“Kant” Revisited: Deism and Thomas Paine


First off, I should address the obvious question: no, it was not a deliberate act to post something about deism on the day of Christmas. I’m slowly working my way through the Kants, and I just so happened to come across this one today.

Also, in the Arthur Schopenhauer post, I vaguely recall boasting about my occasional brilliance at writing. This is not an example of that.

BUT, this is an accurate representation of what was said and history should not be rewritten. (And I’m too lazy to edit).

So as always, please forgive any errors.



As European’s knowledge of the world grew through the scientific and philosophical revolutions of the Enlightenment, the teachings of the church was being thrown out the window. However, not all were completely comfortable with the idea of a universe that was seemingly chaotic and lacked a purpose. Many still connected with the idea of a Supreme Being, however were not so comfortable with that Being controlling every aspect of the world. The happy compromise was the idea of Deism, the notion that a God created the world, but simply left it to its own devices.

This idea held much sway during the Enlightenment. Voltaire was among its biggest proponents. Even the American Founding Fathers were taken with this idea, namely Thomas Jefferson and a number of others.

Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s work is considered, I guess more or less the founding texts of Deism. And I really couldn’t find enough information on this guy in the time that I had. So, forgive me, I had to pull this off Wikipedia and a number of other places, which is not something that I like to do, I like to use primary and academic sources whenever I can. So forgive me but, in his work written during the 17th Century, he came to the conclusion that all religions share the same five common traits. And they are the belief in a supreme deity, that it should be worshipped, that everyone should live a virtuous life, all men should forgo their sinful inclinations, and that God is the one that rewards and punishes in both life and afterlife.

Whether or not all of that is true, I don’t know. But the important thing is that it got people thinking critically about religion.

But perhaps the best example of Deism during the Age of Enlightenment was none other than Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. In this work, he pretty much just fires shots at Christianity as a whole, which isn’t really something that interests me, but he does end up talking quite a bit about the nature of Deism. So I pretty much had to read through the whole thing, trying to find these nuggets of information, so I might be skipping over somethings. But in the end, I think I cover the general idea of how Paine defines Deism.

So okay…

Although I think that there’s a lot of misconceptions about Paine, one should consider that he does in fact say at the beginning of the Age of Reason that quote “I believe in one God, and no more: and I hope for happiness beyond this life” End quote. So clearly he believes in a Deity, and seems to indicate that he hopes for an afterlife. However he would go on to reject various churches to include the Jewish, Roman, Turkish, Greek, and Protestant churches by saying that they are no other than inventions of mankind. By rejecting the doctrines of each of these churches, then man can return to the belief of one God.

So Paine comes off quite strong in his opening remarks. And despite his rejection of formalized religion, he still seems stuck on this idea of one God.

Nevertheless, he calls out specifics in the Bible by saying that all of these claimed miracles could have been easily made up in the imagination of humans, and that there is no physical proof that any of these events happened. No one was alive in his time, that saw these things. Additionally Paine would say that some of these ideas were stolen from heathen mythology. However, he would throw shade at Jesus Christ for being an indisputably moral character, and that it was more than probable that He was crucified as it was a common form of execution for that time as He was clearly a radical reformer or revolutionist.

But he would go on to fire shots at how the Old and New Testament came about. But ultimately he would state that through man’s reason, he is able to discover that God was the First Creator. Paine would then go on to ask the question “Canst thou by searching find out God?”. And his answer to this is yes because we know that we exist. But then he would ask another question: “Canst thou find out the Almighty to perfection?”. To which he replies ‘no’.

He would go on to state, quote: “Not only because the power and wisdom He has manifested in the structure of the Creation that I behold is to me incomprehensible; but because even this manifestation, great as it is, is probably but a small display of that immensity of power and wisdom, by which millions of other worlds, to me invisible by their distance, were created and continue to exist.” End quote.

So, we can’t know God completely because this world is so immense, and even the part that we do know, we don’t know completely. So just imagine what the rest of the universe is like. We can know that God exists, but we can’t know the Almighty completely.

