of the Christian system may be to believe or to acknowledge it, it is nevertheless true that the age of ignorance commenced with the Christian system. There was more knowledge in the world before that period than for many centuries afterwards; and as to religious knowledge, the Christian system, as already said was only another species of mythology, and the mythology to which it succeeded was a corruption of an ancient system of theism.
All the corruptions that have taken place in theology and in religion, have been produced by admitting of what man calls revealed religion. The Mythologists pretended to more revealed religion than the Christians do. They had their oracles and their priests, who were supposed to receive and deliver the word of God verbally, on almost all occasions.
Since, then, all corruptions, down from Moloch to modern predestinarianism, and the human sacrifices of the heathens to the Christian sacrifice of the Creator, have been produced by admitting of what is called revealed religion, the most effectual means to prevent all such evils and impositions is not to admit of any other revelation than that which is manifested in the book of creation, and to contemplate the creation as the only true and real word of God that ever did or ever will exist; and that everything else, called the word of God, is fable and imposition.
In the following passage, Paine gives credit to Martin Luther's reforms for allowing scientific study to resume outside the control of the Catholic Church, but says that the reformers didn't do anything to reform religion.
It is an inconsistency scarcely possible to be credited, that anything should exist, under the name of a religion, that held it to be irreligious to study and contemplate the structure of the universe that God has made. But the fact is too well established to be denied. The event that served more than any other to break the first link in this long chain of despotic ignorance is that known by the name of the Reformation by Luther. From that time, though it does not appear to have made any part of the intention of Luther, or of those who are called reformers, the sciences began to revive, and liberality, their natural associate, began to appear. This was the only public good the Reformation did; for with respect to religious good, it might as well not have taken place. The mythology still continued the same, and a multiplicity of National Popes grew out of the downfall of the Pope of Christendom.The national popes of Paine's time continued down to this day. Protestantism's countless sub-categorical denominations have given us saints and sinners — you decide which is which and who is who — Dwight Moody, Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, John Hagee, Ernest Angley, James Dobson, Mike Huckabee, Jesse Jackson, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, Sam Kinison, Jeremiah Wright... men and women who make or made their living "revealing" their interpretations of God to anyone who will visit their church or turn on the television and pony up a tithe or donation to keep them in business.
Paine continues in The Age of Reason:
From the time I was capable of conceiving an idea and acting upon it by reflection, I either doubted the truth of the Christian system or thought it to be a strange affair; I scarcely knew which it was, but I well remember, when about seven or eight years of age, hearing a sermon read by a relation of mine, who was a great devotee of the Church, 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, and thought to myself that it was making God Almighty act like a passionate man, that killed his son when he could not revenge himself in any other way, and as I was sure a man would be hanged that did such a thing, I could not see for what purpose they preached such sermons. This was not one of that kind of thoughts that had anything in it of childish levity; it was to me a serious reflection, arising from the idea I had that God was too good to do such an action, and also too almighty to be under any necessity of doing it. I believe in the same manner at this moment; and I moreover believe, that any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be a true system.Like Paine, I too had "doubted the truth of the Christian system, or thought it to be a strange affair" at a young age.
It seems as if parents of the Christian profession were ashamed to tell their children anything about the principles of their religion. They sometimes instruct them in morals, and talk to them of the goodness of what they call Providence, for the Christian mythology has five deities — there is God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, the God Providence, and the Goddess Nature. But 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) cannot be told by a parent to a child; and to tell him 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.
How different is this to the pure and simple profession of Deism! The true Deist has but one Deity, and his religion consists in contemplating the power, wisdom, and benignity of the Deity in his works, and in endeavoring to imitate him in everything moral, scientifical, and mechanical.
I attended a large Southern Baptist church from the time I was two weeks old until I was 18 years old. Once free from the restraints imposed by my devout parents, I didn't go back. I'd seen enough in my years attending a "house of God," listening to the inspired revelations of con-artist preachers.
In just a few short years — those impressionable years between the ages of 12 and 16 — I saw more than enough. An Ernest Angley lookalike pastor absconded with church funds. His minister of music knocked up the 18-year old church secretary. The music man's daughter was banging half the boys in the church. A deacon shot another deacon for banging his wife. A deacon who was a police captain was arrested for shaking down the businesses in the city. A youth leader who later came out as gay took young boys downtown to march in protests against a local porn shop. I learned how to cuss from visiting the homes of my young Sunday School mates. I had my first sexual experience with a preacher's daughter.
While all this was going on, I remained (and still am, to this day) a spiritual person. I believe in God, in a Force that set the Universe in motion. Or, perhaps, the Force is the Universe Itself. I saw and see God in the Sun, the sky, the earth. I feel God's presence and existence in the breeze on my skin and the warmth on my face when I go outside each morning. I see God in the hawks of the air, and when I walk by the river. I see God in the face of my child. I'm touched by God when I'm loved by a friend.
When I feel the need to experience God as a "personality," I do so. Emerson wrote, "In your metaphysics you have denied personality to the Deity: yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color."
But I've never seen Jesus, or seen evidence that Christians actually emulate the supposed teachings of Jesus, in their actions or in their churches. I've never felt his presence. To me, he seems a convenient mythological scapegoat for those who want to escape responsibility, or an insurance policy against a mythological Hell.
