Thursday, July 24, 2008

Spiritual Paine

Unless you attended American schools you probably know who Thomas Paine was and why he is famous. I went to Public School back in the 1970's, so I learned about Paine the only way available to me- by getting thrown out of class by a zealously religious grade school teacher. We were studying the American Revolution by memorizing a series of names, places and dates without being taught the context and settings attached to these people and events. Due to family circumstance, I changed schools at least once per year as a kid and by sixth grade I was already sick of rote memorization, so I asked my teacher, Mrs. B, if I could write a paper on Thomas Paine's seminal American pamphlet, Common Sense, as an extra-credit project.

Common Sense, as you know, advocated for the independence of the American Colonies from British fact, it was Paine who conceived the very name The United States of America. Writing about him would be an interesting way to study the American Revolution, I suggested.

Mrs. B. was aghast. Paine was a "heathen", she declared, and she was not in the business of encouraging heathenism. I didn't know what she meant, so I asked her to explain what a heathen was.
Paine, said Mrs. B., "did not believe in God" and people like that were called "heathens"...didn't I go to Church?, she asked, what religion was I ,anyway?

Stupidly, I told the truth. I didn't go to church and didn't know what religion I was. I didn't even know it was necessary to "be" a religion.
Did I believe in God?, she asked.
I guess maybe, I replied, I never really thought about it much.

Mrs. B. called my father at home that evening. I don't know exactly what was said, but two days later I was moved to a different classroom, one where I was allowed to read the works of Thomas Paine, heathen extraordinaire.

One of the first things I learned was that Paine was a deist and devout in his belief of God- he merely believed that every single organized religion that has ever existed has been wholly mistaken in it's conceptualization of the Supreme Being(s). He believed that religion was a tool used by humans to impose their will on other humans and that the true form of spirituality was merely to love your fellow humans and act accordingly. God, Paine argued, wasn't some vain megalomaniac that demanded obedience and sacrifice, God just wanted people to treat each other fairly. He believed that the goodness of a man was measured by his actions, not by simply claiming to be good. This, to my young mind, made a lot of sense...what didn't -and doesn't- make sense was why this simple, elegantly benign idea was so threatening to Mrs. B. and people like her.

"The world is my country, and to do good my religion."
-Thomas Paine

Fundamentalists and Nationalists (the ones who can read, anyway) hate that quote. Paine, one of the most important voices of the struggle for American Independence, was hated by professional Christians for having Christ-like good intentions. My child-mind was baffled by this hypocritical illogic.

"Any system of religion that shocks the mind of a child can not be a true system."

I'm not sure if any words can shock a child's mind more than being told that they will burn in a lake of fire for eternity if they don't obey God. It is truly the stuff of nightmares.

Not surprisingly, Paine's later work, The Age of Reason, didn't win him many friends of the Fundamentalist persuasion. Upon Paine's death, professional Christians set about spreading false rumors, slandering his character and claiming that he had "repented" on his deathbed, finally accepting God mere moments before his passing...this serves to illustrate my opinion that Fundamentalists don't have an iota of understanding regarding the Being that they allegedly worship- Paine, despite their claims to the contrary, had long ago accepted God into his heart and mind, it was this belief that compelled him to work for the betterment of a society that, in part, despised him. Paine loved God and believed that love to be reciprocal, he just didn't accept the peculiar dogmatic doctrines of the world's institutional religions. One famous anecdote has Paine saying that Jesus would never return to Earth as long as there was a chance that a Church could get it's hands on Him...Paine believed that God and science inhabit the same Universe and that the two are not mutually exclusive -this caused certain professional Christians to call for his execution-ironically, this American patriot spent a good part of his later life in his native England, returning to America at the invitation of another famous "heathen", Thomas Jefferson.
(Paine was an inveterate pamphleteer, which was a sort of prototypical blogger and some of what he wrote got him in deep trouble with the Government, something which could never happen in today's enlightened, open times)

Paine did not believe in the Bible as a historical record, but he did see wisdom in the words attributed to Jesus...I only wish Paine had lived long enough to answer that most insipid of pseudo-philosophical morally-impaired rhetorical questions: "WWJD?"
(Stay where he is, I imagine Paine would say)

If Paine were alive today, his brilliant, patriotic philanthropy would cause him to be reviled all over again...can you imagine a contemporary politician defending agnosticism and questioning the validity and accuracy of the Bible?

I'd vote for him. We could use an honest man in office.

Next: Robert Ingersoll and why I love him.


yellowdog granny said...

if im not mistaken and i often am..a lot of our founding fathers were deists..which is why they tried so hard to keep religion out of our constitution and our laws..i like ole john paine..

whimsical brainpan said...

Franklin was another "heathen" as well.

Great post!