The second age of unreason: Tom Paine's great polemic has startling resonance 200 years on, says Kenan Malik

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The Independent Online
I WAS going to begin this piece with a quote from The Satanic Verses in which Salman Rushdie satirises the divine origin of the Koran. It was felt, however, that this would be too provocative and insensitive. It is ironic that having been commissioned to write a piece on Tom Paine, the greatest free thinker of his age, I am unable to use a quote from a freely available book because it might cause offence to do so. It is a demonstration of the continuing relevance of Tom Paine to contemporary political discussion.

Tom Paine would have approved of Rushdie's novel. Few authors have so punctured the pretensions of organised religion or savaged the claims of divine revelation as Paine. And fewer still have faced such ridicule and vilification for doing so.

Two hundred years ago today, Paine published part one of The Age of Reason, a book that was to become The Satanic Verses of its day. Paine said of the book that it was a 'march through Christianity with an axe'. Just as his previous major works, Common Sense and The Rights of Man - a defence of American independence and the French Revolution respectively - laid the axe of reason to the tree of feudal despotism and monarchal corruption, so The Age of Reason laid it to the other pillar of national superstition and imposture, the established Church.

'All national institutions of churches,' wrote Paine, 'whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to be no more than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolise power and profit.'

True belief, argued Paine, derived from the exercise of reason. If the Bible was true, it must be consistent with external evidence and rational argument. Yet by any measure of reason, the Bible could only be held up to ridicule: 'Were any girl that is now with child to say that she was gotten with child by a ghost, and that an angel told her so, would she be believed?'

Paine went through the whole of the Scriptures, from the stories of creation through to the Resurrection, demolishing their claims to truth. The Bible, he concluded, was not the Word of God but the work of man, and moreover one written to maintain power and privilege of the feudal elite. It had no place in a rational, democratic society.

Paine's polemic created a storm like no other. In England it was suppressed for decades and successive publishers imprisoned for blasphemy. Anyone who distributed, read or discussed the book faced prosecution, and some were even arrested simply for displaying the portrait of the author. In America, where hitherto Paine had been feted as a hero for his indomitable work as a publicist for independence, newspapers denounced him as a 'lying, drunken, brutal infidel', 'a lilly-livered sinical rogue', and 'a demihuman archbeast'. A century after Paine's death, the US President Theodore Roosevelt would still describe him as a 'filthy little


What terrified the authorities was not so much Paine's arguments (his ideas were already familiar within deist and Unitarian circles) as the popular audience to which he appealed. As in all his writings, Paine aimed for a readership of common people, writing in the plain style of ordinary speech and transforming the ideas of a few into the property of the many. The Age of Reason became an assault on the established order, and one that was accessible to the masses.

Despite his trenchant critique of Christianity, Paine was no atheist. A deist, he felt science itself demonstrated the existence of a God. Since all things must have a cause, he argued, and since the universe could not have created itself, something must have created it. And that something - the 'First Cause' - was God. For all his pretensions to science, this was little more than the belief that as everything is caused by something, something must cause everything, and that something must be God.

Paine's deism showed the limits of his logic. But whatever the flaws in his argument, the attempt to bring reason to the study of religion was an enormous leap forward, because it flowed out of a desire to outlaw prejudice and unreason. Contrast Paine's arguments with seemingly similar beliefs put forward by contemporary Christian modernisers such as the Bishop of Durham. The good bishop's denial of the literal existence of Hell and his observation that the Resurrection amounted to 'a conjuring trick with a bag of bones' echoes Paine's arguments. But whereas for Paine belief in God was a deduction of reason, for modernising Christians it is a postulate of faith to which they hold despite the evidence of reason. One sought to rid the world of superstition, while the other clings on to it for all it is worth.

In the final account, however, Paine's greatness - and his relevance for us today - lies less in what he said than how he said it. Paine had what we would now call attitude. He was intransigent, provocative and cocksure. He mocked authority and deferred to no one. He had no time for custom, no reverence for the past. Edmund Burke wrote of him that he sought 'to destroy in six or seven days' that which 'all the boasted wisdom of our ancestors has laboured to perfection for six or seven centuries'. To which Paine replied: 'I am contending for the rights of the living and against their being willed away, and controlled, and contracted for, by the manuscript-assumed authority of the dead.' For Paine the living were fully capable of organising their lives without any recourse to the dead.

Most of all, Paine had little fear of offending people, particularly in authority. He would have been astounded at the pusillanimity of liberals towards The Satanic Verses affair. Paine would have recognised that much of the anti- Muslim invective was fuelled by racism and would have combated it - he was, after all, the author of African Slavery in America, a fierce polemic against racial inequality. But the idea that we should be any less trenchant in our criticisms of religious dogma and superstition, of whatever kind, for fear of 'offending' people would never have occurred to him.

He would have been astonished that the current debate about religious education should centre on how many faiths children should learn, rather than question the idea that we should feed our children such mystical nonsense in the first place. Above all, Paine would have been contemptuous of the deference that contemporary journalists and commentators show towards authority and tradition, and of the general disinclination of our age to confront, to provoke and to question. The central thrust of all his work was to teach the ordinary reader to question all forms of received wisdom and to demand their right to participate fully in political life. Would that there were a few Tom Paines around today.

(Photograph omitted)