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thomas paine deism atheism colonial america government church state separation
Illustration quoting Tom Paine, 2019. Paine believed that to be truly honest a person couldn’t worry about offending someone. (Democracy Chronicles, Flickr, Public Domain)

Was the God that American colonial firebrand Thomas Paine (1737-1809) professed belief in a true deity in the Christian sense?

Not in my view. Paine arguably was simply an adherent of pantheism, “a doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the universe,” as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Technically, Paine self-identified as a Deist, a quasi-religious sect popular among the intelligentsia, or elite opinion leaders, in his day, including many Founding Fathers of the American Revolution. Deists imagined a remote, impersonal “Nature’s God,” a term expressed by author Thomas Jefferson in the United States’ seminal Declaration of Independence. A kind of semi-atheism to my way of thining.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes Deism as a decidedly un-Christian religion:

In general, Deism refers to what can be called natural religion, the acceptance of a certain body of religious knowledge that is inborn in every person or that can be acquired by the use of reason and the rejection of religious knowledge when it is acquired through either revelation or the teaching of any church.”

No supernatural, personal god necessary for such a faith.

Many nontheists in 21st America would likely view Deism as a dodge by people who wholly rejected Christianity’s supernatural proposals but were just not yet ready to throw divinity out the window entirely. So Deists like Paine just created a non-God “God” (beyond the Christian, supernatural sense) and agreed to call it God.

Indeed, Christians then, as now, would not recognize a God, like Paine’s, that was so remote it had zero awareness of or effect on the day-to-day existence of Earth or human beings. The Deist God created everything at once and then disappeared into the invisible background of reality and let His divine handiwork independently do its thing. The Deist God doesn’t meddle, or even show up.

Today, the net result of this philosophy is difficult to differentiate from an atheism characterized by a profound awe of the natural universe. Without a supernatural realm, you effectively have no “God,” right?

In other words, was Paine in effect kidding himself?

Nonetheless, the dissonance between the Founders’ quasi-religious beliefs and those of most fledgling Americans at the time is still very much with us in the U.S., and was the reason I felt a recent need to revise the cover of and add some text to my 2020 book, Holy Smoke: How Christianity Smothered the True “American Dream.” (The revised e-book and paperback editions published live on Amazon this month.)

Most Americans, who are still predominantly Christian (although the percentage is fast fading), still envision the so-called “American Dream” as a godly (read: Christian) promise of personal happiness and prosperity — with the former seen as the path to the former — whereas the Founders’ core dream for the new nation was that it be secularly governed by reason, not religious edict or fervor. They saw how religious warfare had ravaged Europe for decades prior to launch of “the American experiment” in secular, republican democracy, and fervently hoped to create a Constitution that would avoid all that misery.

So the Founders saw a rational, nonreligious government, not coercive sectarian faith, as the key to happiness and prosperity for the new nation’s citizens.

Thus, conflating Paine today with godly believers is like conflating Reformation inciter Martin Luther (1483-1546) with “Christians,” who in his day were all Catholics until he deconstructed all that. Luther, a German Catholic priest before the Reformation, ultimately rejected essential elements of the Catholic system and founded a Protestant counter-religion with many fundamental doctrinal differences to what was once called “The One True Church.”

At the time, he was less Christian than excommunicated Catholic. Not that Luther’s ground-breaking religious rebellion succeeded in separating churches from states. On the contrary, Protestant rulers were every bit as power-hungry as Catholic kings and queens.

On page 186 of his religious classic The Age of Reason (published in three parts during 1794, 1795, and 1807), Paine explained his thoughts on church and state (which in his day were one and the same):

“The only religion that has not been invented, and that has in it every evidence of divine originality, is pure and simple deism. It must have been the first and will probably be the last that man believes. But pure and simple deism does not answer the purpose of despotic governments. They cannot lay hold of religion as an engine but by mixing it with human inventions and making their own authority a part; neither does it answer the avarice of priests, but by incorporating themselves and their functions with it, and becoming, like the government, a party in the system. It is this which forms the otherwise mysterious connection of Church and State; the Church humane, and the State tyrannic.”

Although Paine said he believed in “God,” it was not a god that the vast majority of his countrymen would have recognized as such.

But his countrymen did recognize his ramblings as atheism (as they did of Jefferson’s), and as centuries hence did Teddy Roosevelt, 26th president of the U.S., who once referred to Paine as a “filthy little atheist.”

Two of those three words were certainly false. Paine was reportedly personally fastidious and, at 5’10”, taller than most of his contemporaries.

However, Roosevelt’s sense that Paine was an atheist was arguably spot on.

The revolutionary rabble-rouser may have believed himself to be a godly man, but in the supernatural Christian sense he was anything but.

If you just omit already moot “God” from Paine’s “Nature’s God” sensibility and incorporate virtually everything else he wrote about religion, you end up with a full-throated atheist who loved nature with religious zeal.

Note that I recently learned of Thomas Paine Day in the U.S. — it was June 8 — not from a Deist church news release (the sect isn’t a thing anymore) but from a national nonreligious organizaion: The Secular Coalition for America.

I guess I’m not alone in believing Paine was far more of atheist than theist.

 Buy either book on Amazon, here (paperback or ebook editions)
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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...