Paine would go on to say that science is not an invention of man, but that man discovered it. And mathematics, mechanics, and a lot of other different fields were derived from science. Man didn’t create the heavens and the earth, but God himself did, and we are the ones who are making sense of it all. Additionally, nothing could have been made without the hand of God, otherwise everything would have been made in vain. So this is sort of Paine’s argument for, rather than against an Almighty Being.

Not long after, he introduces Deism, which he felt met his own personal views. Where he says, quote “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 every thing moral, scientifical, and mechanical.” End quote. So again, here, he is insisting on the idea of one God. So even though he rejecting Christianity, and the other Abrahamic religions, he still seems to be appealing to monotheistic sensibilities. And judging from this comment, plus his acceptance of the words of Christ in the Gospels but not the religious overtones, he seems to embrace traditional Judeo-Christian values.

Where he doesn’t share those values is through the fact that our planet, Sun, and Solar System, is just one of many out there. In the vast ocean of the Universe, why would God care about what happens on one spec of dust floating around a comparatively larger ball of gas, that’s just one of trillions upon trillions of stars out there.

But the first part of Age of Reason ends in quite an interesting way. Paine ultimately suggests that if Adam of Genesis did in fact exist, he would have been a Deist. What he was trying to say here is that pretty much everyone can agree that a God does exist, or at least that’s what all the religions can agree on. But a universal religion wouldn’t propose a belief in a new God, but would instead reject all of the pomp and unnecessities that exist with formalized religion, and go back to a simpler version where instead of bickering over the various interpretations that man created, man can relish in the creation of God. Hence, Adam would have been created a Deist.

The second half opens with Paine’s explanation of why he wrote this pamphlet, plus he discusses his reaction to the French Revolution…which is a subject that I will soon be discussing. But in the mean time, he spends a great deal of the second half pretty much ripping apart the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, which again, is something that I’m not that interested in, so it was hard to find nuggets of philosophy at this point. But towards the end, Paine begins to talk about the consciousness of existence.

And this is something that I’ve sort of covered before, I believe in the first episode. And it’s the idea that we perceive ourselves to be the same person, even though our physical body is in an ever changing condition. Paine would even say that significant portions of our body aren’t necessary for consciousness to continue. But our thoughts can continue into immortality, but for that to happen, it doesn’t continue in the same form, or in the form that thoughts are made of. The example he gives is him writing his very thought down on paper, now that thought can live on in the form of writing. And life works the same way. Life doesn’t have to maintain the same form in order to live on. The example he gives here is of a caterpillar that within a few days passes into a quote “a state resembling death” and then soon after emerges as a butterfly. The thing is though, it’s a difficult thing to believe that a land dwelling creature would become something completely different. So in Paine’s mind, it’s not necessary for something to keep the same form in order to live on, even though it’s hard for us to conceive that. So therefore, it’s not necessary for our consciousness to maintain the same form in order to live on into eternity.

Now, I will admit, I may be taking Paine out of context here. But this idea overlaps into other philosophies. So, I don’t know if an afterlife actually exists, but some remnants of you can live on. For example, me writing and recording this episode. I could be dead, but this recording of me will live on. Although my consciousness no longer continues, my thoughts are still out there, hopefully inspiring others. So, in some ways, if you want to guarantee you’ll have an afterlife, live your life to the best of your abilities and be good to and inspire others, and don’t depend on this idea that if you believe in something that you will go to heaven. So embrace the life that has been given to you, or that you find yourself in, because we know that that exists.

In fact, Paine would go on to explain that Creation, or this Universe we live in, is the Deist Bible. We don’t know why or how we got here, but we’re here. And it doesn’t matter if God will call us to testify about what we did with our life, because if that’s true, it’s going to happen if we believe it or not. So there’s no point in being paralyzed by fear.

Additionally to act as a full moral agent, a person can’t act out of fear of God, but must want to behave morally out of their own desire. After all, your actions are your legacy, and your legacy is what could make you live eternally. So the best way to know God, is to embrace His Creation, and the very life that you have been given. I guess that’s a good way to sum up Deism.

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