Did Jesus once live? Was he the Son of God, or, like all of us, a Son of God? Did he teach and preach how to love one another? Or was he a would-be King of the Jews, heir to the throne of Israel, descendant of David and Solomon, a convenient martyr to be resurrected as a Cosmic Front Man for a now 2,000-year old religion run by popes and preachers bent on theocratic power?
The Universe is a hell of a lot bigger than our little 25,000-miles-around blue-green marble. The Creator has a lot more important things to do than to constantly send saviors to every planet "in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy," much less the entire Universe. As Paine wrote,
From whence, then, could arise the solitary and strange conceit that the Almighty, who had millions of worlds equally dependent on his protection, should quit the care of all the rest, and come to die in our world, because, they say, one man and one woman had eaten an apple? And, on the other hand, are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation had an Eve, an apple, a serpent, and a redeemer? In this case, the person who is irreverently called the Son of God, and sometimes God himself, would have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of deaths, with scarcely a momentary interval of life.....Organized religion, in all its guises, has as its prime motive not to make us happier or better, but to control and manipulate us through guilt and fear. That's not what my God is all about.
It is possible to believe, and I always feel pleasure in encouraging myself to believe it, that there have been men in the world who persuade themselves that what is called a pious fraud might, at least under particular circumstances, be productive of some good. But the fraud being once established, could not afterward be explained, for it is with a pious fraud as with a bad action, it begets a calamitous necessity of going on.
The persons who first preached the Christian system of faith, and in some measure combined it with the morality preached by Jesus Christ, might persuade themselves that it was better than the heathen mythology that then prevailed. From the first preachers the fraud went on to the second, and to the third, till the idea of its being a pious fraud became lost in the belief of its being true; and that belief became again encouraged by the interests of those who made a livelihood by preaching it.
But though such a belief might by such means be rendered almost general among the laity, it is next to impossible to account for the continual persecution carried on by the Church, for several hundred years, against the sciences and against the professors of science, if the Church had not some record or tradition that it was originally no other than a pious fraud, or did not foresee that it could not be maintained against the evidence that the structure of the universe afforded.
As the Bible says, "God is love."
After discussing the fact that God by nature cannot be a mystery — he is open and available to us all — and he does not deal in miracles, or randomly abandon the laws of nature, Paine begins to close his essay by telling us what he believes religion is and should be:
Religion, therefore, being the belief of a God and the practice of moral truth, cannot have connection with mystery. The belief of a God, so far from having anything of mystery in it, is of all beliefs the most easy, because it arises to us, as is before observed, out of necessity. And the practice of moral truth, or, in other words, a practical imitation of the moral goodness of God, is no other than our acting toward each other as he acts benignly toward all. We cannot serve God in the manner we serve those who cannot do without such service; and, therefore, the only idea we can have of serving God, is that of contributing to the happiness of the living creation that God has made. This cannot be done by retiring ourselves from the society of the world and spending a recluse life in selfish devotion.Ralph Waldo Emerson suggests to us in On Self-Reliance:
The very nature and design of religion, if I may so express it, prove even to demonstration that it must be free from everything of mystery, and unencumbered with everything that is mysterious. Religion, considered as a duty, is incumbent upon every living soul alike, and, therefore, must be on a level with the understanding and comprehension of all. Man does not learn religion as he learns the secrets and mysteries of a trade. He learns the theory of religion by reflection. It arises out of the action of his own mind upon the things which he sees, or upon what he may happen to hear or to read, and the practice joins itself thereto.
When men, whether from policy or pious fraud, set up systems of religion incompatible with the word or works of God in the creation, and not only above, but repugnant to human comprehension, they were under the necessity of inventing or adopting a word that should serve as a bar to all questions, inquiries and speculation. The word mystery answered this purpose, and thus it has happened that religion, which is in itself without mystery, has been corrupted into a fog of mysteries.
As mystery answered all general purposes, miracle followed as an occasional auxiliary. The former served to bewilder the mind, the latter to puzzle the senses. The one was the lingo, the other the legerdemain.
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark....Quotations are from Thomas Paine's "The Age of Reason" and Ralph Waldo Emerson's "On Self-Reliance." The bit about the "unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy" is from Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say "I think," "I am," but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature, in all moments alike. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.
This should be plain enough. Yet see what strong intellects dare not yet hear God himself, unless he speak the phraseology of I know not what David, or Jeremiah, or Paul. We shall not always set so great a price on a few texts, on a few lives. We are like children who repeat by rote the sentences of grandames and tutors, and, as they grow older, of the men of talents and character they chance to see, — painfully recollecting the exact words they spoke; afterwards, when they come into the point of view which those had who uttered these sayings, they understand them, and are willing to let the words go; for, at any time, they can use words as good when occasion comes. If we live truly, we shall see truly. It is as easy for the strong man to be strong, as it is for the weak to be weak. When we have new perception, we shall gladly disburden the memory of its hoarded treasures as old rubbish. When a man lives with God, his voice shall be as sweet as the murmur of the brook and the rustle of the corn....
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind....
Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.
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